Food is an excuse to get together, Michael Hackman observes. After cooking up much success for other prominent establishments, the executive chef known for his matchless simplicity of traditional dishes opened Aioli in West Palm Beach. This is a neighborhood restaurant that draws people to their tables like a moth to a flame.
No doubt, people have a huge appetite and food is arguably the most relatable thing that we all have in common. “Dining together makes you more relatable, and I think after 2020’s madness and 2021’s “return to normal,” whatever that means, people want a simple life, and that includes enjoying delicious food and having conversations around a table surrounded by friends and family,” said Chef Hackman.
He sits comfortably in his chef’s attire, a plain blue shirt and faded blue jeans. He holds court in the back of his restaurant, an old building on South Dixie Highway draped with greenery and lots of neighborhood charm.
It’s not uncommon to find Chef Hackman greeting his guests at the door, where the smell of fresh bread draws you in all the way to Aioli’s industrial-chic dining spot. With the first bite of your meal, you will realize the food has never tasted so delicious in any similar type of restaurant before. What’s the secret? Well, it’s not just the raw beauty of the place, with its rustic wood tables and metal dining chairs. The chef knows what people like. And people like traditional [AKA: comfort] food.
This led to a fun conversation about comfort food. For most of us, it must include at least a few of the basic foods we actually like to eat: salt, sugar, fat, and carbs! And Chef Hackman delivers all of it with such flavor and finesse. At the top of the list is his delicious bread. But more than the food, Chef Hackman himself will leave you in awe, as this homegrown chef has such humility and enough star power to warrant a ten-mile journey to his restaurant just to get a taste of his delicious dishes.
How were you inspired to create this industrial-chic cafe and bakery?
It’s always a chef’s dream and goal to have his own restaurant. A small café and a sandwich shop that we could walk to and enjoy and eat, something that we were looking for in our neighborhood, around our house. That was our inspiration. We wanted a breakfast and lunch concept so we could see the kids and enjoy our family. We are closed on Sundays for that very reason. It’s definitely a neighborhood restaurant.
I was doing the hard work for other people, and doing it very well. I worked not only as a private chef and restaurant consultant, but as a sous chef and executive chef for hotels and restaurants such as The Breakers, The Four Seasons, the Five Star, Four Diamond, L’Escalier, and Café L’Europe. But I wanted to do something for us. I have to say, it’s a lot of work. But I can see my kids more here on my terms than if I was working at another restaurant or hotel or something. In that case, I wouldn’t see them at all. I have a lot of flexibility with having my own place. The whole idea revolves around the family.
How many hours do you normally spend in the kitchen?
Here at Aioli, we are open from 7 am to 4 pm, six days a week. The first guys who come in are overnight bakers, who start at 10 pm the night before. The kitchen runs for 21 hours a day, with a small break from five to ten o’clock at night. So, we put a lot of time into the kitchen. And as a business owner, it is non-stop.
It is the team that makes a positive working environment where everybody gets along. The right people make the team. And for us, they’re like a second family. We spend so much time together so it is extremely important for our team to get along. We treat everybody fairly, just like I would like to be treated. It’s doing small things for them, like what everybody needs and wants, and just making it happen for them.
What are the top three tools in your kitchen?
A good chef’s knife. Spoons. Cooling racks.
What inspires your culinary creations?
I like to travel to see what others are doing. Another inspiration will be traditions—taking comfort food that people like and just putting a twist on it. So, they know what it is but we’re giving them a little more upscale twist.
What’s your signature dish?
Wow! That’s a hard question. Just one? You know, dishes are like children, you just don’t want to choose just one! I guess because we’re a sourdough bakery, we make tons of sourdough. It still fascinates me that water, salt, and flour with the mother culture bacteria that we make here, makes this bread so delicious.
Is there a least favorite dish?
Oh, man! [laughing] That’s a difficult one too because everything that we do here is because we want to. [After a moment] Okay, I have one. Doing what’s popular out there. Meaning, if I see something that everybody is doing, it is something I don’t have any desire to do. If it’s something that’s really trendy, I fight tooth and nail not to do it. I just don’t want to do what everybody is doing. I enjoy sourcing my inspiration from elsewhere. There are some things we have to have because customers ask for them, and that’s fine.
What is your favorite dessert to make?
I love making tarts instead of pies. The French version of the tarts, in all flavors. The carrot cake is definitely a favorite on our menu.
How do you create and evolve your menu?
At Aioli, we have our core menu of sandwiches that are favorites. And then we do a ton of specials, like a Saturday menu that has about seven dishes that change every Saturday. We have three or four dishes daily that change. And we have pick-up dinners that change every night. And that’s a collective effort of a group of people who plan the menu, staying true to the seasons.
