Chef Mike Williams has found inspiration for his cooking in many places. As the executive chef of Norah Restaurant in West Hollywood, Calif., the Orange County native designed a wildly popular eclectic menu influenced by his travels around the United States, Southeast Asia, India, and South America. But the main inspiration for his successful culinary career comes from a very unexpected source: his time as a Marine in Iraq.
Before 9/11, Williams signed up for the Marine Corps Reserves at age 17 and completed boot camp a year later. During his junior year of college at Cal State Fullerton, Williams got called up from the Reserves for nearly a year of active duty in Iraq, an experience that gave him many skills he still uses in the kitchen.
Williams is extremely humble about his service in the Marines and his success as a chef in Los Angeles. In addition to Norah, he is the executive chef of the upcoming restaurant Margo’s in the Culver City hot spot The Platform.
“Aside from just being a veteran and maybe traveling a little bit, I'm just a normal chef here in LA doing my best like so many other people are,” he says.
Recalling his time in the Marines, he says that the experience instilled in him “discipline, but also work ethic, the ability to just keep your head down, no matter what the external circumstances are, and just keep pushing.”
The Norah executive chef runs his current kitchen in a diplomatic manner with the leadership skills he learned from the Marines. “One thing specifically that carried over is knowing how to lead people and not just be a manager, but lead from the front and inspire them; get them to want to listen to you,” Williams says. “You have to do a lot of micromanaging as a chef. You're constantly hiring and firing and making sure that people are doing things exactly the way you want them to do it.”
When he returned from Iraq after his tour of duty, Williams was inspired to get out of the college classroom into the kitchen. He attended one semester of culinary school at Orange Coast Community College and then got a job as a sous chef in San Francisco, where he lived for three years.
“When I came back, I just wasn't feeling the liberal arts degree that I was getting,” Williams says. “I was really passionate about cooking. I think part of it was that I'm an only child and I was kind of a latchkey kid, so I was forced to be comfortable in a kitchen to make my own food. I was really, really into it and I can't explain it.”
After San Francisco, he moved to Nantucket, Massachusetts, to work at a restaurant called American Seasons, which produced its meats, breads, and pastas in-house. It’s also where Williams met his future wife. When the restaurant closed for the winter, the couple moved to Portland, Oregon, and then Los Angeles. Williams worked at The Tasting Kitchen on Venice’s famous Abbot Kinney Boulevard before becoming chef de cuisine at its sister restaurant, The Parish in Downtown LA.
In 2014, Williams became the executive chef at the Sherman Oaks spot Tipple & Brine, which opened to much fanfare but closed in late 2015. Norah opened in early 2016 to much buzz that has continued throughout its two years of operation. The West Hollywood restaurant has expanded its offerings with a brunch menu and an early-evening light bites menu.
“We describe the cuisine at Norah as eclectic, American cuisine and the word eclectic is really important to me,” Williams says. “I like for the cuisine to be personal to me. I like it to be able to showcase some of my travels.”
Norah’s menu changes seasonally, giving Williams many opportunities to be inspired by his past – and future – experiences.