Chef Mike A: Elder Statesman of Buffalo Cuisine
Mike Andrzejewski was knocking out service as a chef in the region’s leading restaurants before it was cool. After more than 40 years behind the line, he is one of the few elder statesmen still very active in the Buffalo culinary scene. Some younger chefs in town refer to him as “Godfather,” and the Godfather has been very busy.
In February, he went up against one of the Food Network’s most iconic chefs on the television show Beat Bobby Flay. Earlier that month, he represented Buffalo at Taste of the NFL, a food event that coincides with the Super Bowl. This year, he is finishing his 10-season tenure as the color commentator of Nickel City Chef cooking competitions, Buffalo’s live event answer to Iron Chef. In addition, he’s cooked at the iconic James Beard House five times. A plaque commemorating one of those dinners, signed by Julia Child, hangs on the wall at Seabar, Andrzejewski’s seafood forward restaurant known for its excellent sushi bar, among other things. The other of his two restaurants is Cantina Loco in Allentown. It’s a pretty good list of accomplishments for a kid from Lancaster.
His start was a precarious one. In 1976, Mike’s first restaurant job was as a busboy at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens. Bedecked in his “red vest and floppy bow tie,” he quickly realized that being at the front of the house was not for him. So, he nervously asked Russell Salvatore if he could work in the kitchen instead. Salvatore granted Andrzejewski’s request and the young busboy became a young prep cook the following week. Soon after, he was training to take on additional jobs in the kitchen.
Andrzejewski’s dad was critical of his decision to work in the food industry; he thought Mike was doing it to avoid college.
“But the first time he saw his long Polish name on TV, it changed his attitude about that!” the chef says with a laugh.
After a series of different line cook positions, Mike gradually started taking on leadership roles in the kitchen, which led notably to the legendary Rue Franklin.
“Basically, the heavens opened up,” the chef says. “I learned so much there. Not just about food, but about professionalism, about the right way to do things, about hospitality and caring about every detail. It was a really hard job but it was the biggest turning point in my career.”
Andrzejewski also credits Warren’s in Tonawanda for having a huge impact on him and his education as a chef. The owners, Mark and Sue Warren, regularly took him to New York City to try out restaurants that were changing the game in the 1980s culinary world, including The Quilted Giraffe, Gotham Bar and Grill and Aureole. They’d incorporate things that they learned into the Warren’s menu.
Mike took his expertise to Oliver’s, where he worked for almost 10 years. He says he was given a lot of freedom there, was treated “like a king” and paid very well. Yet, in what he describes as a “weird decision process,” he made the jump from chef/manager to chef/owner.
In 2001, Mike and his wife, Sherri, joined forces with local restaurateur Tai Truong to open up a fine-dining Asian fusion restaurant called Tsunami in Kenmore. At Tsunami, relationships with fishermen in Hawaii ensured that the restaurant would get the best quality seafood delivered via express mail.
In August 2005, Andrzejewski’s life changed forever. Tragically, a motorcycle accident took his leg and almost his life. After two weeks in a coma and the physical rehabilitation that followed, he struggled to keep the restaurant going with the help of chef friends who put in time in his kitchen.
“It was incredible the number of people who showed up to help,” Mike says. “I don’t know what I did to deserve that kind of friendship and loyalty but it was absolutely amazing!”
However, mounting financial challenges took their toll. The deathblow came when the infamous October Surprise ice storm hit the region. Damage to Tsunami was complete, including a partial roof cave-in and a cooler breaking down, resulting in a tremendous loss of food. It was almost insurmountable, according to Andrzejewski.
“Almost,” because thanks to efforts of generous people in the local food industry, a fundraiser was organized to support the still recovering chef. “Stand Up for Mike A” saw thousands of people come together to help him out.
“I can’t even describe how much that meant to me,” the chef says gratefully with some emotion in his voice. “I always knew how cool Buffalo was, but that event and that time period solidified my love for this place. Everybody bitches about certain things, but there is nothing like this city and its people.”
About a year later, Mike and Sherri opened Seabar at its original location in Williamsville. The operation—a sushi bar—was at a scale that they could manage with regard to staff and the new realities of his physical abilities. Here, the chef continued to work with product that he loved and practice the skills he learned while at Tsunami.
About 10 years ago, real estate developer Rocco Termini approached the couple at around the same time they were looking to downsize after their grown children moved out of the house. They struck a deal that allowed the Andrzejewskis to live in a downtown apartment and reopen Seabar in the Ellicott Street building that Termini owned. Since then, they expanded from a sushi bar to a full-scale restaurant and show no signs of slowing down with the addition of Cantina Loco.
Mike attributes his success in the restaurant business to Sherri’s unfailing support over the years and her active part in running their restaurants. In looking back, he is characteristically modest when he says he is pleased to have played a small part in the growth of Buffalo’s food culture. He likes the idea that he can help to make people happy and put a smile on their faces. It’s the same feeling that he had when he started working at Salvatore’s so many years ago.
“People work all week and when they to choose to come to someplace that you’re working at or running, it is a pretty big compliment,” Andrzejewski says. “They choose to spend their money and their time with their family with us. It is really important and I am grateful when they come to our restaurants.”
> Seabar: 475 Ellicott St, Buffalo; 716-332-2928, seabarsushi.com