From Emeril’s to The Pinewood, chef made his mark in Atlanta

Mike Blydenstein when he worked at Emeril’s in Atlanta.
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Mike Blydenstein when he worked at Emeril’s in Atlanta.

One December a few years after his mother had knee surgery, Mike Blydenstein flew from Atlanta to his parents’ home in Salt Lake City in part to make Christmas dinner. He settled on Brussels sprouts as a featured vegetable — not a favorite of Yvonne and Jay Blydenstein. Nevertheless, dad Jay admitted in a recent phone conversation, “They were so good, I even ate them.”

Mike Blydenstein’s culinary virtuosity came honestly. Yvonne’s mother, Flora Weaver, who lived in the Pacific Northwest, worked in restaurants and often traveled to Alaska to cook in logging and fishing camps.

Mike did his own woodshedding in New Orleans, mentored by superstar maestros Emeril Lagasse and John Besh. For his 20-year career their rich, Creole-inflected French cuisine served as a base for countless restaurant menus he created. But he also knew, said his friend and colleague Greg Best, “when to pull his punch and tone it down.”

Much of Blydenstein’s work was focused in metro Atlanta where he’d been sous or executive chef at restaurants including Emeril’s, the Barcelona Wine Bar, the Mercury at Ponce City Market and still-active The Pinewood in Decatur.

He rose in an era when the media and particularly television created an explosive culinary culture presided over by rock star chefs. But like the late chef and writer Anthony Bourdain, Blydenstein disdained the pretensions and commercialism of celebrity. He was also, like Bourdain, a late bloomer and uncomfortable with the designation “chef,” preferring just “Mike.”

“When you hung out with Mike, food was the topic,” said Best, who helped introduce Atlanta to the craft cocktail movement. “But he was not daunting or exhaustive like so many chefs. He didn’t want to be so critical that it would remove the magic.”

Michael Jay Blydenstein died suddenly of a heart attack Aug. 30, just days before his 53rd birthday. Amy Walker, his partner of eight years, said his ashes will get scattered at Cannon Beach on the Oregon coast.

He was born Sept. 11, 1966, in Portland and grew up in Lake Oswego, the oldest of Yvonne and Jay’s two children. For two years he attended the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where he met Hans Fagerlund, who remained a close friend.

Fagerlund said that even as a freshman Mike was an “awesome cook,” but his interests were diversified and perhaps, for a decade, even distracting.

He dropped out of college and for most of his twenties sold audio equipment while diving headlong into the world of Vespa and Lambretta scooters. He was also a superb golfer and his father, a correspondent for “Golf Digest,” believes Mike could’ve earned a college scholarship but “girls got in the way.”

Blydenstein was 31 when he enrolled in the Western Culinary Institute-Cordon Bleu in Portland. He matriculated to New Orleans, working at Lagasse’s Delmonico and Besh’s Restaurant August, then to Atlanta as sous chef at Emeril’s in Atlanta. In 2012 he and two partners started the 10 Apart Hospitality Group that opened five restaurants beginning with The Pinewood.

Though classically trained, Blydenstein didn’t subscribe to the French kitchen hierarchy. He believed food preparation a collaborative process, whether among staff or friends at home, said Best.

“Mike was at his best when making dinner at home for you,” he added. “Simple pasta, roast chicken — comfort food.”

Walker said she and Blydenstein had fun rolling out fresh pasta together and making sauce. He did the cooking at home and kept the freezer stocked with meals she only had to heat up.

“One thing he got me to eat was meat loaf, which I’d never liked before I met him,” she said.

In the last 18 months, 10 Apart Hospitality closed four restaurants. Though Blydenstein still consulted several hours weekly at The Pinewood, he was working full time as an instructor at Sur La Table in Buckhead.

“Restaurant work is a complex business,” said Fagerlund. “Mike enjoyed it and was very proud of the work he and his partners did. But I think he was trying to figure out the next step while also simplifying his life some. He loved teaching, and he loved getting back to just cooking.”

“I’m sitting here now thinking of the first thing he made for me,” Fagerlund said. “It was this pork tenderloin stuffed with Gorgonzola. That was 33 years ago, and it’s still one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth.”

Mike Blydenstein is survived by his parents Yvonne and Jay Blydenstein, his sister Kimberly Patton and his partner Amy Walker.

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