Chef Michael Agan: A Life on the Line
Photo by Travis Anderson

Chef Michael Agan: A Life on the Line

For career chefs like Agan, the payoff is always just beyond the horizon.

This is the story of a chef. 

It starts in a dive bar of all places, one that’s been worn down and picked up. Bull’s Horn was once the Sunrise, a little South Minneapolis neighborhood 3.2 beer bar that had been infested by meth and indifference, until chef Doug Flicker bought it. Flicker has been known for chefy spots like Auriga and Piccolo, but wanted the Sunrise to stay a sort of crusty dive bar with pull tabs and karaoke and Heggies pizza.

And some real food too, because only the Heggies was coming out of the freezer. For that, Flicker needed a cook or two. One of them is Michael Agan, a tall redhead griddling a crisp, thin double cheeseburger at the flattop. In a bar that didn’t get redeveloped for condos or tasting menus, he’s a chef who isn’t too proud to be a cook.

Agan started cooking in a gap year of sorts—he started in restaurants right out of high school, but never got to college. “Every year I think, should I go back to school? But then something comes along, and I don’t.” Now he’s 41, and his may be the longest gap year in history. But his future is back on the table. Last year, Agan closed his own restaurant. Xavi was a sweet 52-seat gem in another south Minneapolis neighborhood. It was his first flirtation with ownership; it lasted two years.

In many professions, two decades of hard work for the best companies and leaders in a business guarantees you a hold on the brass ring. In restaurant kitchens, it’s just as likely to leave your 401(k) stunted and you picking up the pieces from a restaurant whose run has ended.

Our culture’s obsession with chefs has brought with it a celebrity-fueled expectation that everyone who wields a knife is destined to become Anthony Bourdain. Funny then, that it was that exact chef who said, “I was a journeyman chef of middling abilities. Whatever authority I have as a commenter on this world comes from the sheer weight of 28 years in the business.” For many cooks who become chefs, it’s much the same story (minus the book deal and globe-trotting). Slogging through 70-hour workweeks, working on holidays, enduring sweltering kitchens and low pay, this is the real life of someone who wants to create food.

If you’re talented, lucky enough to stay sober-ish, and find a pot of money, you, too, can live the dream of owning your own restaurant. Until it closes. When you get past the shallow glories of the industry and see the real work, you have to wonder why so many chefs are lifers. Once they feel the sting of failure, look in the mirror and don’t see Bobby Flay staring back, it should be over, but it rarely is.

•••

To understand why Agan is flipping burgers in a dive bar and where he might land next, it’s important to understand where he’s been. That first flirtation with the kitchen came when he was a fresh high school graduate working the D’Amico & Sons cash register. The son of middle-class south Minneapolitans, Agan had always been interested in food, but was not taking the food courses at Hennepin Tech.

“We were short a cook one night, and I got pulled into the kitchen, and that was it. I learned so much there,” he says. “They were so patient with me.” The hook had sunk so deeply that he blew off further thoughts of college and went to Florida to open more D’Amico & Sons. In a span of a few years, Agan worked his way from counter guy to chef, with no more schooling than a high school diploma.

Staying within the D’Amico organization, Agan moved back to Minnesota to work the Uptown Campiello. This was the late 1990s, and D’Amico was flush with talent like Jordan Smith and Jay Sparks, who famously mentored not only Flicker, but Isaac Becker (112 Eatery, Bar LaGrassa) and Tim McKee (Octo Fishbar). For Agan, Campiello is most memorable because it’s where he met his wife, Sarah. “She was a server who came over from England to earn a law degree. And you know, in restaurants, that’s how it happens.”

After two years at Campiello, Agan decided to leave the security of the D’Amico family for the first time in his cooking life. He gambled on a chef-driven independent restaurant in St. Paul, Alexander Dixon’s superb but little remembered Zander Café. “I loved eating there, and I had a friend who was working in the kitchen who convinced me to come on the line a few days a week. I had been getting burned out and was looking to cut back. But then my buddy walked, and they offered me the chef job. I had no clue, I didn’t know what I was doing. It was me and another guy named Mike, but he’d been with Zander for 15 years. So when business dipped and things started going downhill, we both knew which Mike was getting canned.”

