Michelle Lee | Provided Photo
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
— Muhammad Ali
By Mike Hale
Michelle Lee doesn’t tolerate apathy. It’s too pervasive and virulent to let go unchecked.
“Apathy irks the heck outta me,” said the pastry chef, who also packs a punch as an activist. “Doing something, anything, is better than doing nothing. Especially during difficult times.”
These times certainly qualify. Lee’s message? Don’t look the other way, or just stand there and scream at injustice, hatred, divisiveness. Do something, do anything. Or follow Lee’s example: Turn up the heat and bake.
Who is this spunky 44-year-old dynamo who has spent her pandemic time making “quarantreats” and pushing social change through her fierce sweetness?
Fans of the Monterey Peninsula food scene (especially those who never skip the final course) recognize her name. This local girl has done quite well.
If you’re still shrugging your shoulders, that’s understandable. Lee rarely flaunts her talent. This woke wizard with a whisk prefers to work behind the scenes.
Local food writer Raúl Nava places Lee on the “Mount Rushmore” of local pastry chefs, pointing to her sheer talent and experience built through stops at some of the best restaurants in the world.
Nava does admit to bias. He calls Lee a personal friend and is a frequent beneficiary of her “research and development.” (He refers to her as his Porch Fairy, because she often leaves sweet treats on his doorstep.)
If her name still doesn’t ring a dinner bell, turn on the Food Network to find “Halloween Baking Championship,” a series that premiered Monday, Sept. 14 (9 p.m.). While searching the country for talent, producers found Lee’s name popping up quite frequently.
She’s that good.
Lee once vowed never to do such a thing, but couldn’t resist the spooky theme. Besides, she was bored. Lee filmed the program in July and had a blast: “Running around a kitchen like a maniac trying to make Halloween desserts was challenging and fun.” (Spoiler: She survived Weeks 1 and 2, and moves on toward the $25,000 prize.)
But what made it sweeter was “getting to bond with the other bakers,” she said. “It was such a diverse and colorful group. We came from … all walks of life.”
Diverse. Colorful. Relevant.
Can a cupcake change the world?
Dismiss the notion if you must, but Lee has worked magic through her craft.
Currently out of work and always out of patience with the slow turn of social justice, Lee has spent many hours baking for causes, trying to feel better about the world around her.
Taking advantage of sheltering downtime (“stressed is desserts spelled backwards,” as Lee likes to point out), Lee joined a nationwide movement called Bakers Against Racism, a group that seeks radical change against systemic and structural racism.
For the group’s June event, Lee baked three pies, each with colored pastry art that depicted a blazing dumpster adorned with the numbers 2020.
For Lee, the entire year has been a dumpster fire of epic proportions, especially when a global pandemic triggers human heartache beyond anything imaginable, yet disproportionately affects the lives of the marginalized. And amid the fear and uncertainty brought by COVID-19, the death of George Floyd in May by the hands of Minneapolis police officers became a day of reckoning for Lee and anyone else with a heart.
So Lee stepped up and raffled off her three dumpster fire pies for $200 each, donating 100 percent of the modest proceeds to the Black Voters Matter Fund, an organization dedicated to expanding Black voter engagement. Added together, though, the world’s largest bake sale last June raised $1.9 million for various social justice causes.
There’s much more. Along with local pastry chefs Yulanda Santos and Ron Mendoza (also on Nava’s Mount Rushmore), Lee hosts an annual Bakers Pride Bake Sale. Due to COVID-19, this year’s sale took place online, yet the event still raised $1,600 in support of a transgender project in San Francisco.
In November 2016, Lee hosted an event she called Mariachi Trumps Hate at Window on the Bay, the park that runs alongside the Monterey beach next to Wharf No. 2. She raised funds to hire a seven-piece mariachi band to drown out a gathering of Trump supporters. Lee’s group peacefully ate tacos and held signs that read “Build Bridges, Not Walls” or “Grab him by the BALLOT.”
“America IS great, and diversity is our biggest strength and should be celebrated,” Lee said at the time.
The election did not go her way, but she refused to fall into dispassion.
Charitable baking an American tradition
So Lee holds bake sales, that wholly American practice that sprouted in the early 20th century as a way to aid charitable causes. They’ve been part of political movements before — most notably in the case of “Georgia Gilmore’s Club from Nowhere,” which sold peach pies and pound cakes to support the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the mid-1950s.
These days, Trump’s rise to power has ignited the ovens of countless bakers, mostly politically liberal women who have taken to activism. A simple “bake sale” search on social media reveals more and more large-scale oven activism, especially in the restaurant community.
For Lee, this way of life came naturally. From an early age, she never wanted to be “a shoulder-shrugging, passive, limp noodle of a human being,” as she so colorfully puts it.
