By Frisky M. Stal
At 13 Michael Buckley told his parents that one day he would like to have his own restaurant. “I’ll call it Michael Timothy’s,” Timothy being his middle name. At 13 he was washing dishes at a local restaurant in his hometown of Brookline, New Hampshire.
“Most young chefs today have never washed dishes. They go off to culinary school. At the time I was getting into the restaurant field, I didn’t know anyone who had been to culinary school. No one ever said you had to go to school to be a chef. So I am self-taught. If I had known then, what I know now, I would have gone to school but it wasn’t an option for me in the mid-70s.”
The owner of three very successful restaurants—Michael Timothy’s Urban Bistro and Jazz Bar and Surf Restaurant, both in Nashua, and Buckley’s Great Steaks in Merrimack—Michael Buckley is a chef at the top of his game. He is also a family man who works to squeeze out time for his wife, Sarah and three children, and a few quiet mornings for himself.
Michael Timothy’s at 212 Main Street in downtown Nashua is a European bistro; its walls a soft Tuscan orange with fine original works of art. A warm ambiance, white tablecloths and fresh flowers offer an intimate setting while just through the doors is the wine bar and live jazz. You can dine on a White Truffle Caesar Salad, a Shrimp St. Jacques Pastry Box or one of M.T.’s wood-grilled Roasted Artichoke and Olive Pizzas and there’s an outstanding jazz brunch on Sundays.
Surf Restaurant, just across the street from Michael Timothy’s at 207 Main Street is, as its website states, a serious seafood place. The long U-shaped bar with its bright, multi-colored lights is a perfect destination for a martini or glass of wine and a sampling of the raw bar. All seafood at Buckley’s restaurants is delivered from the Boston pier daily. Casual and comfortable, you can dine on such entreés as Grilled Miso Marinated Salmon on a jasmine rice cake with seared asparagus, shiitakes and ponzu sauce or California Fish Tacos…and there’s a piano in the dining room.
Buckley’s Great Steaks at 438 Daniel Webster Highway was Isaac Riddle’s Tavern in the early 1800s. Now, completely restored by Buckley, it is a series of several elegant dining rooms featuring plenty of classic steaks cooked over native hardwood on an Aztec grill. For a change from the outstanding selection of steaks try the Oven-Baked Oysters and Wood-Grilled Swordfish. Many patrons choose to hang out in the new Riddle’s Tavern with its inviting fireplace, warm earth tones, long rose marble bar and the live sounds of blues and jazz.
How Buckley manages to oversee three distinctly different restaurants, deal with every crisis du jour, and find time to cook a family dinner, or go walking with Sophie, the family’s yellow lab, or work out at the gym, is best explained by looking at the track he took to arrive here.
Michael Buckley is a self-motivated man who has worked long, hard hours on his way to becoming an accomplished chef and business owner. “I always worked 2-3 jobs. I can remember when I would paint houses in the morning, cook at a local restaurant in the evening, and make cider on the weekends. I worked in restaurants as a grill cook throughout high school.
The day after he graduated from high school Buckley was on a plane to eastern Oregon where he would spend the summer as a ranch hand. It was serendipity that got him the job. “My neighbor’s brother owned this ranch in Oregon. One night I was having supper with them and they asked if I would like to go out and work at the ranch. So there I was, the day after graduation heading out to Oregon. But I didn’t spend the summer riding horses. It was both a cattle ranch and farm. They raised alfalfa, wheat, peas and other food crops. I spent the summer driving a tractor and stacking hay, lots of hay for the cattle in winter.
In the fall the cattle were brought in from the hills where they had grazed all summer. They would stay close to the ranch in the winter, close to their winter feed. At that point the ranch didn’t need me so I came home. I was just 17.
I took a job as a grill cook at a local restaurant. From there I worked as a line cook at The Pearl in Nashua and then Anthony’s, a small local Italian restaurant. While at Anthony’s I took a second job waiting tables at Elijah’s. I felt that if I was going to have my own restaurant someday, I needed to know how the “front” of the restaurant worked. In the dining room I got comfortable talking to people. Working a dining room is, to me, one of the best jobs a young person can have. It forces you to interact with many types of people. That’s great experience in any job. I wanted to be able to make enough money so I could eventually open my own restaurant and I wanted to learn, always I wanted to learn.
Sarah and I were now dating and I would drive up to UNH to see her. It was about this time I heard about a new restaurant that had just opened, Lord Jeffrey in Amherst. It was promoted as one of the top restaurants, just the place to keep learning. I got a job as a line chef. Sarah also worked there waiting tables. The owner, Walter Niederburger, also owned Café Swiss with Andre Myer, The Greenhouse Café, Sir Williams and Petite Maison.
