About Mike Chestnut
Big Mike’s Soul Food had not yet opened, but Mike Chestnut’s forehead was already sweaty. The perspiration resulted from him mopping. Bystanders probably felt sorry for the mop because Chestnut gave it an incredible thorough workout.
If James Brown was the self-proclaimed "hardest working man in show business," Chestnut might be the guy in Myrtle Beach worthy of a similar title. He started as a dishwasher when he was just 12 at The Yardarn Restaurant. By 14, Chestnut was a commercial cook. The now defuncted eatery is where he gained his initial grit as a cook who is now a soul food force in Myrtle Beach.
His eatery is a nook produced by on-the-job beginnings and family traditions solidified by dedication and determination.
“I learned how to cook at Yardarn and from just being around my mom,’’ said Chestnut, 59, as he sat at a table in the corner of his restaurant. Microbeads of sweat were still on his forehead from his dance with the mop. “My mom would cook meals on Sunday, and it didn’t matter who came to the house to eat.”
Rosalee Chestnut knew how to take her history and her heart into the kitchen to create food that sustained the body and touched the spirit. She cooked massive Sunday dinners for her family, friends, and passers-by to enjoy and incorporated techniques she copied from elders. One of her best breakfast dishes was fried mullet served as the protein that joined a plate of grits topped with stewed tomatoes. She also made a stunning array of desserts, including pound cakes, sweet potato pies, and raisin cakes, which were her son’s favorite.
“Let me tell you, my mom’s raisins cakes were spectacular,’’ Chestnut said. “If you got that cake fresh and hot out of the oven, it would make you slap your dog.”
Although he didn’t clobber any canines, his mom’s gift as a cook and baker greatly influenced where he landed. Big Mike’s Soul food is beloved for its slap-good offerings. It is a mainstay for folks seeking authentic eats. Here, customers dig into dishes mirroring memories of meals their mamas and grandmas made for them.
“The food is delicious and seasoned well,’’ said Wanik Walker, between bites of fish and grits. “It reminds me of the soul food I grew up with, and the hospitality is off the chain.”
She and her husband, Christopher, were visiting from Harrisburg, Pa. They – along with tourists from New York, England, Chicago, and other cities – do their soul food research before arriving. Then, they promptly check out Big Mike’s Soul Food.
As a young boy growing up in the Booker T. Washington community of Myrtle Beach, Chestnut was fascinated by the ties laced tight by small families operating restaurants in his neighborhood. He witnessed soul food and Chinese eateries succeed in environments where kin formed a formidable bond to build successful businesses.
He believed he and his kin could accomplish the same. In March 2012, he and his wife of 38 years, Maxine, opened the eatery. Their oldest son, Michael Jaccobi, now works with them too. Customers call him “Lil’ Mike” or “Medium Mike” to differentiate him from his dad. Together, the trio navigates the down-home, frill free space in harmony. Together, they focus on giving customers an authentic experience of addictive soul food flavors.
“Soul food is the food you put your heart into,’’ Mike Chestnut said. “You have to love on it. It makes a difference when you make food with love and care. You put your best in it.”
Chestnut tries his utmost to instill the thoughtfulness into every plate. He is well aware that he is but one of an estimated 2,000 restaurants in a region with more eateries per capita than much larger cities nationwide and worldwide.
“We are a small business where people can come in and feel at home,’’ he said. “I stress to my employees that customers don’t have to come through that door. So, you need to treat them with love and care like they are sitting at home eating lunch or dinner with you.”
Lee Thomas, an employee who works the takeout window and the cash register, said she likes her job and the environment they all foster as a team.
“As a staff, we love our customers,” said Thomas, an employee for nearly three years who said Chestnut is an incredible boss. “We go out of the way to make them feel the best, feel at home like soul food makes you feel like home. That’s how we do.”
Chestnut’s philosophy for stellar service thrives on four “give” statements.
“I tell my staff we have to make sure we give customers a good plate of food,’’ he said. “We also have to give them good service, give them smiles, and give them thanks. If we do these things, they will come again.”
Chestnut’s heart for service does not start and end at Big Mike’s Soul Food. Since January 2000, he has served on the Myrtle Beach City Council. He’s thankful that he’s been able to make marked improvements to infrastructure, and crime rates in Myrtle Beach areas, including the Racepath and the Booker T. Washington communities. Some of his achievements include helping bring Swansgate Apartments and Futrell Park into existence.
Yet even before he served his communities and city, he was serving Jesus. Shortly after graduating high school, he became a deacon at Sandy Grove Missionary Baptist Church.
“The biggest jobs of the deacons are to look out for the widows and orphans,’’ he said. “I love checking on them, having a word of prayer with them, and singing little songs to them.’’
Connection is essential to him, and Chestnut appreciates the kinship he finds in fellowship with church members and Myrtle Beach residents. Of course, the bond he forms with people via plates he seasons well with love is also near and dear to his heart.
“I try to stay humble and keep pressing,’’ Chestnut said. “I never want to be complacent and take what I have for granted.”
By Johanna Wilson Jones, Local Food Writer and Judge on Chef Swap at The Beach
“Soul food is the food you put your heart into. You have to love on it.’’