It all started with a pot of gumbo.
As a struggling reader, 12-year-old Michael Schuster zeroed in on New Orleans gumbo in "Huckleberry Finn" and decided to make some for his junior high English class.
Schuster ended up getting most improved reader — mainly because of that rich roux.
"A teacher wrote in my yearbook, 'I can't wait to eat at your restaurant someday,'" he said.
Her words launched a career.
Schuster is the newest face in the kitchen at the San Jacinto College North Campus. The culinary arts instructor once thought college unattainable, but after a 25-year stint in the Coast Guard, he not only earned bachelor's and master's degrees but also joined the College as a full-time faculty member in January 2019.
"Here was a place I'd never dreamed of attending as a kid, and here I was doing a cooking demonstration for the interview process. I've come full circle," he said.
Schuster holds an executive master's degree in hospitality and restaurant management from the University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton Hotel.
In addition to his education, he brings a lot of experience to the table for San Jacinto College students — from operating galleys in the military to heading a "small town," otherwise known as a Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo barbecue cook-off team.
As a Coast Guard chief food service specialist, he provided meals for thousands of servicemen, officers, and foreign dignitaries on land and sea.
As an HLSR barbecue team chief cook, he led a team that produced mouth-watering meats for up to 2,000 people over three nights. And — not too shabby — this crew turned out brisket and chicken that ranked among the top 30 out of 250 competitors.
Now at San Jacinto College, Schuster teaches students how to handle the pressure of professional kitchens and maintain consistent quality.
"There's a lot more involved in cooking for large crowds than in preparing meals at home. You have to be passionate about this career -- it can be ruthless," he said.
Although his specialty is cooking for the masses, Schuster shares some barbecue tips for landlubbers who will be manning grills this summer to feed their crews:
1. Fat is flavor. Meats can dry out when barbecuing, so fat is your friend. (Think bacon.)
2. Invest in a good meat thermometer. Ace Mart Restaurant Supply is a local store for chefs. Pick up a Bio-Therm pocket thermometer for less than $6, and you are set.
3. Know how to use the grill. On a charcoal grill, you need a hot and cool side. Start your meat on the hot side, then move it to the cool side. You want to get those grill marks, then finish on the cooler side to prevent the meat from drying out. Remember: Slow and low for smoking meats.
4. Experiment with rubs. Try different rubs to find one you like. I look for consistency. I use a rub made by a Houston company that was in business for 75 years. (Sorry, keeping my secret.)
5. Make your own barbecue sauce. Barbecue sauce is made of ketchup, mustard, brown sugar, and malt vinegar. I like using honey to sweeten it up. You can kick it up with anything to find the right taste for you.
Finally, Schuster provides a basic mac and cheese recipe to accompany any summer barbecue.
The secret, he says, is to cook the pasta al dente (still firm). You can sprinkle your mac and cheese with toppings like crushed potato chips or Italian breadcrumbs to elevate it.
"Once you make it homemade, you'll never go back to the boxed kind again," Schuster said.
Melt the butter in a saucepan. Stirring constantly, mix in the flour. Cook until the flour smell is gone and the roux smells nutty, approximately 2-3 minutes. Do NOT brown or burn the roux.
Slowly add milk, stirring constantly until the sauce thickens. Boil for 1-2 minutes. Add pinch of nutmeg and white pepper and salt to taste.
Reduce heat and gradually add your favorite cheese, stirring 2-3 minutes more. Remove from heat and pour over prepared noodles.
Additional: Top with more cheese, breadcrumbs, or crushed potato chips. Bake if desired.