Born in fog-shrouded Pacifica to a mixed-race couple (her mother Filipina and her father Chinese), Lee moved to Pacific Grove in the third grade. There her mom met and married Dr. Martin Lipp, who spent out-of-office hours reviewing restaurants for the Monterey Herald under the pen name Martin Mersault.
Lee spent many languid hours at the tables of fine-dining restaurants, developing an appreciation for all types of food.
Her stepfather (a man she calls “Pa”) became “the influence when it comes to my career,” she said. “We needed to try everything because we ordered everything on the menu. He really got me into food.”
Lee remembers that time in her life fondly. Her stepfather retired after eight years and 60 pounds.
“We grew as a family in a way you shouldn’t want to,” she said.
Becoming a serial volunteer
Lee graduated from Stevenson School and went on to Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, where she studied communications. Unsure of exactly where that would take her, she volunteered for AmeriCorps. Her first year she helped promote literacy in San Francisco. The second year she supported the American Red Cross in Los Angeles, responding to fires and other disasters.
“I learned a ton,” she said. “Even at Saint Mary’s I did a lot of community service work. It was a huge part of my life.”
Her last year in college, Lee spent a week at a Native American reservation in Arizona, another at a homeless shelter in Denver, followed by a month-long stay in Jamaica, where she volunteered to conduct welfare checks in Allman Town, a severely disenfranchised area in the capital city of Kingston. “It was the most intense poverty I’ve ever seen,” she said. “People living in trash.”
Lee didn’t flinch, performing every duty imaginable, from giving bed baths to cutting toenails.
Then it was off to Peru, where she volunteered in an orphanage on the outskirts of Lima in an area called Los Picapiedra, which translates to The Flintstones.
To Lee it felt like she was back in the Stone Age, in a fictional cartoon, working in a city where the government built a six-mile concrete wall to divide the rich and poor. Indigent Peruvians call the nearly 10-foot-high barrier topped with barbed wire “the Wall of Shame.”
“My volunteer experiences, especially the ones that pushed me out of my comfort zone, have undoubtedly changed my life,” she said. “The irony is you volunteer to help others, but you end up gaining the most.”
Showing her love through food
With those experiences in mind, Lee tossed aside her communications degree and pivoted to food, attending the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont.
“It was a real hands-on school, which was great because I was 26 (old for culinary school) and I wanted to learn everything and be thrown into the fire.”
The two-year program featured two internships. She served the first in New Orleans and the second at Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley.
While living in a tiny Monterey apartment above Walgreens, she frequented nearby Montrio Bistro. Eventually she applied for a job as pastry chef there and blew away then chef-partner Tony Baker.
“She was so dedicated back then, and thirsty for knowledge,” he said. “It was that thirst that made her move away. She’s had such an enviable career, working at some landmark spots like Joel Robuchon’s The Mansion at the MGM in Vegas. To say I am proud of Michelle and her talents is a huge understatement.”
Conversely, Baker taught Lee how to have fun in the kitchen. While she gained valuable experience working for other famous chefs such as Michael Mina at the Bellagio in Vegas, Rick Moonen at RM Seafood in Vegas, and Peter Scarola of R2L in Philadelphia, Lee missed having fun, and every time she saw her parents they seemed older. While in Las Vegas she met like-minded chef Daniel Furey, who is a big part of the “happily ever after” portion of this story, when they met at a club in Las Vegas. They moved to Philadelphia, married and currently live in Marina with their dog Gus.
She worked at Restaurant 1833 in Monterey during the restaurant’s glory days, and oversaw pastry at Cannery Row Brewing Co.
Before being laid off due to the pandemic, Lee spent a happy few years at InterContinental the Clement Monterey under mild-mannered executive chef Matt Bolton.
“I like to laugh in kitchens,” she said. “I never liked being yelled at all the time. With Matt it was always fun.”
Each Christmas the property allowed Lee to create huge, whimsical gingerbread displays. Last year she replicated Ed Ricketts’ Pacific Biological Laboratories, located next door to the Clement. Although she’s classically trained, Lee loves to snack on Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and has no issues throwing in the occasional scoop of Cool Whip.
Today she spends many hours baking for friends (she created an uncanny Ruth Bader Ginsberg cake recently), for fun (one of her Food Network baking friends taught her how to make 3D flames out of fondant), and for herself (her inner circle purchases her “quarantreats” as part of her “Michelle Needs Dough” initiative). Baked into everything is a reminder that everyone’s social “rent” comes due.
“It may be naive and idealistic of me, but I want to believe that every little good deed makes a difference,” she said. “Even if it’s something as small as picking up trash during a trip to the beach, or convincing just one person to register to vote, or donating a couple bucks to a good cause. Imagine if everyone felt this way and acted on it.”
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