May/June 2012 by Chef Katie Averill
Michael’s on Naples serves modern Italian food, all made in house from scratch.
As if a chic and happening restaurant were plucked straight from San Francisco or New York City, Michael’s on Naples in Long Beach pops out dramatically from other shops on the street. Its clean modern decor hints at the upscale Italian food and carefully selected wines found inside. Chef David Coleman is making creamy and divine mozzarella when I arrive, and I am lucky to sample it. I’m surprised to hear he makes it daily, because while he cooks dinner at Michael’s on Naples, they have recently opened a pizzeria next door that also boasts house-made cheese. I peek next door and the place is bustling. They have their bases covered with casual dining AND upscale dining options both benefitting from Chef Coleman’s touch.
Not surprisingly, David spent time cooking in San Francisco and New York. After an early career as a “teamster,” David made a permanent shift to cooking. He was classically trained at the California Culinary Academy and employed in the city learning to make authentic Irish pub food that was “ten times better than any Irish pub food [he’d] ever had”. He enjoyed cooking from a young age and often helped his mother cook for his eight (!) siblings. David’s mother made everything from scratch and in hindsight, he appreciates the education received from her.
When he had gotten the most from San Francisco, David left to intern in New York; that is where the tough kitchens are, and it was time he paid his dues. When working for free in the most expensive city in America grew old, David moved to the best place he knew of in O.C.: the Hobbit. He worked as Sous Chef there before another stint in San Francisco, finally returning to settle at Michael’s on Naples. David loves the O.C. lifestyle and feels he can make more of an impact here with his great food than in places like San Francisco where the culture is already 100% food.
Named #1 Italian in Long Beach by Zagat, Michael’s on Naples is frequented by 50% local regulars and 50% others who travel as far as necessary drawn in by the reputation. You will not find Bolognese and meatballs on the menu, except maybe occasionally as a special because “it tastes good.” More common is duck, freshly flown in, and braised octopus with fava beans.
While there are a few mainstay items that the locals won’t let him remove from the menu, David mostly cooks with the ever-changing seasonal produce he finds at the Farmer’s Markets and from choice purveyors. Freshness and the shortest chain of distribution and shelf life are top of the mind in Chef Coleman’s kitchen. As often as possible, this chef and his team focus on cooking and utilizing the whole beast. He recently hosted an extremely successful foie gras dinner where 120 foodies packed the house.
In his off time, David enjoys traveling and brewing his own beer and ciders. This time is rare, however, because while he has a loyal and non-compromising kitchen staff, David is generally at work “all the time.” He is never satisfied with the work at Michael’s on Naples and is always focused and striving to give his customers something new and interesting. He doesn’t appreciate chefs that insist their food is perfect because that doesn’t leave room for them to grow; for Chef David Coleman, part of being a great chef means that there is always room to grow.
WHEN IS YOUR ANNIVERSARY WITH THIS RESTAURANT? October 2008.
WHEN IS THE RESTAURANT’S ANNIVERSARY? December 2007.
FIRST COOKING OR FOOD RELATED MEMORY: Probably when I was about 4 years old peeling carrots and potatoes in the kitchen with my mother. My parents had 9 children so we always made everything from scratch and the stove was always on.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB? When I was 10 my brothers and I ran three separate paper routes for the Orange County Register; nowadays you wouldn’t think of letting a kid do that.
WHAT FIRST INTERESTED YOU IN THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY? As a child going out to eat was always such a special thing, but I don’t know that it was really ever the hospitality industry that I was interested in so much as feeling success or failure of a meal hinged so much on the unseen (the kitchen). My passion has always been about the meal, the “Industry” is what I have come to both love and hate. I would also have to say the way Orwell describes the kitchen in “Down and Out in London and Paris” clarified in words what many of us could never really explain in our own.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST HOSPITALITY JOB? I built Whoppers for The King (Burger King) when I was 15.
IF NOT A CHEF, WHAT WOULD YOU BE? A sad pirate clown or maybe a farmer.
FAVORITY KITCHEN GADGET OR TOOL: Probably a good sharp knife, it’s only as good as my hand and only as sharp as I keep it.
FAVORITE KITCHEN APPLIANCE: Probably our Hobart; it mixes, it grinds and keeps running.
FAVORITE TYPE OF COOKWARE: Le Creuset.
FAVORITE CONDIMENT/SPICE: White Balsamic as of late.
MOST RECOMMENDED KITCHEN TOOL AND SOURCE (ONLINE OR RETAIL SHOP) FOR HOME KITCHENS: A sharp vegetable peeler (something I never find in anybody home kitchen), Sur La Table.
MOST RECOMMENDED FOOD INGREDIENT SOURCE (ONLINE OR RETAIL SHOP) FOR FOODIES: Mattern’s in Orange is a great old-world German deli.
BIGGEST MYTH ABOUT WORKING IN THE KITCHEN: That the Chef is always right and that the customer is always wrong. There are a lot of new chefs who arrogantly believe that their food is the divine inspiration of God, and no mere customer has the right to change or question it. Don’t get me wrong it drives me nuts when someone tries to change my food, but as chefs we must sometimes walk a tight rope and bend when it is necessary, even when it hurts. I believe on the rare occasion we will find that sometimes we didn’t create the perfect dish, and when we become humble we can see our food through fresh eyes; then we can be inspired again.
OTHER CUISINES WORKED WITH: Irish, French, Spanish, American.
HOBBIES: Traveling, brewing beer, bike riding.
FAMILY INFO: My wife Amy (19 years), son Liam 4 1/2, 5 brothers, 3 sisters.
FAVORITE OC RESTAURANT: Hollingshead (not really a restaurant but I go there a lot).
FAVORITE DISH TO EAT: I haven’t tried them all yet.
FAVORITE JUNK FOOD: Black licorice anything.
FAVORITE RAW INGREDIENT: Any seasonal vegetable shaved on a mandolin.
FAVORITE FAST FOOD: Favorite I couldn’t say, that term has taken on such a bad connotation.
DO YOU WATCH FOOD TV? IF SO, WHICH PROGRAM(S) IS(ARE) YOUR FAVORITE?
No, not really in any regularity, but I do enjoy Bourdain.
FAMOUS CHEFS YOU’VE MET: Daniel Boulud, Hubert Keller, Anthony Bourdain.
CULINARY HERO: I don’t know if chefs can be heroes, but I think Marco Pierre White a perfect lunatic.
WHAT OTHER PUBLICATIONS HAVE YOU BEEN FEATURED IN? San Francisco Chronicle, OC Weekly, 944.
YEARS OF CULINARY EDUCATION: 1.5 years.
SCHOOL: California Culinary Academy.
PLACES TRAVELLED TO EXPLORE & LEARN ADDITIONAL CUISINES: I have been through most of Western Europe, tip of Africa, Mexico, Central America, Canada, and the U.S. I worked in NYC kitchens, and spent many years in San Francisco. Traveling and exploring food are one and the same for me; I think all inspired chefs travel with food as the destination.
Years in business: BOH 12
WHAT 3 WORDS BEST DESCRIBE YOUR CULINARY STYLE: Honest, seasonal, mine.
WHAT 3 WORDS BEST DESCRIBE YOUR MANAGEMENT STYLE: Fair, firm, and always teaching.
PREVIOUS INDUSTRY EMPLOYERS: Campton Place S.F., Salt House S.F., Johnny Foley’s S.F., Magnolia Pub S.F., Suba NYC, The Hobbit.
CHARITY AFFILIATION(S): Any man in need who asks of me.