I am blessed to have friends from a wide variety of different backgrounds, each with a unique heritage. One of those friends is Michal Smith, a Filipino-American, whose friends affectionately call her “Mikee.” Since October is Filipino American History Month, I decided to take the opportunity to ask this Greenville-based pastry chef about her background and career, as well as any lessons she’s learned along the way.
A Heritage of Fusion
Mikee’s mother, Edith DeGuzman Jones, is from the Philippines, where she grew up as one of 10 children. Her parents came to the United States on vacation when she was 15 and decided to stay and raise Edith and their other children here. After Edith graduated, the family moved back to the Philippines, where they still live.
Mikee is the only daughter and the youngest in a family of four children. Her brother Matt lives in Hawaii, Josh lives in Korea and Casey lives here in Greenville. Mikee’s parents, Gary and Edith Jones, are currently living in Manila where they work with a church and school.
Mikee’s family in the Philippines has a long history that continues to this day of working in education as well as in the restaurant business. Mikee remembers as a little girl wanting to cook. Her defining moment came at the age of 13 when, having made all the food on her own, she threw her mother a surprise birthday party. She knew then that she wanted to cook for a living.
Mikee’s family grew up eating a little bit of everything. Because of the Spanish and Asian influences in their language and culture, many Filipino families enjoy Asian-fusion dishes such as traditional Chinese dumplings filled with chorizo. But there’s also the American influence, largely due to Douglas MacArthur’s role in World War II: These days, many Filipino families speak English as a second language.
With so many influences, Mikee couldn’t help but love many different foods. That passion added to her culinary creativity means adapting traditional foods and making them her own. Mikee has always loved traveling, and has lived in the Continental U.S. as well as Hawaii and the Philippines. Her travels have taken her across Asia and Europe. Frequently relocating means that, much like the food she makes, Mikee herself is a fusion of where she has been.
Singing Greenville’s Praises
But now Mikee finds herself putting down roots where she’s lived off and on since high school. “I love Greenville,” she says. “It’s [both] a small town and a big town, but it’s a small town at heart. With the influx of culture, you can see a change in the people coming in—in their backgrounds.”
When I asked Mikee if she felt that, as a Greenville entrepreneur, the city was friendly to new businesses, she couldn’t be more enthusiastic. “There’s a huge potential for startups and entrepreneurs. We’re on the verge of exploding, so it’s just all about timing. Our economic situation is ideal for people who are starting a business.”
Mikee started her pastry chef career making and decorating cakes during summers. She then worked for a while at Soby’s on the Side in Downtown Greenville—you might have had one of her famously delicious cakes. While there, she managed catering and event planning. “I planned event menus, brunch menus and oversaw dessert production. I also prepped dessert daily and made wedding cakes. Our events were anywhere from small private dinners to parties with 800 guests.”
Family and opportunities drew her and her husband John to Hawaii for a while, where Mikee became a food and travel writer, reviewing eateries for a local publication. But time eventually led her back to Greenville, where she’s again considering a dessert-themed startup in Downtown Greenville.
The location is ideal for this “downtownie” who lives for brunch on the weekends. “Brunch is my all-time favorite thing. I just want to sing about it. Brunch on Sundays at High Cotton is classy, tasty, affordable. It’s the whole package. I get the salmon. You can’t go wrong.”
Career Advice and Lessons
When I asked Mikee what bit of advice she would give to those considering a career, particularly in Greenville, she was adamant. “Network. It’s huge. Especially in a small, big town. It’s doable, and it’s essential. Of the jobs I’ve gotten here, 80 percent were because I knew someone. [You must] create and cultivate relationships.”
Mikee was also kind enough to share some mistakes she’s made along the way in hopes that others can learn from her.
“I am a dreamer, which tends to make me want to experience different jobs or career fields. Sometimes that is great, but it can also hinder fast growth in one field. I started out focused, and it gave me great experience and built up my resume with seven years of full-time restaurant work. But I then made a switch to the writing [in Hawaii], then back to food, and after dabbling a bit in other things and getting side-tracked by them, I am a few steps back.”
But Mikee’s attitude couldn’t be better. “It is all part of my personal growth and has helped me realize more what I truly want to do!”
Mikee, if you open up a pastry shop here, I can guarantee I’ll be first in line!
Following this link to read more work and career advice.
Laura Lee – Account Manager