Corporate Chef Michael Larson, Upper Lakes Foods

Chef Michael Larson has lived in Minnesota for virtually his whole life.  He was born and raised in Marine on St. Croix, a small town of 300 people on a lake in the woods.  He grew up with his one sister, his stay-at-home mother, and his father who was a mechanic.


Larson knew from a young age that he wanted to be a chef.  At age 14, he worked at Paul’s Pizza, a family friend’s Italian-American restaurant.  He would ride 8 miles on his bike to open up the shop at 6am, and worked as everything from dishwasher to pizza cook to grill cook.  He decided at such a young age that he wanted to be a chef because working in a kitchen gave him a similar adrenaline rush as sports, but he knew sports would have to end at some point.


After high school, Larson went on to study at a local vo-tech school, and graduated at the age of 19.  After graduating, he stepped right into his a job with Parasole Restaurant Holdings, a company he would wind up working with for the next 25 years.  Parasole, based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, was the largest independently owned multi-unit company in the Midwest.  Today, it is made up of 11 different restaurants with a wide variety of cultures and cuisines.


Larson found quick success with Parasole.  His first job in the restaurant group was at Pronto, a Northern-Italian based restaurant.  He started as a pantry cook, then to sous chef, and eventually became the executive chef by age 23.  By age 26, he became the restaurants general manager and executive chef consecutively.


Around this time, Parasole owner and co-founder, Phil Roberts, recognized Larson’s work and took him under his wing.  Roberts mentored Larson throughout his time at Parasole, and the two still stay in touch to this day.  While in his mid to late 20’s, Larson would travel around the country, and eventually the world, with Roberts.  They would spend a few days a month in different big cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.  They would try all different types of restaurants, take notes and pictures, and come back to Minnesota with loads of new restaurant concepts.  Those city trips eventually turned in to foreign country trips while visiting Mexico, Spain, Paris, and many more.


As a result of these many trips, Phil Roberts came up with a new restaurant idea.  That idea turned into the well-known restaurant Buca di Beppo, specializing in authentic Italian food served family style.  At age 29, Larson stepped into his biggest role yet, the corporate chef for Buca di Beppo.  He spent the next two years opening a couple restaurants a month across the country, and the restaurant is still thriving today.


After Buca, the next challenge Larson tackled was back with Parasole.  Inspired by trips to countries near the equator, the company launched Chino Latino, with the theme, “Street foods from the hot zones.”  Chino Latino serves Asian and Latin-American food and was called “The most significant restaurant to open in the Twin Cities in the last 25 years.”


Larson thrived with Chino Latino and embraced the challenges it gave him.  He was originally trained in French culinary, then worked primarily in Italian cuisine, so the chance to mixed it up and succeed with an Asian and Latin-American restaurant was very rewarding to him.


After his success with Chino Latino, Phil Roberts had Larson oversee more and more of his new restaurants.  Roberts loved to create new concepts and he trusted that Larson could bring them to life.  After learning from Roberts for many years, Larson began to develop an appreciation for mentoring, developing, and watching other people grow.  Larson’s new job was to lead restaurant openings and train teams on how to get a restaurant running as quickly and efficiently as possible.


Throughout his career, Larson always had the itch to do his own restaurant.  After 25 years with Parasole, Larson branched off in an attempt to start his own restaurant company.  He opened three restaurants in four years, but never found a concept that clicked.  All three restaurants eventually closed, but Larson has no regrets about going after his dream.


Today, Larson works as a corporate chef and sales manager for Upper Lakes Foods, a family owned food distributer in Cloquet, Minnesota.  He appreciates the trend many restaurants and stores are following which is selling or using locally grown and raised foods.  Again, Larson likes the new challenges of being a distributer, and recently began doing some consulting work as well.  His workday changes day to day, but he rarely feels the stress of his jobs.  He enjoys the challenges and does not feel the stress of being a chef, distributor, or restaurant operator, but does admit to struggling with the financial stresses occasionally.


Outside of work, Larson enjoys playing in a men’s hockey league in Minnesota, as well as raising his five children ranging from age 26 to 10.  He will also continue to travel and dreams of one day going to Tokyo to experience their food and culture first hand.