"Depot is not only the name of the restaurant where Chef Michael Shafer
is the iron horse and engineer, it's the creative hub of culinary lines
from all over the world that have marked his career, from Classical cuisine
to German, Austrian, contemporary Scandinavian, pan-Asian, and Mexican
to American cooking from the East Coast to the Southwest and California.
Growing up in Buffalo, New York, Shafer early
understood food as a creative medium and social binder. As a child, he'd
cook for his family, and as a teenager for his friends. Though his resume
begins in the pantry of a private club and he put himself through school
working in restaurants, Shafer's first calling was to Art School at Buffalo
State College, studying to teach.
But creating itself had more of a hold on him than studying
the process. Headstrong and optimistic, at age 21, Shafer quit school in
1977 to come to California as a photojournalist. Waiting for his career
to take off, he took a job in the kitchen at the Century Plaza Hotel. Luckily
for us, Rolling Stone never took notice. Instead, Shafer attracted the
ire and attention of Walter Roth, Corporate Chef of Westin Hotels.
Not intimidated by the formidable old school chef, Shafer
quickly blossomed under Roth's tutelage. "He taught me the discipline
of being a chef, that to be successful you have to run the business and
teach everyone around you how to run it at the same time." Roth also
imbued Shafer with vigilant and exacting standards: "The chef's perfectionism
is there for his own satisfaction," says Shafer. "The details
may be perceived by only a small fraction of the clientele, but your pride
is in knowing that it's all there."
Under Roth, Shafer completed the three year Culinary
Apprenticeship Program, solidly anchored in Classic French cuisine. At
the same time, Shafer was trolling the common waters of his student budget
and age group; cheap ethnic cuisine. After theoretical classes at LA Trade
Tech downtown, Shafer would dig into the local groceries and restaurants
of China Town, Japan Town, and the barrio, and discover new worlds of produce
in California's prolific neighborhood farmer's markets. Loving the "simple,
big-flavored foods" and the "all-in-one-pot" approaches
of these diverse cuisines, Shafer's palate was broadened, even as he planned
the next phase of his career, working in "the motherland of classical
Europe honed his classical skills, and over the next
year and a half he learned how to execute finesse with consistency on a
large scale in the kitchens of cosmopolitan luxury hotels in Austria: the
Hotel Bristol, Vienna's Hotel Palais Inn Schwatzenberg, and Der Kaiser
Hof Hotel in Badgastein.
More than an adroit culinary craftsman, creativity and
leadership quickly came to bear in Shafer's Career, and his success lead
to 15 years in top positions in major hotel operations. At age 26, the
Hotel Scandinavia in Norway brought Shafer in as Executive Sous Chef to
add an international flare to their menus. Shafer introduced them to such
Southwestern American foods as burritos, taco salads, and chili fries!
in 1983, he returned to the US, and Century Plaza as Executive Sous Chef.
In '86 he opened the Stouffer Hotel in LA, and became Executive Chef of
the Doubletree Hotel in Orange, California -- and the same year took home
the Gold Medal at the International Culinary Olympics back in Frankfurt,
By now the lines of Chef Shafer's culinary train were
complete, a dinner with restaurateur Robert Bell for Les Toques Blanches
lead to the opening of Depot in 1991. Deft and imaginative, Shafer's menu
draws from his whole experience. There's a bit of German, Middle American,
and Pacific Rim cooking in his Rock Shrimp sausages as well as Mashed Potato
Pancakes with Roasted corn and Mushroom Stew. There's both Santa Fe and
Taipei in Shafer's famous appetizer tasting board, with Chicken Dumplings,
Canton Ribs Thai BBQ Shrimp, Sonara Tuna, and Crispy Calamari. And his
Big Cat Mixed Grill is virtually an American smorgasbord-over-mesquite,
with Mustard-crushed Lamb Chops, a petit Filet Mignon, Rock Shrimp Sausage
and Roasted Mushrooms, with a Pinot Noir sauce.
Serious foodies are delighted, the sophisticated palate
sated, yet Shafer's playfulness prevails without pretension. Barbara Fairchild
of Bon Appetit has called him "one of the few chefs today who actually
seems to be having fun in the kitchen."
More than a chef, Shafer is an astute businessman in
an industry where so many artists fail.
Shafer continues to distinguish himself in the community,
headlining a handful of annual local fundraisers, as well as in the culinary
world. He recently became a Certified Executive Chef with the American
Culinary Federation, and in 1997 was recognized as a "rising star
of American cuisine" by the James Beard Foundation, who invited Shafer
to cook as a guest chef in their distinguished series at their New York
Headquarters. He has been nominated "Chef of the Year" three
times, by the Southern California Restaurant Writers Association.
Coming full circle, Michael Shafer has become
the art teacher he once set out to be, leading sell-out cooking classes
at the restaurant every month. With the comfortable control of a performer,
his humor, warmth and love of gathering people around give the chef a rare
ability among professionals of his caliber to connect with the home cook
as well as inspire and entertain an eager audience.
Besides being the owner and chef of the Depot, Michael Shafer has raised millions of dollars for a wide variety of charities. He personally hosts two events a year, one for Pediatric Therapy Network, a nonprofit children’s research, education and therapy center located in Torrance, and one for Scott Newman Center to support drug prevention through education. Each event raises over $100,000 a year. In addition, Mr. Shafer donates time, money and his culinary skills to other community charities including; the Torrance Education Foundation, Palos Verdes Education Foundation, the Wellness Community, Little Company of Mary - For our Children, the Concern Foundation, and the Palos Verdes Art Center. Just this year alone, Michael’s famous personal cooking live auction items have raised $10,000 for Pediatric Therapy Network and $9,000 for the Torrance Education Foundation. Mr. Shafer has been a staple for the past 15 years at the Torrance Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual Food and Wine Festival. Besides these major events, he donates over $5,000 worth of gift certificates or in kind donations to other nonprofit groups. No other restaurateur or individual businessman has given so much back to the community as Michael Shafer.
To see Michael work the crowd at a charity event, is like watching Luciano Pavarotti at the opera. He works the audience to get the most money possible. He’s loud, he’s a comedian, he’s outrageously generous - adding a magnum of wine to make the bids go higher. But when its all over, he very quiet and shy about receiving any accolades. He tells the charities not to spend the money on plaques, instead to use the money for the kids or people who need it the most. He is truly an unsung hero in our community.