Although Mike McElroy was born and raised in Spokane, the city wasn't the best place for him as a kid.
"I was always in a lot of trouble when I was younger," he says. "I ran away from home, went down south and landed in New Orleans. That's really when my cooking career took off," McElroy says.
Once there, and only 18 years old at the time, he started working in several famous kitchens.
"I worked at a lot of the bigger restaurants in New Orleans: Commander's Palace, Red Fish Grill, Cochon, Herbsaint," he says.
He left New Orleans to work at Lulu in San Francisco, just before Hurricane Katrina, but New Orleans (and his former employers) called him back. Then an injury threw an unexpected wrench into the works.
"I broke my leg really bad at a heavy metal concert," says McElroy. "My wife's family is all from Houston, so we ended up in Texas."
After a long recuperation, McElroy began cooking again, this time in Houston.
"That's when the press really started noticing me," he says. "I got 'Best Top 10 New Restaurants' in the city by the Houston Chronicle one year for a sandwich shop I built in a bar, and then I ran a couple of my own restaurants."
A visit to Spokane to see family this past summer turned into a move. McElroy started working with a childhood friend, the current chef at Scratch, before discovering Casper Fry. With his experience, he knew he could help them bring some authentic Southern food to the table. They agreed and he became the chef in September of 2016.
Immediately, McElroy began putting his own personal touch on the menu. "My gumbo has won some awards down South, so obviously that went on. We tried doing some of the weird-to-northern-people Cajun stuff. Some of it flew and some of it didn't. I brought in my sous-chef Nate; we've known each other since we were 5. Between the two of us, we have a lot of traditional New Orleans background, so that's kind of the direction we're sending the restaurant in.
"I spent time at a butcher shop down in Houston, and it kind of changed the way I cook forever," says McElroy. "I'm a lot more particular about what kind of meat I serve, what cuts, where they come from. I do a lot of things with larger cuts of meat, as opposed to buying a box of pre-packaged steaks. I'm always asking, 'How big of a piece of meat can I put on a plate before someone looks at me funny?'"
McElroy's return to the region has brought some surprises for him.
"I got here in the height of huckleberry season. Everybody's got them. It's cool to see how many different people show off the same ingredient in different ways."
This is McElroy's first Inlander Restaurant Week, but he is no stranger to the format. In Houston, there are restaurant weeks spanning the entire month of August. McElroy is excited about the creative challenge that the week presents.
"I want to blow people's minds on a budget," he says. "That to me is always the biggest challenge. What can I do that's not simple? I think nothing we do is run-of-the-mill as far as what people in Spokane are used to, but to really take that extra step without charging an arm and a leg? That's the fun part." ♦