Best wishes, Chef Mike

CU students will miss Chef Mike in Huden, but they wish him all the best at his new job helping to run Olympic Pizza, a restaurant in Rutland. Photo by Nancy Johnson. 

He’s the big guy with the big beard and the big flavors. Beloved Chef Michael Esposito, better known by students as “Mike,” has left Huden after four-and-a-half years of bringing culture to the dining hall.

He is known best for his famous chicken caesar salad that was a once-a-week tradition. He served up delicious Italian dishes like penne alla vodka, mussels marinara and prosciutto on balsamic bread.

Esposito even brought worldly cuisines into the mix like Thai, Jamaican, Chinese, Greek and more.

In other words, he was a hit with students.

Everyone loved to see what he was cooking for supper that night, and let’s not forget his warm personality and inviting smile.

But last month, all of that changed.

Esposito was offered a job by good friend, Chris Bourque, to help him run Olympic Pizza, a restaurant in Rutland he recently purchased.

“He called me up and offered me a deal to come here. It was something that I thought was the right thing at the right time, and it was time for me to move on,” Esposito said.

Bourque, who was an employee for Sodexo at Norwich University, said it took a lot of convincing to get Esposito on board with his new business venture.

“I was like ‘If I’m gonna do a pizza place, I gotta get somebody in there that I trust,’” Bourque said. “So I called Mike and started pressuring him, and it did take a lot of pressure.”

Esposito was an expo chef at Huden which gave him a lot of creative freedom with his menu, but now he has taken on a much bigger role overseeing the Olympic Pizza kitchen and its staff as the general manager.

“It’s another world. Same concept, but totally different worlds,” he said.

Esposito was only 14 years old when he learned how to cook doing community service for his high school at the Elks Club in Rutland with his grandmother. He worked eight-hour days, sometimes full shifts in a hot kitchen, while his peers did a couple hours of community service at a time.

His grandmother even made him work banquets and weddings to show him the ropes of the restaurant industry.

“It was kind of like baptism by fire,” he said. “I just kind of went from there.”

Along the way, he was inspired by the characters he met in the kitchen, who he called “larger than life,” that made his kitchen experience so unique and exciting.

Esposito furthered his career in the food industry at New Hampshire College, now known as Southern New Hampshire University. He’s been a chef ever since. When he first came to Castleton four-and-a-half years ago, he didn’t know what to expect or what he was getting himself into.

“My biggest concern when I took the job was I would have some bratty kids that boss me around and ask for stuff and I’m gonna flip out,” he said bolstering with laughter.

But Esposito said his assumptions were wrong, and he was shocked at how polite and respectful the students were to him. He said it made it easier for him to expand, and want to earn the students trust, but also their friendship.

He recalls one night where he made mussels marinara and met a student who had never tried mussels in her life, and didn’t plan on it any time soon. He convinced her to try just one, and sure enough she loved it so much she went back for seconds.

“It was stuff like that, earning the trust and really expanding people’s horizons on food. That was very rewarding for me. I was very proud of it,” Esposito said.

He said he is grateful for the friendships he developed over the years at Castleton and will miss his co-workers, but will miss the students most of all.

“I miss seeing everybody. This will sound corny, but I do appreciate the time I had there and the people I got to meet. It was nice being able to build that connection with some of you guys,” he said. “I’m gonna miss Castleton. I absolutely miss you guys, I appreciated all of you and it was hard to give up.”

When Huden employee Nancy Johnson heard about Esposito’s departure, she was sad to see him go, but excited to see him moving on to bigger things.

Johnson was his coworker for the four-and-a-half years he worked at Huden and always remembered him as a “jovial guy with a huge laugh.”

“He’s always smiling and laughing and he just brought the place up, for me anyway,” Johnson said. “Big Mike, I miss you, I love you, I miss our chats.”

When Johnson shared the news with students, she said many were shocked and upset to hear about him leaving.

This gave her an idea to give Esposito a parting gift that he could never forget.

“I asked if they would want to write him something to wish him well, and it just kept growing and growing,” Johnson said.

She collected all of his farewell cards from students and plastered them to a big blue poster board that said “Chef Mike, we’ll miss you, but good luck in your new job!”

“He was really taken aback and he opened it up and read it in front of everybody, every note that the students wrote for him,” Johnson said.

Some of those notes read: “Mike, thank you for the bomb food, you are the man,”

“Chef Mike, my man, enjoy the new job,” “Good luck Chef Mike, you made the dankest meals, you’re the man.”

Esposito really was “the man” and will be greatly missed by the Castleton community.

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