Walter and Andre were Europeans who had Swiss and German chefs working for them. Lord Jeffrey’s German executive chef taught me a lot. Working side by side with him I started building my foundation in European cooking—how to make the classic stocks, how to handle fish, how to butcher meats, etc. For me, French cuisine is the heart and soul of cooking. On Wednesdays I would go over to Café Swiss where many of the popular Swiss and Viennese veal dishes, such as Wiener Schnitzel, were served. I learned how to take a whole veal hindquarter and carve out all the different cuts. It was terrific experience.
There was a German woman working at Lord Jeffrey, Siglinda Thordson, whom we called Ziggy. She had worked at a restaurant in Germany and asked Sarah and me if we’d like to come to Germany. She would get us jobs at her former restaurant. It was just about that moment when Walter sold Lord Jeffrey. So Sarah and I picked up and went to Gaggenau, north of the Black Forest.
True to her word, Ziggy went to the restaurant to sell the chef on hiring Sarah and me. He was a 27 year-old Certified Master Chef. That was almost unheard of, to be that young and be one of the few Certified Master Chefs in Europe. He didn’t hire us…then. But one night while dining at the restaurant this chubby 14 year-old German kid comes flying through the kitchen doors bawling his eyes out. He was the chef’s assistant. Five minutes later the chef comes out and walks over to our table, ‘So you want a job?’ I got hired.
Working there was like working in Hell’s Kitchen. The restaurant served from two menus, the German menu and a cutting-edge nouvelle cuisine menu. The dining room served 60-70 people. The kitchen was small—just the chef, a Hungarian dishwasher and me. From the day I started I was under pressure every second.
While he was an amazing chef, he was also a perfectionist and incredibly demanding. People came from Baden-Baden, a posh area of Germany, to eat at his restaurant. For the French cuisine, NOTHING was made ahead. NOTHING! Whatever you made, you made from scratch. You cut meat to order. Made croutons on the spot. There was no grill. Meat was cooked in a pan.
There was a Riesling lentil cream soup with crayfish on the menu. As soon as the orders came in for that soup the chef would start the sauté pan. I would run outside to the crayfish tank and get the appropriate number of crayfish, run back, poach them and trim them while they were still burning hot. I had to be ready to drop them on the soup just as he was finishing it. If I didn’t make it, I was dead meat! It was tough but it was the best culinary experience of my life, except for my first restaurant.
I worked there four months when a call came in from the new owners at Lord Jeffrey. ‘You have to come back. The head chef quit, Christmas is coming and we need you. We’ll pay your expenses. Just come and help us.’ I was only 21 and probably too young for the job but I came back. When I landed they handed me a nice cash bonus.”
In 1987 Sarah and Michael were married. Buckley, at 23, felt it was time to move on, to grow. He left Lord Jeffrey and went to work at Levi Lowell’s, a top restaurant in Merrimack. Jeff Paige was the head chef. Jeff is currently the chef/owner of Cotton in Manchester. Jeff and Michael have remained good friends.
Buckley stayed at Levi Lowell’s for seven and a half years, five years as the head chef, until November of 1994. When a brewpub deal he was interested in did not pan out, Buckley decided it was time to do his own thing. By then he and Sarah had two young children and one on the way. He found a spot on Main Street in Nashua, the site of a former insurance agency. They put down a deposit, cashed in everything they had, pulled out their life savings and with, by what for restaurant standards would have been a meager investment to launch a restaurant, began the backbreaking work of converting the insurance agency.
“My brother, father-in-law and I spent four months building it. We looked for deals everywhere. We bought all our chairs from B. Mae’s Resort for six dollars a chair. We worked from seven in the morning until midnight every day. It was all sweat and hard labor. Our family and friends pitched in. I had a little Volkswagen Golf with a trailer. Every day my brother and I would go to Home Depot, buy everything we would need for that day, load it and work all day and night. I took all my culinary experience and planned out a Mediterranean bistro using as many local ingredients as I could.
Michael Timothy’s opened August 8, 1995, exactly three months from when we started renovating which was an unheard amount of time to design and build a restaurant. Our third child, Quinn, was three weeks old. My older son, Ian, was five and my daughter, Kristinn, was three. I was 31 and had been working in kitchens for 18 years!
From the start Michael Timothy’s was a success and has continued to grow. But the long hours were still there because I felt I needed to be there for the quality of the food, the service and all the details. I am still there. The hours are long but if you want a successful restaurant, you have to commit to that work ethic.”
Buckley didn’t plan to open another restaurant but in 2002 serendipity again took over. The restaurant across the street from Michael Timothy’s looked as though it might close. Instead of waiting for someone else to come in and buy the restaurant, Buckley decided to negotiate a fair price and dictate the competition.
His new restaurant would be different from Michael Timothy’s. The concept for Surf came from looking over the border into Massachusetts. Legal Sea Foods was a very successful growing enterprise with several restaurants. Todd English, a nationally-known chef from the Boston area, had scored well with Kingfish Hall at Faneuil Hall Marketplace in downtown Boston. Yet little was being done with creative seafood cuisine in New Hampshire.
