This gay Houston chef is in it for the love

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As an eLearning developer for a national title company, Michele Free creates online training for Realtors to familiarize them with closing applications. That's all fine and good. But in 2013, she wanted more from life. 

So Free, a lesbian and single mother, pursued a passion that taps into her creative side. She found it by enrolling in culinary classes at the Art Institute of Houston. 

“I have always loved cooking and wanted to go to culinary school for a long time, but it’s very expensive and it didn’t make sense to take on that much debt without an end goal in mind,” Free says. “I started thinking about my current career and how I don’t really want to work for ‘the man’ the rest of my life.”

An obvious solution, she decided, would be to morph both her tech and gastronomic skills into a single, productive profession. 

“I thought it would be really cool if I could combine what I do now with what I am passionate about,” she says. “There really aren’t a lot of online culinary programs out there and people are in love with Food Network. What if I could create an online program for all those Food Network junkies?”

When she’s not behind her computer keyboard or a grill, Free is also a guest chef and instructor at Sur la Table in River Oaks. And then, of course, there is softball, another of Free’s life-long passions.  

How did your passion for cooking begin?

My dad is a world-class pit master so I came by this passion for food at a young age. As an only child I got roped into doing all kinds of things to help him, so it was only fitting that he’d make me his gopher when he’d grill or smoke. This is probably why I feel most comfortable in front of a grill. After graduation, I plan on doing some catering with my Dad, mostly grilling and smoking, but we can do just about anything. 

What’s been your greatest triumph at the Art Institute?

Being selected in March 2014 to represent Art Institute Houston in the Food Network New York City Experience. I was one of 39 Art Institute students from all of the AI campuses to go on an all expenses paid culinary experience in New York. We toured Food Network, saw where they film “Chopped” and “Iron Chef,” participated in a “Chopped” style contest against the other AI students – my ceviche won – and met Scripps Network executives and Bobby Flay’s sous chef on “Throw Down with Bobby Flay.”

Does your son eat your homework? 

He doesn’t eat my homework but, as much as he’s grown, that’s about all he doesn’t eat! He is 6’3” now, a sophomore in high school, and built like an offensive lineman.

Which Food Network show or celebrity chef particularly inspires you? 

My favorite Food Network celebrities are Alton Brown, Ina Garten and Ann Burrell. I love Alton because he explains the science behind the technique. The other two, because I see a lot of myself in each of them. I love Ina because she is so calm and came into the culinary world after having a successful career somewhere else first. She’s fascinating! I respect Ann Burrell because she is an out chef and a very gifted teacher. She’s patient enough to teach some of the worst cooks in America how to cook like a restaurant chef.

What’s your favorite dish or dishes to cook? Can you share the recipe?

My favorite recipe is affectionately known as the Panty Dropper – lamb chops with a goat cheese white wine reduction sauce. If I make it for you, chances are I have an ulterior motive.

What do you recommend for someone who is not familiar with cooking but wants to impress a Valentine's Day date with a romantic (but easy) home-cooked meal?

You can never go wrong with a little surf and turf action. Whether you grill outside or have a cast iron grill pan, you can easily cook an awesome steak. Always start with the highest quality meat you can afford. If you can afford Prime, by all means get it. But there’s nothing wrong with a Choice grade, either. If you purchase a high quality steak, you won’t need to overdo it with exotic seasonings or marinades. Simply seasoning with kosher salt and pepper will allow the quality of the meat to shine. And baste it with unsalted butter. Did I mention that butter makes everything better? 

As for the surf, while you’ve got the grill going why not add some shrimp or a lobster tail? Season well and use that unsalted butter to baste and you’ve got a simple and elegant meal sure to impress anyone!

What's your specialty when you teach at Sur la Table?

We cover all kinds of regional cooking including Spanish, Tuscan, French and Thai. I was hired with the idea that I would teach some knife skills and cover some of the Asian cuisines. My favorite to teach is garde manger, the cold side of the kitchen: salads, vinaigrettes, curing meats and such.

What can students expect to learn in your classes?

Students can expect to learn how to make a three- or four-course meal including a soup, salad or appetizer, a main entrée with a side and a dessert. They will learn some basic knife skills and culinary terms. The best part is most of the ingredients are pre-measured for them, they can bring their favorite wine or beer, and they don’t have to do any dishes! We offer individual classes and date night classes on Friday and Saturday evenings. Learning is collaborative, so why not bring a friend or a date?

What is your message to people who may feel stifled in their current profession and are considering taking a new path?

Whatever you do in life, do it with passion and enthusiasm!

Let’s switch gears to your other passion: softball. What is your proudest softball moment?

I have been to the ASANA (Amateur Sports Alliance of North America) World Series five times as both a player and coach. Probably my proudest moment was getting the winning hit to send my team into the championship game at the 2009 ASANA World Series in Madison, Wis. That was the year we won the World Series.

My current team’s name is NVS (pronounced “envy us”). We are part of the Houston Women’s Softball League (HWSL) and also play local and out of town tournaments. HWSL plays Sundays during the Spring and Fall at Memorial Park. It’s a terrific league that has been around since 1982. It is for women only and is mostly, but not exclusively, lesbian. We don’t make you sign a form or give a special hand shake proving you’re “one of us.”

What position do you play?

When I play these days it’s usually at first base or catcher. I’m not as young or thin as I used to be, so my outfield days are behind me! In the past couple of years I have transition into coaching more than playing.

What’s kept you in the game for so long? 

I think it’s the team that keeps me going. Every time I think about hanging it up I get a call from a player or friend who tugs at my heartstrings, or challenges me to keep the team together. It’s hard to imagine Spring without a little softball in the mix.

What other community organizations are you involved with?

I have served on several boards: I am currently the treasurer for the Houston Women’s Softball League but have also served on the Kindred Spirits Foundation and Lesbian Health Initiative boards. I believe in it’s very important to contribute to the LGBT community any way that I can. 

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