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Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Photo by Stephen Salpukas
Malcolm Mitchell, a finalist in the eighth season of Food Network Star, is a confident man. The same cockiness and focus that viewers saw on the show is just as evident in real life. As he sits at a table in the window of Mint on Main Street in his white chef's jacket with his name embroidered on the pocket, it's obvious that Mitchell has done a lot of interviews.
He's recently became a partner (joining Mint's original owner, Amy Ayers) in the restaurant he's sitting in — as of press time, the name hadn't changed from Mint Casual Cuisine to Mint Gastropub, but very soon, along with the new name, the restaurant will have a new logo and new menu as well. Prior to that, Richmonders had been teased for more than a year as to whether Mitchell would open his own spot in Jackson Ward. Until he did, he staged a series of pop-up restaurants under the name Promiscuous Palate.
Watch our video interview with Malcolm Mitchell Before Food Network Star came along, Mitchell, a native of Washington, D.C., was a private chef and caterer. "Like most chefs," he says, "I learned how to cook from [my mother] at a young age of 12 — and really started to get a love of cooking." After a stint in the Navy and exposure to the wide world of international food, Mitchell decided that cooking was something he wanted to pursue professionally. "I used my money from the GI Bill for serving my great country, and I went to culinary school [Stratford University in D.C.], " says Mitchell. "When I got out with the degree, I started peeling potatoes and carrots." He gradually worked his way up the culinary ladder, through a string of hotels and D.C. restaurants. "The reason I did that — people would say you don't get tenure — was to grow in order to get better," he says. "You [need to] go to different restaurants and different locations, and you learn new things." Soon he began working with a sports-management company and decided to go out on his own as a personal chef. "I was working with the Wizards for a while, I was working with Antawn Jamison [of the Lakers], and was working with [actor] Chris Tucker and [singer] Mary J. Blige." But a behind-the-scenes kitchen was too small for Mitchell. He wanted to be out front with the celebrities for whom he made food. "Do you want to be the person behind the scenes just being a chef and just cooking in restaurants?" he asked himself. "Or do you want to be in front of the camera or be that chef that can entertain people as well as cook?" When he got the callback from Food Network Star, he knew it was time to shine. Not only was the experience a positive one for Mitchell, despite the fact that he didn't win the contest, it gave him opportunities that he wouldn't have had otherwise. "You get to see how production works. You get the opportunity to see what you want to do," he says. "I still get casting calls from various shows now that other casting directors know what [I'm] about." Mitchell talks a lot about his brand, and it's clear that the show gave him the skills to create a marketable package. Mitchell also wanted to open his own restaurant — or two or three. His manager, Ve'lencia Jones, who is from the area originally, suggested that Richmond might be a more affordable place than Washington to begin that new phase of his career. Jones told him that "now, coming off the show, [Richmond] would be a great opportunity to be almost like a big fish in a small pond," Mitchell says. When I spoke to him in the spring about the Jackson Ward restaurant, he hadn't decided on a particular culinary style yet. By staging pop-ups, he wanted to try out new ideas and see how they went over with diners. He staged two in Richmond and others out of town. With his new partnership in Mint, the elastic term "gastropub," creates a wide field for Mitchell to find his niche. He wants to "give Richmond a little something different, something edgy," he says. "I love Richmond, but a lot of places that are here — it's more real Southern food, so I wanted to do something totally different and unique."