But from that job, Agan scored a connection and got the hookup with Tim McKee to be sous-chef at Solera—“And that was super fun.”

Agan spent three years there, and he says everyone knew the score: You’re not going to make a ton of money, but you’re going to learn everything. Solera was pushing the boundaries of the way we thought about eating, not only through small-plate tapas, but with Spanish ingredients and wines that had never been imported to the Twin Cities. It was a playground for cooks and eaters alike. “I was a completely different cook after working with Tim,” Agan says. “It was the first time I thought, ‘I have to do something with this.’ ”

Ironically, after his three years with McKee, Agan found himself back at D’Amico in 2006, first at Lurcat in Loring Park, then at Masa, the company’s new modern Mexican on Nicollet Mall. “It was a week before they opened, and they asked me to go work over there because they didn’t have anyone fluent in both English and Spanish in the kitchen. That was so much fun, [with] foods I’d never
made before.

“But that’s how I’ve always learned; I never went to school, I just kept jumping into different kitchens and learning from chefs,” Agan says. “While I was at Masa, I was also working in the kitchen at Cafe Levain with Steven Brown. I had staged [apprenticed] with him and finally just asked for a job. I was working four days at Masa and that left two for Levain.” Because what is there but work? Agan was already a vet in the industry at that point, but he had no problem line cooking to learn a little bit of what Steven Brown knew.

After that came J-G. Agan was an opening line cook for the Chambers Kitchen when celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten came to town. “I knew I wanted to work for him. He was so hot, he had a white chef coat with JG embroidered in white and he wore Prada shoes. He brought in all these chefs to help us open, and it was insane. There was none of this ‘We have to dumb it down for this town’ kind of thing. We were being held to the same New York standards.”

Agan was quickly promoted to sous-chef, then executive sous-chef. The demanding life of a hotel restaurant kitchen was new to him, with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus banquets and room service on the menu. So, of course, this is when he and Sarah started having kids. It’s also when he quit drinking “and other things.”

Suddenly, he had people in his life. “It was time to figure out what I want[ed] to do,” he recalls. Another push might have been the Chambers falling apart two years after it opened, with its entire staff discharged along with good old J-G.

Through the grapevine, Agan heard that Crave needed somebody. In 2009, it was quite the flip from fine dining, but he’d opened some 15 restaurants at that point, and Crave was about to open at The Shops at West End in St. Louis Park. “It was a big change from the Chambers, not a lot of fresh food, mostly stuff from Sysco,” a big institutional food supplier. “It ended up being like air traffic control and a lot of getting people to make the best food they could. Not the best result possible, but the best possible result.”

Agan’s location scored high with secret-shopper reports on food quality, and he did learn something about running a high-volume kitchen, “I’d want a line sweep [to check each station on the line for quality and adherence to spec] and there’d be 100 tickets in the window. They’d look at me like I was crazy. But I think they liked learning that standard.”

His biggest lesson from his time with Crave was that he could work a job for money, and that was fine. “That was something I had to learn about myself, that I could do a job like that, pay the bills, pay my mortgage; it didn’t have to be about me and my ego,” Agan says. “I had kids, and I wanted to spend time with them, and all of a sudden I had a couple of nights off and was working days.”

Because of his eclectic background—the mix of fine-dining standards and high-volume work— airport restaurant operators OTG came calling for its renovation of Concourse G at MSP airport. Agan was in charge of the airport versions of Lenny Russo’s, Ann Kim’s, and Doug Flicker’s restaurants. That meant that he had to go work in their home kitchens, learn the food, and figure out how to morph it to fit the limitations of the airport setting and labor force.