We get inspired by the seasons, whether it’s cold or warm weather. When the weather starts shifting, so do our ingredients, like meats and vegetables. I also like to ask my guys what they would like to learn and what they would like to see on the menu. We have a dry erase board on the back and I put on there the things certain people would like to know how to do. It may not happen the next day, but I try to implement those items and have a teaching session. This gives everybody the chance to learn something that they’re seeking or reading about and then implement it into Aioli’s menu.
That’s a wonderful way to empower your team.
Yes, I think so. And, if they have a say and can have their name on it, they will be inspired to make it happen. They’re taking ownership of it and it’s not just about following a recipe and putting love into it. It also helps build a winning team, having that passion in like-minded people who want to make high-quality food.
Are there also local vendors and suppliers that you work with?
Yes, absolutely. I’ll say that it’s a lot more challenging for a small business to have multiple vendors. It’s a lot easier for a chef to pick up a phone and call a supplier in a big chain in San Francisco and say, “Hey, send me everything in one shot.” Versus, calling farms, checking availability, asking them what they have, what’s in season right now . . . On the plus side, to be able to call a farmer and tell them, “Hey, I need this in two weeks, can you grow me some micros?” “Is it possible for you to grow red beans in three weeks?” Then, when you need it, they start and deliver it. That’s a nice relationship. We use local vendors as much as we can to help everybody out in the community.
Shifting topics to the Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival. Was last year’s event your first time?
No, this was our sixth year. But it was our first time hosting at Aioli.
Because of Covid-19, people had not been able to attend the festival the year before. So, they expected to have a memorable experience, enjoy the food, and just enjoy the company and conversations with people. We don’t have a large space at Aioli, so when people came in, they were able to see the kitchen and what the chefs were cooking up. The food was awesome as we had amazing chefs.
Why do you think food festivals are so popular amongst people, and foodies in particular?
It’s definitely that connection with food. Food is just exciting! People like to relate to it as much as having a good time with a group of people over a delicious meal. And then, meeting different chefs all in one place is a fascinating experience for most. Our festival hosts chefs from all over the country, so the attraction of meeting them and tasting different foods is huge.
You see different personalities from all parts of the country—all coming together with one goal: to put out good food.
If you were to choose a dish to describe your personality, what would it be?
Wow! That’s a really good question. I guess a loaf of bread or a breakfast sandwich, which is so simple and yet so delicious. I am not a complicated person. I don’t try to complicate things if they don’t have to be. So, when you eat a breakfast sandwich, whether it is in the morning or late at night, it is satisfying. At night, if I come home late from work, I’ll make some eggs and cheese on toast. It’s like a complete meal in itself.
Would you share a cooking tip or technique you use that people can apply in their home kitchen?
Cooking is really simple when you come down to it. You want to buy the freshest and best ingredients that you possibly can. Then, prepare properly, don’t overcook whatever it is you’re cooking, and don’t burn your sauces. I always say, “Do it the hard, stupid way.” Which means, doing it the right way. Cooking with the skills used 100 years ago. Not cutting corners, not buying products that are halfway done. Just make it from scratch. For instance, take our croissants. Yes, we make terrific croissants, but the fact is that we make them fresh every day, and we don’t put them out after two days. Everything tastes so much better when it comes out of the oven, versus being propped up and sold the next day. Simple.
The word on the street is you’re opening a pizza joint.
While on a family visit to the west coast, we noticed that all the local bakeries out there did pizza nights. I recall the a-ha moment: “These bakeries would turn their bread ovens into pizza ovens and they’d turn into a hangout at night with a super-limited menu, maybe just a couple of pizzas and homemade dishes,” I thought. It was a smart idea. So, I said to my team, “We have all the equipment; let’s do it.”
What is it about pizza that people just love so much?
Pizza is comforting, it can be a personal indulgence and it brings people together. The aroma alone makes you happy, but the anticipation of your first bite makes it even better. . . . What’s not to love?
When is the grand opening?
Soon! We are putting the finishing touches on the space and tweaking our recipes so we will have a grand opening announcement soon.
Meet the chef
Name: Michael Hackman
Where he lives: West Palm Beach
Family: Wife, Melanie, and three daughters, Kennedy, Abigail, and Madeline.
Restaurant(s) affiliation and location: Aioli, West Palm Beach, which he opened in 2014.
Hometown: Born outside of Chicago, and moved to West Palm Beach when he was in elementary school.
Years as a chef: Cooking since he was 17. As a chef, 20 years.
Culinary School: Florida Culinary Institute
Chef Hackman is known for his casual, comfort food, flavorful bread, sandwiches, soups, and salads.
Aioli is located at 7434 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. Online www.aioliwpb.com