Madison HeightsOctober 16, 2012
Food Network star inspires others to eat right
By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer
MADISON HEIGHTS — As she whirled about a makeshift kitchen in the gymnasium of Halfman Elementary on Oct. 3, Michelle Bommarito thrummed with energy, whipping up a variety of “super power foods” for an audience of community members.
The accomplished chef and Farmington Hills native is a nine-time alumna of cable TV’s Food Network Challenges and one of the original chefs handpicked for the show.
Her résumé also includes work as a fine desserts and pastries chef at the historic Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York and as a chef for Martha Stewart’s Omni Media, which led to an appearance alongside Stewart on her TV show in 2000.
She made a name for herself making cakes and still travels the country to give cake design workshops. But more and more, she finds herself doing what she did at Halfman — holding seminars on tasty and cost-effective food to boost energy.
She’s passionate about eating right, and her goal is to inspire others to improve their health, to help fight obesity and cancer, and perhaps even to inspire others to explore the culinary arts themselves.
“My way of eating is everything in moderation,” Bommarito said. “Portion control is key: if you eat small meals throughout the day — if you graze — the release of energy is so much better than if you eat one big meal in the morning or one big meal at night.”
She subscribes to an all-natural diet, consisting of locally and seasonally grown fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fresh dairy, lean cuts of meat, poultry, fish, legumes, beans, nuts and seeds. Three well-rounded “anchor meals” — breakfast, lunch and dinner — should be supplemented by small snack sessions in-between, she said. As for sweets and treats, Bommarito believes they’re fine, sparingly and on occasion, as something special.
Eating this way keeps her feeling fresh and invigorated, all twinkling eyes and Italian gesticulations. Now she’s found her groove — but it was a twisty road getting there.
The chef’s journey
Bommarito grew up surrounded by food in an Italian family where the kitchen was the nexus of the household. Raised in Farmington Hills, her father owned an Italian market, Bommarito Bros. Co. at Seven Mile and Schoenherr, where she worked starting at age 9. She even collected recipes as a kid, yet never guessed she would become a chef.
She graduated from Harrison High and proceeded to major in marketing management and minor in psychology at University of Michigan Dearborn. She had been working in hotels since high school and dreamt of moving to Europe to manage a bed and breakfast.
After 12 years in the hotel industry, her sales capability attracted the attention of a conveyor belt business that offered her a position in Italy. She couldn’t pack her bags fast enough to finally relocate to Europe, but once there, she was disenchanted by the work. She did enjoy photographing food, though, and says that in hindsight it was one of many signs from above, nudging her in the right direction.
After several months in Italy, Bommarito returned to America. For two months, she was sick and bedridden, suffering from chronic fatigue, hardly able to watch TV without getting nauseous, and barely able to talk — unfathomable, given how fast she talks now.
Bommarito had been following what she called “the health nut diet,” so she wasn’t getting any of the “good fat” from avocado, seeds, olive oil and so on. Coupled with all the energy she expended as an aerobics instructor at the time, her diet left her feeling tired, until she met a holistic doctor who helped shape her current diet.
She went to New York City to take a two-week bread-making class that wound up spanning the summer, and she decided to live there for the time being: a threadbare existence with three college kids she found cold-calling around town for a place to stay.
Bommarito landed an unpaid job at the Institute of Culinary Education, where they paid for her tuition there. Eventually she enrolled in the professional culinary program at ICE, while working at the Waldorf Astoria, also for free. She was doing it for experience.
Once she completed ICE for accreditation in the culinary arts, Martha Stewart’s company contacted her, in need of a pastry chef to work in their test kitchen. She worked for them for two and a half years, making her first appearance on national TV when she demoed a cake on Stewart’s show. She continued to work at the Waldorf Astoria, as well.
When she fell in love and got engaged, she returned to Michigan. She didn’t go through with her wedding, but she decided to “blossom where she was planted” and get into the wedding cake business, holding cake design workshops and starting her first business, Michelle Bommarito LLC, first in Northville and then Rochester.
But it didn’t feel right focusing on desserts; she wanted to do more with health food. So she weaned herself off her wedding cake business and began speaking engagements on eating right, appearing at Henry Ford and Crittenton hospitals, cancer groups, women’s shelters and more. She says it was the path she was meant to follow.
The right path
Throughout the 2000s, she appeared on the Food Network Challenges nine times. When her fellow chefs voted her off the show in 2009, she cried hysterically. She had been tasked with creating a cake representing herself, but her black-and-silver cake, with an Italian phrase about seeing the “silver lining” in everything, struck her peers as sad.
But Chip St. Clair got the message. The founder of the St. Clair Butterfly Foundation, a group all about helping kids overcome adversity through the arts, was brought to tears by the message in Bommarito’s cake. He called her up and asked her if she would speak at his foundation’s events. This led to Bommarito taking her message of staying positive and eating right to students in schools, something she does with relish.
When Madison district wanted to treat the community to a special event, they tapped Bommarito for visits to the Title I buildings: Halfman Oct. 3, Wilkinson Oct. 9 and Edison Oct. 10. Superintendent Randy Speck challenged Bommarito to use only ingredients bought from the local Sav-A-Lot on John R: enough to feed a family for all three meals during the weekdays. Attendees also got coupons to Sav-A-Lot.
“It’s all about connecting families,” Speck said. “One way is about health and nutrition, teaching families to eat healthy without breaking the pocketbook.”
At the Halfman event, several kids in the front row were clearly inspired by Bommarito and seemed eager to become chefs themselves. This meant the world to her.
“I never thought I’d be a motivational speaker about wellness to kids,” said Bommarito, who still does cake design workshops on the side. “If I would’ve won that competition, I feel it wouldn’t have been the path I was meant to be on. I’m not supposed to be the cake girl. I’m supposed to be the eat-well-and-take-care-of-you girl.”
For more information, visit www.michellebommarito.com.
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