“These were chefs I’d always admired, but I was past taking a $12-an-hour line cook job just to learn from them, so it was like a huge gift. I mean, I got to spend three months at Heartland with the guy who invented farm-to-table. Seeing his list of purveyors and whole-animal butchery—I’d never been a part of something like that before,” Agan says. “But what they would do on a Friday and Saturday night, we’d do the same volume in one shift at the airport—during breakfast!—so we had to figure out how to translate that while honoring the food. I wanted to get it right for him.”

Agan also got to cook with Flicker, who was running Piccolo in the South Minneapolis Kingfield neighborhood at the time. “He was like my culinary hero, I remember saving up all my money just to go eat at Auriga when I was starting out,” Agan says. “All of sudden I’m working with him, and he’s the most laid-back guy. We’re [doing] this Italian airport concept called Volante, and he says, ‘Let’s cook something.’ I asked, ‘What about a recipe?’ and he says, ‘You write it. You should make a tomato sauce, just figure it out.’ I kept asking my bosses for an extension so I could stay there.” This late-stage education gave Agan new enthusiasm and drive.

Since his Solera days, Agan’s mom had been battling cancer. “They gave her six months, and she lived another nine years, so that was pretty cool.” While Agan was with OTG, she started declining. They bought a new house with enough room for her to move in and do in-home hospice. She passed away after three months. “That’s when I really needed the break, I needed to take a big step back and just figure out what I was doing with my life.”

He went back to D’Amico. Agan, who had run with JGV and cooked alongside the biggest local culinary names, took a line cook job with D’Amico’s bistro at International Market Square. He worked Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., making salads and sandwiches.

“I took my kids to school, made them snacks when they got home,” Agan says. “It was nice to not work 70 hours a week while I tried to figure stuff out, thought about what it all meant.” This was when the education bit really came roaring back. Should he go back to school and find a career he hadn’t even thought about? Every time Agan had a career pause to consider finishing his education, another restaurant opportunity would come along, or something would shift his world back toward kitchens.

In 2014, Agan and Sarah found out they were expecting twins, meaning they would soon be a family of six. Possibly it was the sheer terror that led to a short stint in sales for Scott Pikovsky and his Great Ciao gourmet foods company. “ ‘I gotta get a grown-up job now,’ I thought. Monday through Friday days, where you wear actual grown-up clothes, that pays you actual grown-up money,” Agan says. “But it was a good way for me to also stay close to the chef world, and even dip my toes again in fine dining. I’d been through the back door of Spoon and Stable 50 times before I ever set foot in there for dinner.”

Great Ciao brought Agan into all sorts of high-powered kitchens and food purveyors. He got thirsty again for the cooking while hanging in the kitchen at The Bachelor Farmer and working with cheesemongers who took him into the cave to taste and talk about everything.

And then the big shift: In late 2015, Agan hears there’s a restaurant space available. Inevitably, he’s been working on a business plan for half a decade. “It hit me at Crave … I learned a lot about what I don’t want to happen on my own dime.” They call that learning to shave on someone else’s face. “And while I was at OTG, they sent us away to learn management skills. That’s something that doesn’t get taught in the kitchen; you get to be a manager because you’re the best cook, not because you know anything about helping someone else be the best cook. I wanted to know how to get people to want to work for you.”

So there’s this space, and Agan calls up his longtime front-of-house pal James Elm, and says: “Let’s take our shot.” They opened Xavi in a small Diamond Lake–area spot at 56th and Chicago that had once been called First Course. They updated the décor, softened the space, poured beautiful wines, and Agan’s team cooked their hearts out for two and a half years.

“Looking back, we really needed a third partner with a bucket of money,” Agan says. “I mean, two guys coming straight out of the industry? We didn’t have the money to make it work. We had great reviews from the press, but also online from the guests on OpenTable and the like. We just didn’t have enough revenue.” Agan says that once again, he learned a ton, this time about the need for marketing and publicity. “We did as many charity events as we could, we chose causes we believed in and gave as many gift cards as we could, in hopes of bringing more people in, but you can only shave off so many layers before you hit bone.”

