Michele Ragussis

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Michele Ragussis, The Next Food Network Star finalist and executive chef at The Pearl seafood restaurant, has a surprisingly big fan base in Texas. She hopes to one day bring a New England–style cooking show into their homes.

What events in your own life sparked your culinary passion? Being Greek and Italian, my parents, mostly my mom, were constantly cooking. I would wake up in the morning and my father would be making breakfast while my mother was rolling meatballs and stuffing bread. It’s always been a big part of my life. When I became older, I was a bartender and began cooking a lot. My friends and my girlfriend were like, “You are really talented at cooking. You have to do something with it.” I was like, “Really?” It just never really occurred to me, I just thought I’m Italian and I cook like my mom. So I ended up going to culinary school and I fell in love with it.

What was your favorite moment while on The Next Food Network Star? On the first episode, the first challenge was to create your own restaurant. It was my favorite moment because it’s what I do every day. And also maybe Giada staring at me all the time—that was pretty funny. It literally happened all the time!

Who is your number-one cooking mentor and why? Oh come on now—Bobby Flay! He’s very loyal and he was really kind to me. I always looked up to him because our cooking styles are similar. So to be able to be on his team and work with him was pretty amazing. Second would be Michael Symon because he’s a Greek Sicilian like me.

What accomplishment have you received that has the most meaning to you—and why? I won 24 Hour Restaurant Battle doing a modern New England seafood restaurant. It was really exciting for me because I was doing what I really loved.

Where do you find your inspiration for your restaurant or for your food? I find my inspiration all around New England. It’s everywhere. My restaurant, The Pearl, is only open four months in Maine, so I’m living in Rhode Island right now. When I walk my dog, I see beautiful things lying on the beach, like scallops and oysters. It’s so beautiful here. You can live off the land here, by walking in the woods and finding so many different types of mushrooms and fiddleheads, ferns and deer.

I know you’re all about New England–style cooking. But I have to ask, are you a fan of Texas BBQ? Of course, who isn’t? Yes! I love a lot of meat. I think a big misconception is that I’m a seafood chef and I’m not. I love New England food, but, you know, that includes a lot of meat.

You’re really in tune with your Greek and Italian roots and your family. How did your upbringing impact your gay identity? It was tough when I was growing up. Being a younger gay, it was not accepted in my family very well. My sisters and family are great with it now. But I’m a very strong person. I think cooking and playing sports made me a strong person and gave me a bit of a backbone to stand up for who I am.

What is in store for the future? What other projects are you working on? I’m hoping for my own show on the Food Network or the Cooking Channel. I’m not going to stop till I do. I am working with Hood Dairy Products, which is a New England–based company. They’re coming out with a Hood cooking channel so I’m doing some webisodes for them. And I want to continue being executive chef at The Pearl.

If you knew the world was ending tomorrow, what would your last meal be? A big bowl of fried clams.

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