Michael J. Shannon, CEC

Growing up in an Italian-Irish household in the suburbs of Chicago, Chef Michael Shannon, CEC, was always surrounded by good food. “We had dinner every night as a family, and our conversations around the dinner table deepened my appreciation for food and cooking,” says the 2021 ACF Chef of the Year (more on that in a bit).

Spurred by this passion, Chef Shannon went on to enroll in the culinary arts program at Joliet Junior College, during which time he worked at several restaurants.

But it was competitions and the private club world that would eventually call his name. Chef Shannon met ACF members and club chefs when he competed as part of the 2011 ACF Culinary USA Student Team that won nationals. “My Chef-Instructor Tim Bucci (CMC) at the time was on the Culinary Olympic team with Chef Joe Leonardi (CMC), so I connected with him,” says Chef Shannon, who went on to work for Chef Leonardi at Somerset Club in Boston after graduation.

“I have been at Somerset for nine years now,” says Chef Shannon, who worked up the ranks as line cook, sous chef and now executive chef. Watching Chef Leonardi study for and earn his CMC gave Chef Shannon an even deeper respect for his mentor. “[Going for my CMC] is something that I still consider a career goal of mine one day,” Chef Shannon says.

Taking over the executive chef position at Somerset five years ago was a key step toward that goal. “I was just 26 years old at the time, but I knew I was ready to step into that leadership position,” Chef Shannon says.

Cool, collected and well-spoken, Chef Shannon runs his kitchen with order, organization and respect. He values embracing the different personalities that can come about in an elaborate kitchen structure, such as at Somerset.

When asked about his strengths, Chef Shannon remains humble but goes on to suggest that perhaps it’s his ability to “manage personalities.” “A lot of the time I feel like I’m falling short in that because everyone is so different, but I try to work hardest on mentorship and creating a good culture. It’s definitely something I feel like I’m always working on.”

Chef Shannon says he enjoys working in the club sector primarily because of the support from membership. “That’s something I have really valued throughout the years,” he says. “With a membership base, you have to be continually evolving because you might see some of the same people multiple times a week. You have to keep the menu fresh, otherwise things can get stagnant pretty quickly.”

That means Chef Shannon needs to stay on top of his game at all times. He gets menu ideas and finds inspiration for new dishes by reading cookbooks and scrolling social media platforms to see other chefs’ work. “I personally get really inspired by my cooks at the club when they are excited to learn about something new or share with me their ideas,” he says. “When you have multiple dining outlets, you need a strong team. It’s all part of the collaborative effort.”

Competitions were also a way for Chef Shannon to get new ideas and hone his craft, at least before COVID-19 pressed the pause button. His first experience with competitions came during culinary school when he participated in a regional competition in Columbus, Ohio, where he took home gold at the student level. “It was a happy drive back,” he says.

Later, Chef Shannon went on to win Best in Show for a cold food platter he presented at a 2012 competition in New York. He also won a gold and Best in Show at a mystery basket competition in Cincinnati in 2018. To practice for that last one, he had his friend, fellow ACF member and then-sous chef Geoffrey Lanez (also a frequent competition participant) put together mystery boxes and hide them just before practice time. It was actually Chef Lanez with whom Chef Shannon studied for his Certified Executive Chef title.

“Competitions are not for everyone — it takes a lot out of you because just doing your job already is demanding and then you have to practice on top of that,” Chef Shannon says. “But I find them to be a great way to keep learning, develop good habits and improve your time management skills — which is like a hidden weapon as a cook. [Competitions] are also great for building camaraderie in the kitchen because they create this other goal outside of just the club that we as a culinary team can all rally behind.”

For his most recent competition at the 2021 ACF National Convention in Orlando, Florida, Chef Shannon pulled these tricks out of his sleeve to remain cool, calm and collected under pressure. His rabbit, seafood and salad dishes helped him beat out nine other competitors. For the rabbit, Chef Shannon made sausage using a little bit of rabbit liver, along with some bacon and roasted garlic. He then boned out and stuffed the rabbit saddle with the sausage. For the fish appetizer, he made a poached arctic char dish that featured a terrine made with the loin; a mousseline with the trimmings and some charred meat from the tail; and a stuffed pasta made with the belly, which he smoked for extra flavor.

For the salad course, Chef Shannon went for a play on creamsicles using peaches macerated with mint and riesling, a light panna ricotta buttermilk and a lemon verbena vinaigrette. The dish also featured a black pepper and peach chutney made with the leftover trimmings and a brioche crisp for some texture.

“Finding ways to utilize the whole fish, whole animal or whole vegetable is really important to me and builds good habits in the kitchen so there is no waste,” he says.

Chef Shannon’s goals for the short term are to continue to strive to create a positive environment in which younger cooks, especially recent culinary school graduates, are excited to come to work. “Work-life balance is an important part of that,” says Chef Shannon, who believes in supporting time off and moving away from an industry culture that has been “kind of rough for a very long time.”

The future is here, though, and Chef Shannon wants to be part of a change to come in the industry. “I still have a note that Chef Leonardi wrote on the inside of a notebook hanging in my office,” he says. “It says something along the lines of, ‘Take the time to improve yourself and your team so that you don’t have time to criticize others.’ There has been a lot of negativity in our society and industry lately, so I try to focus on things I can control. I focus on not taking my team for granted and always putting my best foot forward.”

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