The road to success isn’t always direct. Michelle Hines Abram Thibeault, the President of M.H.A. Innovations and Chef MHAT, reached lofty heights in the ballet world and trained at the New York Conservatory of Dance before injuries muddied her career plans. Fond memories of cooking with her grandmother led her to apply to the prestigious French Culinary Institute (now known as the International Culinary Center), developing a new outlet for her creativity.
Following a stint as Executive Chef at Mood Food that included a spot on New York Magazine’s Top 10 list, Michelle worked in event planning before branching out on her own with Innovative Events, a luxury event and catering business in Manhattan and Florida. The Latham native returned to the Capital District and became a Founding Director of the Albany Chefs’ Food & Wine Festival: Wine & Dine for the Arts in 2009. Since 2010, Chef MHAT has provided public relations and brand management for the hospitality industry through M.H.A. Innovations and she has returned to the kitchen as a private chef. She took a few minutes out of her busy schedule to speak with us ahead of catering the November 7th ACE Mixer at the Bull Moose Club in Albany.
Does your dance background benefit you in your hospitality/cooking career?
I think yes – 1000%. In the kitchen it doesn’t bother me to work until 4:00 AM to get something right. It’s the foundation of discipline – everything matters, you can’t cut any corners. It has to be that way; the French Culinary Institute was very exacting and after the Russian Conservatory experience it was a natural fit. Mentally it prepares you for success not only in a creative field but really any endeavor.
How did the change from Executive Chef to Brand Management come about?
When working as a chef in NY it was really intense – I was working 100 hour weeks and loving what I did. I was approached about planning events and I had an interest in ‘front of the house’ (dining area) vs. ‘back of the house’ (kitchen). I wanted to learn and thought later on it would be good to know both sides. I left my position as chef and started planning events but eventually realized I wanted to do that on my own. I was open for about 9 months prior to 9/11 and after that it was very difficult as events in the city were cancelled. I relocated to Florida and did well there but wanted to come home. It was just a curiosity that led to the change but I found I could do both aspects well. Everything I’ve done has been a natural progression.
What is the state of the Capital District Food Scene?
I love what people are doing here – years ago it wasn’t like this. It drives me crazy when certain organizations skip our area when handing out awards. There’s NYC, Boston, Montreal within a short drive but we have chefs here who are doing great things and have been for years. I think of Chef AJ Richards up at [forged] in Hudson Falls and what he is doing there is spectacular. He got our first Rising Star perfect score; it blew my mind with the quality and innovation – this jewel is sitting right here. What Hamlet & Ghost in Saratoga Springs is doing with craft cocktails is crazy; you just have to look.
I see a lot of chefs here who know who their purveyors are and where their food is coming from – know your farmer, know your suppliers. There’s so much great stuff going on here; the Food & Wine Festival is anyone’s chance to explore the scene with so many chefs and restaurants in one spot.
What someone should know before considering a cooking career?
Culinary schools are becoming much more competitive due to their popularity, but you can reach out and talk to those in the field. All the chefs I work with are so generous with their knowledge and mentor many people; it is part of the DNA of a chef – we feed people. It’s not about ego but it’s about giving and sharing of yourself. Reach out to a chef you’ve heard great things about, they will generously share their knowledge and experiences.