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Worthy Of A Salute

Chef makes up for late start

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For some, the road to becoming an executive chef is a long one. For others, like Michael Bailey of Salute Ristorante, the position arrived sooner than he ever imagined.

Originally from New Jersey, Bailey grew up with food as the centerpiece of his Italian family, but it took him approximately two decades to realize his passion for cooking.

With his father's prompting, Bailey considered cooking school at 18. However, he instead opted for the life of a "businessman" and spent the next 18 years as the owner of a printing company. After Bailey sold the company, he spent two years in the poker machine business until the state made it illegal.

A commercial on television for the culinary program at The Art Institute of Charlotte finally made him realize his dream of becoming a chef.

"I said, I'm going to go down there and see what's up," he explains. "I was the first person to sign up for the program."

Bailey started every morning at 6:30, went to school until about 2:30pm, and then went to his job in the kitchen at Myers Park Country Club. He would get to Myers Park about 3 or 3:30 and be there until about 11 or 12 at night, at which point he would go home and do homework until about two or three in the morning. Then he'd wake up at 5:30am and do it all over again. It was his schedule for two years.

"After two years, I feel like I'm just getting back to where I need to be in terms of sleep," he admits. "It wasn't easy."

The hard work paid off when Andrew Arcovio, the owner (along with wife Leyla) of Salute Wine and Provisions off Selwyn Avenue walked into the Art Institute in search of a chef.

"Andrew talked to a bunch of people at the school, and I guess I was the lucky winner. A year went by, and he said he was going to open a restaurant. Then one day, the phone rang and he was like, "Hey, remember me? I got a place; are you ready?' I said, "Let's go.'"

Initially hired as the Sous Chef when Salute opened this past June, Bailey was promoted to Executive Chef just one month later. "I saw myself here (as an executive chef) in like eight years. But one day, Andrew and Leyla said, "We're going to hand over the position and we're going to do it today.' I was like, hold on a minute, let me breathe."

In a restaurant that specializes in Italian fine dining, Bailey believes that the personal aspect of the dining experience is one of the most important. "I like coming out of the kitchen and asking the people what they think of their food. I try to do that every night. To me, that means the most."

Bailey attributes most of his influences as a chef to Joe Bonaparte, the director of the culinary school at The Art Institute. "If I have problems or questions I just pick up the phone and I say, "Joe, I'm screwed.' He cares about teaching people how to cook food."

Bailey spends his day off cooking for his entire family when they gather for their traditional Sunday meal. Bailey chuckles while remarking, "Food builds strong family values. It's true. Because you know, we all sit there and we'll have dinner on Sunday. There'll be three or four generations of family sitting there, and that's pretty cool."

At Salute, Bailey and his Sous Chef Eric Ferguson prepare everything fresh. From organic vegetables to fresh pasta to North Carolina pork, chicken and seafood, Bailey orders every single day for the menu of the night.

"I wake up with food on my mind and I go to sleep with food on my mind. The most important thing is knowing your product. If you know your product, that's the secret to making a good dish."

Bailey's talent may have gotten a late start, but he hasn't wasted a moment since realizing his true passion.

"When I think about where I am now, it's a dream come true. It's something I should have done a long time ago."

Salute Ristorante is at 613 Providence Road. Hours are from 6pm to 10pm on Monday through Thursday, 6pm to 11pm on Friday and Saturday. Reservations are recommended -- call 704-343-9095.

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