With some 25 years of coast-to-coast culinary experience, Chef Michael Uhnak – known fondly to his staff and regulars as “Cheffy” – serves as the Executive Chef of Besaw’s in Portland, Ore., where he strives to “keep it simple” while creating “edible art” in the form of classic comfort food with upscale and modern twists. Inspired by what’s fresh and abundant in the restaurant’s 18-bed garden (which he expertly tends to), Michael’s seasonal menu features satisfying dishes that illustrate his ability to manipulate the very best ingredients to bring out their flavors and allow them to shine brightly without any fuss.
With vivid food memories shaping his childhood, it seems as though Michael was destined for a career as a chef. He learned the ropes from his Czech grandmother as she cooked up time-honored classics like goulash and stuffed peppers, from his butcher uncle who expertly broke down deer during hunting season, and from life on his grandparents’ farm. Born in New York, Michael lived in Oklahoma and Idaho before moving back east to finish high school. That summer, on the family farm in upstate New York, his grandfather lined up a job for the 15-year-old as a dishwasher at a local restaurant and banquet hall quickly shattering his visions of leisurely days by the pool. Also dabbling in kitchen as a prep cook while there, Michael instantly felt a connection to the hustle and bustle of the industry learning important lessons he has carried throughout his journey. After high school, he moved back to Idaho to be with family and worked in a hotel restaurant where he seamlessly moved through the ranks from breakfast cook to sous chef. It was all just beginning for Michael – a bright future lay ahead.
Michael spent the early 1990s in Napa Valley, Calif., where he was introduced to Italian food and techniques as well as the budding concept of California cuisine while climbing the culinary ladder at Tra Vigne under the expert direction and mentorship of Executive Chef Michael Chiarello. He also helped to successfully open Chiarello’s Cantinetta Wine Bar and worked on the chef’s new line of gourmet food products. Michael eventually sought to round his experience with some additional schooling and a change of scenery. Taken by Portland and its burgeoning wine scene that reminded him of Napa Valley when he once drove through the area, he moved to Oregon in 1997.
While attending Portland’s Western Culinary Institute, Michael worked his way from from line cook to banquet chef at Pazzo Restaurant under Paul Ornstein and Kenny Giambalvo. After earning his bachelor’s degree in Culinary Arts and Restaurant Hospitality, Michael spent the next 10 years continuing to hone his Italian cooking skills as chef at Café Mingo and then at the helm of Mingo before joining Besaw’s in October 2010.
On a never-ending learning quest, Michael has traveled to European cities like Rome, Paris, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Naples – often inviting himself into the kitchens of the best restaurants to learn firsthand from the chefs. Back at home, he has taught cooking classes – everywhere from Sur La Table to the kitchens of his restaurants – and led many culinary demonstrations at local farmer’s markets. When not cooking, Michael can be found hiking, gardening or traveling and also has an affinity for foreign classic cars and interior design.