When he graduated from culinary school four years ago, Michael Peterson was at a turning point in his life.
Just before he decided to attend Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in St. Louis, Peterson, 51, of Manhattan had experienced a number of changes in his life.
“Around 43 or 44 years old, I decided I needed a career change,” Peterson said. “I was kind of at a low point. I’d had some health issues, and then I got a gastric bypass, which turned my life around. I lost about 300 pounds.”
Peterson, who grew up in St. Louis, said he had worked for years in the restaurant industry in several different positions, including manager, waiter, bartender and busser, and felt learning to become a chef was the next natural route.
With a new lease on life, Peterson said he felt reinvigorated and threw himself into the education experience. He became a school ambassador, joined the competition team and eventually graduated with honors.
“I went to college (at the University of Missouri-St. Louis), but when I went back to culinary school, I told myself I was going to get involved and take it seriously,” Peterson said. “I just wanted to immerse myself and I thought, ‘If I had done this when I was back in college, boy, it would have been different,’ but you mature, you grow up and things change.”
Food had always been something Peterson had an interest in because of his parents’ home cooking. His instructor and mentor at Le Cordon Bleu was also instrumental in helping him understand the flavors and art of cooking itself.
“I attribute a lot of what I learned about food from my parents,” he said. “Some from my mom, who is a home economics teacher, and her mom and her grandmother — they were all big family cooks. Then my dad is just a self-taught meat smoker, and he just showed me what he did. We just start collaborating and come up with something new.”
Now Peterson is the cheese specialist at Hy-Vee, where he oversees the assorted cheese wall near the deli, creates displays and helps customers figure out what cheeses work well with what foods. He moved to Manhattan for the job in 2015.
As a specialist, Peterson is at the second level of Hy-Vee’s certification program.
He said he is working toward the third tier, a cheese master, which involves a two-day training course.
“Charcuterie and cheese boards are a big trend now,” Peterson said. “I deal with a lot of customers that come in that just want to try to find out how to do them. I had a gal the other day that wanted to know what cheeses to use and I enjoy that part of it.”
Peterson said his father, who was a salesman and owned a beer distributorship, taught him everything he knows about customer service.
“In my opinion, there are a lot of things in our daily lives that deal with customer service,” Peterson said. “It’s how you treat other people. No matter what’s going on in your day, you’ve got to help those people with a smile and enthusiasm because I think that’s where passion really shows.”
The desire to put others first extends beyond the job as Peterson said he likes to cook for his friends in his free time. His favorite dish to make is a braised beef short rib and red wine demi-glace with roasted asparagus and garlic mashed potatoes.
“It’s interesting,” Peterson said. “I moved to Manhattan not knowing anyone. When I live by myself, I don’t like to cook just for myself, but I have a roommate now and I cook all the time. I cook for friends too, and we get together on Monday nights.”
Co-worker and friend Pepper Harmer said Peterson has made some of the best dishes she’s ever tried, even for foods she doesn’t like.
“He made a black bean soup once — and you couldn’t get me to eat black beans for money — but that was the best black bean dish I’ve ever eaten,” Harmer said. “It was amazing. He takes something and makes you a believer with his cooking.”
Harmer said Peterson is always open to what others have to say and will go out of his way to help others, whether that’s a friend or customer.
“He will try anything once,” she said. “If it’s great he shares all that information, and if it’s not so great he’s honest about it.
“Michael Peterson is an angel in disguise because no matter what the circumstances are, he’s there for you. He loves his job, he loves talking about cheese, he loves talking about food and he has a strong passion for what he does.”