It didn’t take long to open the restaurant, on May 28, 2002, and it didn’t take long to financially turn the corner. Now Buckley found he had to be a different kind of manager. He couldn’t micro-manage. He had to delegate if he was to maintain two successful restaurants. He still worked long hours but tried to take at least one day off for his family and at least one night.
His third restaurant, Buckley’s Great Steaks in Merrimack, opened December 8, 2005. It happened for different reasons. All was going well with his two restaurants but Buckley did not own a property, just leases. He wanted to invest in property and he was, in his words, “getting restless.” He also felt the local market could support a steakhouse. “Americans love their steak. For twelve straight years the number one seller on the Michael Timothy’s menu was steak. I felt it was a no-brainer.”
He found an 1806 house in Merrimack (formerly The Country Gourmet), bought it and then spent a healthy sum completely restoring it. Buckley’s Great Steaks has an elegant country theme with a strong steak menu supported by seafood, chicken and vegetable dishes. It will take time to pay back the investment Sarah and Michael have made but it has caught on and is doing well.
“I would like to redo my kitchen at home but I don’t want to spend the money on my house right now. I want to put money back into the restaurants. We just finished a major redo at Michael Timothy’s.”
Would Buckley open another restaurant? No, not right now. “Every time I do a new restaurant, it’s a two-year chunk out of my life. I know I’m not going to see my family that much. There’s not time for family trips or a day at the beach. My children are 12, 15 and 17. I want to spend time with them. Do I have ideas? Yes. I dream of lots of other things and get offers all the time but it would have to be the dream deal, something perfect for me to move on it.
Each restaurant now has a head chef and sous chef. We work together on new menus. I try to be in one of the three kitchens, 5-6 times a week. I’m also the fall back chef which means if someone is ill or on vacation, I’m the fill-in chef. At Michael Timothy’s we do new menus every month, three times a year at Buckley’s and two or three times a year at Surf. Each wine list is done with the managers and the wine lists vary among the restaurants.
I’m also a cheerleader as well as the boss. When people come through the doors they expect the very best food. I have to remind my staff of that, keep them energized, give them a pep talk now and then, tell them why it’s important to always do things at a high level. I walk a tightrope of not wanting to come down too heavy, tempering my concerns with enthusiasm. I do feel I have become a better manager.”
What is a typical day like for Michael Buckley? “I’m usually up at seven, have yogurt and granola or cereal and my three cups of coffee. Mornings are my time, often to spend outside in the woods walking Sophie, or doing some landscaping, sometimes hunting or fishing. Or I’ll go to the gym.
I’ll come into Michael Timothy’s sometime between 10 and 12 and check in with the lunch crew. Sometimes I’ll jump on the line and cook. After lunch I plow through mail, emails and paperwork, I’ll also check in with the other restaurants and kitchens. Lots of time gets spent working on menus. We also do a lot of PR and charitable work that swallows up time. We’re very supportive of the arts and many nonprofits. We do live music in all the restaurants, featuring local musicians. Once we took out all the tables at Surf and converted it to an art show. We also had James Aponovich painting here for one year.
I do try to break away for a kid’s game. At night I’m in one of the kitchens, training, cooking, and out in the dining room talking to guests. By 11 p.m. I’m ready to go home. Most weeks I will take off Monday and one or two nights…usually one.” When asked who cooks at home, he unequivocally answers, “I’ll cook the family meal when we’re together. Often it’s hearty country-style meat and potatoes fare.”
His love of food and his years of training are reflected in his restaurants. As much as possible he relies on local suppliers, such as Nesenkeag Farms, Lull Farms and Brookdale Fruit Farm. In the spring, summer and fall local fresh produce is delivered daily. In winter the produce comes from area hothouses. Many specialty products are flown in and delivered each day. Farm-fresh eggs, sweet butter, maple syrup and many local artisan cheeses continue the level of quality and freshness in the menus, as well as a touch of New England flavor.
All the seafood comes fresh daily from the Boston pier. All steaks come from mid-Western grain fed beef, aged 21 days, with the classic cuts grilled over native hardwoods.
One of the first kitchen chores every morning at Michael Timothy’s is to split the wood, over ten cords yearly, for the pizza oven.
True to his European training Buckley sees that everything is made from scratch— sauces, dressings, breads, pizza dough, desserts and pastries. The goal is to provide a memorable experience for his guests—good food, good wine, good art and good music.
At forty-four Michael Buckley now has 31 years in the kitchen. With his wife Sarah, a business partner and decision maker in everything they do, it’s hard to say what’s next. For now, it’s worth a trip to one of their restaurants. If you hit it right, you might catch the kitchen where Buckley’s working that night and you might just get a chance to meet him in the dining room.