in the kitchen

Dan Hugelier is a Gentleman and a Chef

By Nina Misuraca Ignaczak / Photography By Jacob Lewkow | March 29, 2014
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It’s prep time at Schoolcraft College’s Culinary Arts School, and the place is alive with white-clad students hustling sauces and entrees in preparation for lunch service at the school’s heralded American Harvest Restaurant. Certified Master Chef Dan Hugelier moves through the busy kitchen, stopping every few steps to collect handshakes and hugs and greeting master chefs and students alike by name. He seems to know each person’s life story, asking after spouses, children and dogs.

After 22 years, Hugelier is retiring from Schoolcraft College, where he helped build the culinary arts school into the world-class institution it is today. For students and chefs, Hugelier’s retirement is bittersweet. But Hugelier is ready. “I like to think I helped make a contribution here,” says Hugelier. “But I’m ready for one more adventure.”

Hugelier came to Schoolcraft after an illustrious career featuring executive chef stints for Amway Properties, the Detroit Athletic Club and the London Chop House. He coached numerous U.S. Culinary Olympic Teams, winning several gold medals including the 1988 world championship. But for Hugelier, his 22 years at Schoolcraft were the most rewarding part of his long career. “You have to give back to your profession, you can’t just take,” he says. “I got tired of just serving rich people.”

Growing up on the east side of Detroit in the 1950s, Hugelier witnessed racism and inequality firsthand, instilling in him a strong sense of social justice that he carried into his teaching. “I have a fundamental problem with anyone who puts himself or herself above another person,” he says. “We don’t get to choose how we are born.”

Because Schoolcraft draws students from both the well-off suburbs and the struggling inner city, Hugelier would intentionally pair students with disparate backgrounds to create opportunities for diverse people to learn from and hopefully come to understand and respect one another. “I’m a bit of an outlaw,” he says. “I won’t tolerate unfairness.”

Hugelier’s first inklings about wanting to become a chef came as he sat in the kitchen in his childhood flat on Detroit’s east side, watching his grandmother prepare fragrant broths. “She would bring home the soup bone from the butcher, cradling it a like baby,” he recalls. He also remembers catching the bus at Kercheval and Marlborough to downtown Detroit with his grandmother on Saturdays for Salisbury steak lunches at Hudson’s. On each visit, a tall black chef in starched whites would greet his grandmother. “I looked up at him and thought ‘I want to do that,’” recalls Hugelier.

Executive Chef James Rigato of the highly successful The Root restaurant in White Lake Township is a graduate of Schoolcraft and former student of Hugelier’s. Rigato says he tries to carry Hugelier’s wisdom with him in the kitchen every day. “There are very few people I’ve met in my life who have made me readjust my compass,” says Rigato. “He is my true north. He still has the fire in his belly that I did at 19.”

While the loss of Hugelier is undeniably a blow to the program, Schoolcraft’s Certified Executive Chef Shawn Loving is intent on keeping his legacy alive. “I don’t feel in my heart that it will ever feel like he’s been replaced,” says Loving. “Replacement means you are getting the same thing, like replacing batteries. That will never be the case for us. But we are going to carry on by keeping the standard and the tradition that he built.”

Lindsay Huddleston attended Schoolcraft as a path to a career change in his 60s and counts himself lucky to have been mentored by Hugelier. “He doesn’t hesitate to give his help, and he’ll be offended if you don’t ask for it,” says Huddleston, who went on to start his own catering business in Detroit at age 68. “He is a consummate professional and expects the same of his students. If your shirt is not buttoned, he will tell you about it.”

Like Rigato, Huddleston keeps Hugelier’s teachings in mind on a daily basis. “I always ask myself ‘What would Chef Dan think?’” he says. “He makes you not want to disappoint him.”

Hugelier is an avid outdoorsman and bow hunter, fashioning his own bows from Osage orange wood and contributing a regular column to a bow-hunting periodical called the Bowyer’s Journal. He takes regular trips to hunt wild boar in the South and deer in Michigan, and has created a kosher-salt-based spice line, WildSeason, designed especially for the cooking of wild game and foraged vegetables. Hugelier hopes to expand this business in his retirement.

Hugelier remains elusive about what else is next for him. “I’m retiring from here, but I’ll go back to work,” he says. “I’m not sure yet what. I want to help people who are less fortunate.”

As for the future of Schoolcraft Culinary Arts program, Hugelier has faith it will carry on in his absence. “I don’t want to be missed,” he says. “We are going to be just fine here. We just brought in Brian Beland from Country Club of Detroit, he’s the youngest Master Chef in Southeast Michigan, he’s well learned and he’s a gentleman. So as soon as that happened, my immortality needs were calmed because I know it’s going to go on.”

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