By Paul Post
Mike Rafferty’s culinary heroes include the likes of Julia Childs, Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck.
These are some of the celebrity chefs who inspired his career as a young kid, growing up in the Saratoga Springs restaurant scene. But a legendary BOCES culinary instructor who trained countless local students, stands out above all others.
“My favorite was Chef George Hoffis,” Rafferty said. “He was a great guy. He taught me everything. I started working when I was 14 so by the time he got hold of me I knew a little something. He knew I was interested so he took me under his wing and guided me through this crazy business.”
The lessons Rafferty, now 55, learned as a Saratoga Spring High School student are still paying dividends in his current position as head chef at the Inn at Saratoga, the Spa City’s oldest continuously operating lodging house, built in 1843, which takes guests back to a charming bygone era.
“I’m hands-on,” he said. “I’m working the line on a constant basis, plus doing all the administering, managing staff, creating menus, ordering, inventory and I do all the banquets. I’m not a paper chef as they like to say.”
The key to running a successful kitchen is simple: “Getting everything organized and having a very clean work environment,” Rafferty said.
He stays up with the latest trends by watching cooking shows on television and poring through magazines such as Bon Appetit.
“And I’ve been doing this so long that sometimes I bring back recipes from 20 years ago,” Rafferty said. “I am totally 100 percent responsible for the menu. We change it three times per year—fall and winter, spring and summer and a special one for track season, the busiest time of year. Our beef brisket is very popular. The recipe is from the owner’s (Robert Israel) great-grandmother. We cook it Jewish style. That’s very popular. Our lamb dish is taking off now, too. It’s served with roasted sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and Kalamata olives. And our stuffed sole, stuffed with crab meat served over risotto is also a top seller.”
One of the most important lessons Hoffis taught Rafferty is, “Don’t put out a dish if you wouldn’t eat it yourself. And he always told me that my customer is my waitress. I have to make sure she’s happy with the way something looks before it goes out to the customer.”
Rafferty got his start at a former eatery called Yesterday’s, where Saratoga Gelato is now located on Broadway. It was owned by Kathy Smith, current owner of Saratoga Arms Hotel, and her late husband, Noel.
“My mother was a waitress there and my father was building apartments above the complex,” Rafferty said. “ I was getting tired and bored at day camp, so I asked my mother if I could get a job. She said, ‘I’m not going to get the job for you. You can come in and talk to Noel.’ I went in and the next day and was washing dishes at 14 years old.”
From there he went to the former Dining Car Restaurant where Starbuck’s is now, at 351 Broadway, which the Smiths also owned.
“They let me do my own thing,” Rafferty said. “I made dessert for the Smothers Brothers one day, a home made chocolate mousse. They called me out to their table, which was kind of cool at 15 years old.”
While still in high school, he qualified for a national cooking competition by winning first place in regional and statewide events. He credits teacher Maureen Clancy for also being an important mentor during those critical years as a young, aspiring chef.
Through the years Rafferty has also worked at the Old Firehouse Restaurant and spent three years each at the Holiday Inn, where he was sous chef, and the Gideon Putnam Hotel before finding a permanent home at the Inn at Saratoga where he’s worked continuously for the past 21 years.
In a town known for hosting celebrity guests, Rafferty’s patrons have run the gamut from the Goo Goo Dolls to singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie, of “Alice’s Restaurant” fame.
“I like the family atmosphere in Saratoga,” he said. “I’ve lived here all my life. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
The biggest change he’s seen during nearly 40 years of culinary work has nothing to do with modern technology. “The work ethic in youth today is lacking compared to 20 years ago,” Rafferty said. “The work ethic in America is slipping a little bit. Everybody wants big bucks, but they only have one year of experience. It’s not only very hard to find good help, it’s very hard to find any help. The turnover is amazing. That’s why I like working here. It’s like a family. Our breakfast chef, Karen Vunk, has been here 13 years. Our bartender, Patrick Lynett, has been here 10 years and our general manager Lauren Hayward has been here seven or eight years.”
Valuable staff members include Rob Wilson, second in command cooking breakfast along with Alan Abrams and Keith Lewis who work with Rafferty at night in the restaurant.
One of the biggest challenges is serving large groups such as weddings, which is also quite rewarding. “When I do a wedding I always ask the bride if she liked her meal,” Rafferty said. “If she did, it makes me happy because it’s supposedly a once-in-a-lifetime thing, getting married. It feels good to be a little part of that. It all comes back to organization and keeping lots of notes. I keep a notebook with me all the time to make sure everything goes off well. We haven’t had a problem since I’ve been here.”
Rafferty’s team has to be at its best at all times because of the Spa City’s highly-competitive environment with no shortage of outstanding restaurants.
Given a choice, if he could work in any other country, Rafferty said he’d probably choose Germany because of all the brats and sausages found there. But when the intense pressure of a big banquet or dining room full of people is off, Rafferty likes to relax with his own favorite meal.
“I’m a breakfast guy,” he said, smiling. “I make a big breakfast every Sunday, sausage gravy and biscuits.