In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Mike Ransom.
Detroit couldn’t have predicted the impact that a little noodle bar named Ima would make on its dining scene when it opened in December 2016. While the city was clearly hungry for noodles, the chef Mike Ransom’s debut restaurant brought something more than just richly layered broths and udon to the dining scene. Over the course of a year, Ima grew and improved — becoming synonymous with comfort, community, and a good meal. The Japanese-influenced restaurant earned Eater Detroit’s Restaurant of the Year in 2017. Since then, Ransom’s restaurant has blossomed into three locations, each more ambitious than the last. Along the way, Ima raked in even more local accolades.
Though he knew he wanted to be a chef since high school, Ransom worked in restaurants for 12 years before finally deciding to enroll in culinary school. This unconventional path allowed Ransom to ask the right questions and personalize his experience, while getting the most out of his resources. It took leaving the comforts of Detroit and exploring other restaurant scenes for Ransom to come back and open his dream spot. In the following interview, Ransom shares his singular road to success and advice for starting a business.
Eater: What did you originally want to do when you started your career?
Mike Ransom: I grew up cooking with my mom and hanging out in the garden, so I have wanted to be a chef since high school. I loved learning about new ingredients and flavors. I didn’t have a specific direction — I just loved to cook and eat. I spent more than a decade working in kitchens before I began to gain focus.
Did you go to culinary school or college?
I attended culinary school after cooking in restaurants for 12 years. I don’t believe that culinary school is necessary to have a successful career, but it can be very inspiring. I definitely don’t regret my choice to attend, although I’m still paying for it!
I highly recommend working in the industry for a couple years before attending culinary school. It’s important to experience the demands of restaurant work prior to committing to the investment. I feel that the value of culinary school is directly based on what you demand from it. It’s very difficult to get your money’s worth, if you don’t have commercial kitchen experience or know the right questions to ask. Instructors will offer lots of extra knowledge if you request it. I would recommend attending a community college like School Craft [in Michigan] and would avoid pricey private schools.
What was your first job?
My first job was washing dishes with my brother at a neighborhood Italian restaurant. I worked in this role for six months and then they began teaching me prep projects. From there, I worked my way up to cooking on the line.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
My biggest challenge was understanding the hustle on the line — that you need to know the basics before you can be creative. I had to learn to watch and listen.
When was the first time you felt successful?
My first breakthrough was being offered a kitchen supervisor role at a locally-owned restaurant in a Marriott Hotel. The position was offered to me by a friend who is now my director of operations [at Ima] — a reminder to preserve all positive connections throughout your career.
Did you have any setbacks, and, if so, what were they?
Managing and motivating staff was really challenging. Learning to manage in a corporate or hotel setting was especially difficult because larger companies have more systems in place. My biggest challenge was the lack of accountability among the hourly staff. It was easy for the system to be taken advantage of. There were hard-working employees who would pick up the slack of those who called off or didn’t perform at the same level. The system did not cultivate an empowering or team environment. This taught me to be patient and to lead by example.
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
After working in Detroit for eight years, I needed a change of pace and environment. I found myself becoming burned out by the industry. I decided to move to Chicago and enroll in culinary school. I hoped that the move would center me. It was important to remove myself from my comfort zone. As I worked in these kitchens, I learned new systems, built up my confidence, and felt inspired. The more I pushed myself, the more I was capable of.
What were the skills that got you there?
Moving to Chicago exposed me to a very competitive culinary community. I learned to push myself and enter every job with learning and promotions as my goal. I learned the importance of efficiency and that organization allows more room for creativity. I was reminded how even in a large city, everyone in the industry knows each other and good references really matter.
Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field?
I’ve had many mentors throughout my career. My first mentor was chef Chambre Beauvais while I was at my second kitchen job after high school. He taught me basic knife skills, the importance of tasting, and accountability. He was the first chef [I worked with] to use classic French techniques.
While in San Francisco, I was mentored by Brian Reccow, the director of operations at the hotel and restaurant where I held my first lead role. He taught me the importance of menu pricing, cost control, and how to budget labor.
A year before moving back to Detroit to open Ima, I met chef Edward Kim, a ramen shop operator in Baltimore. I approached him for advice on operating a ramen shop and he agreed to share his experiences once a week over dinner and wine — as long as I was buying. We met for nearly a year, which helped me build my business plan and gain the confidence to start my own project.
What does your job involve?
Right now, my job involves a mix of administrative responsibilities, meeting with managers on hiring and grooming staff, and developing new menu items. Our teams are always working on ways to engage our staff and guests. As we have opened multiple locations, keeping open communication between managers and our kitchen teams has become more important — and more challenging. Retaining our culture and a positive work environment has been a huge focus from the beginning.
What’s your favorite part about it?
I really enjoy working with our teams at different locations. We have amazing staff that find new ways to approach daily challenges and create new systems. Each team has a different perspective to bring to the table. I love seeing my team grow and become empowered. We have filled 90 percent of our management roles by promoting from within.
What would surprise people about your job?
I never thought that my staff would push me to grow. They’re hungry for more responsibility and challenges. Because they see us promoting from within, they see a path for growth. It’s become a very organic progression. They inspire me and give me confidence to explore new projects.
How are you making change in your industry?
Our management team and I are always finding ways to create a better work environment. We began by creating a company culture that stressed the importance of respect and teamwork. We have a no tolerance rule for abusive behavior. For the last three years, we have offered Direct Medical Care to all full-time employees. This isn’t health insurance, but it does give access to a personal primary care doctor, no co-pays, and highly affordable prescriptions.
What would you have done differently in your career?
I would have staged at more kitchens when I had the chance. Most kitchens will allow stages for a day or even a week. It’s a great way to learn new systems and techniques without committing to a full-time job. You just need to be willing to donate your time with no pay. After I began running my own kitchens, it became more difficult to work with other chefs.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
Use every job as an opportunity to learn. Focus on what you want from your career and what you want to avoid. There’s no way around the time and dedication it takes to be fluent. Being a great cook is about building second-nature techniques and muscle memory. Maintaining relationships and preserving positive connections are extremely important.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
Learn staff and financial management while working for others before starting your own project. Make mistakes with their money and not yours! Be prepared to have your work and personal life be intertwined. If you love what you do, it’s okay. Some days you get to take a half-day, and other days you work late until everything is done. Organize your schedule and make time for the people and things that are important to you. Life balance can change from day-to-day, so stay aware of what your soul needs.
Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, California.
Photo of Mike Ransom by Michelle and Chris Gerard.
Illustrations from the Noun Project: camera by Dhika Hernandita; covered dish by Made by Made; wine by Made by Made; lightbulb by Maxim Kulikov; hand writing by Pongsakorn.