“I knew for six months that we weren’t going to make it. But we kept trying—maybe this thing’s going to work, maybe this one. I was letting all these people down and I was just spent.”

Toward the end it got really hard. “I knew for six months that we weren’t going to make it. But we kept trying—maybe this thing’s going to work, maybe this one. I was letting all these people down and I was just spent,” Agan recalls. “We were stressed about money at home; my kids were like: Who’s this guy? I had to pay my mortgage, I have to pay rent, what about payroll, which purveyor can I pay this week, it wears you down. So we pulled the plug in August of last year.”

For social media denizens so glib about gaming the restaurant death pool, know that it’s an actual death, of hopes and futures and shots taken. Only bloodless corporations and lawyers don’t mourn it.

•••

Which takes us back to Bull’s Horn and a journeyman chef who’s gaming his next move.

“I dunno, maybe I’ll go back to school,” he deadpans, sitting at the bar nursing a Diet Coke. “What if I wanted to teach? I’ve gotten really good at it, but there are no [cooking] schools anymore. Then I think somewhere in my head, ‘I want to get back into fine dining.’ ” Or maybe not. “I took two months off and put a really great deck onto my dad’s house.” He’s thought about being a stay-at-home dad to his four kids (Sarah is a lawyer with a steady income), but has no idea how to do that. “I’ve worked since I was 18. I like to make things and think about solving things, and this is a career where I can do both.”

When you consider that for much of his career Agan was compensated with an hourly wage, and understand that chefs who ascend into management rarely crack the mid- to high five figures, you can see why having a spouse with a solid income has been key to maintaining this gap year.

Flicker needed a kitchen manager and Agan needed a low-stress job, so he’s pulling a few shifts a week at Bull’s Horn. His longest week has been 43 hours. (That’s a part-time job for chefs.) He’s really relaxed, but he also knows working the burger line is not a sustainable gig for someone with his chops. If a sugar daddy came along with a bucket of money and a space, he’d jump in again.

“I didn’t make it, but is that all? Part of me thinks I’m a failure for not making it, but then I think about what my chef de cuisine said: We made some f–-ing awesome food, and we made a lot of people happy. I can take that.”

What does success look like? These days, it’s not about money or fame. “One of the things I’m trying to learn this time around is balance. When I started in kitchens it was ‘You work when I tell you to work and you’re done when I tell [you] you’re done.’ I don’t blame the kids for not wanting to be in this industry—what’s in it for them if that’s the life? I can put it all out there and give it everything, but I don’t want that to mean having to take a month off to recover. I want to see my kids, I want to go to their soccer games, I want to have a good relationship with my wife.”

‘You work when I tell you to work and you’re done when I tell [you] you’re done.’ I don’t blame the kids for not wanting to be in this industry—what’s in it for them if that’s the life?”

Agan is a cook’s cook, a chef’s chef, he’s the guy the kitchen can count on, and the one his old employers greet with “Mikey!” He’s ingested everything the industry has given him and was never too proud to cook what they told him to or to learn from someone who knew something better. It was never about Instagram likes and self-promotion.

“I suck at [that]. I like to cook. People my age, when we were starting out, you didn’t have to be out of the kitchen, you could just be a chef cooking away. We’re the last of the hidden chefs,” he notes. And yet, at Bull’s Horn, he’s out there, delivering baskets of food to tables and interacting with guests, “and I have to admit, I’m getting better at it, I like it.”

Agan may have missed his window for that big score, the marquee food life that earns you magazine features and big money, but the loss of Xavi (the conventional brass ring) has freed him to think about it less conventionally. Over the last 23 years, he’s managed millions of dollars, solved thousands of problems, mentored hundreds of people, and is trying to think beyond the line. It’s not because he’s soured and broken by the industry, but because it has taught him to always show up and be ready for his next shift.

If he has to flip burgers to keep busy while he’s visioning, so be it.

Stephanie March is the senior food & dining editor at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, but used to bartend and open restaurants around the country. She has a weekend radio show called “Weekly Dish” on MyTalk 107.1.