When Cory Hoekstra was a young boy who spent nearly every weekend tagging along with his mother to the numerous unique restaurants on the Walt Disney World property where she worked in Florida, he never would’ve imagined that he would later become an executive chef at one of the renowned Michael Jordan’s Steak Houses.
However, that’s exactly where the 30-year-old Hoekstra now finds himself.
Although he has no formal culinary training, Hoekstra worked his way up through numerous restaurant jobs, and first became an executive chef at Wolfgang Puck’s Grand Café at Downtown Disney at the age of 24. And when it was announced that a Michael Jordan’s Steak House would open inside the Ilani Casino Resort in Ridgefield near La Center in early 2017, Hoekstra was hired to open the restaurant as its executive chef.
Ironically, Hoekstra did not always enjoy cooking.
“I didn’t really care to understand it (cooking) or learn,” Hoekstra said. “But one day I found myself looking for a job and I got into my first kitchen, and I just kind of embraced the pressure, the heat, the care that goes into every plate … I really embraced that. Once I started learning all of that, that’s when I really started delving into cooking.”
“I started out flipping burgers at a chain restaurant and I really just enthralled myself in it,” Hoekstra continued. “I worked my way up at a chain restaurant, then moved on to a smaller independent chain, worked my way up there, moved into executive chef there. Then I took kind of a ‘downgrade’ in title when I first went to Wolfgang Puck as a sous chef so I could actually learn. Then I just worked my butt off. I put in the hours, I put in the time, read as much as I could … websites, magazines, books, etc. It becomes not so much a job but a lifestyle.”
On March 24, 2017, the Michael Jordan’s Steak House in the Ilani Casino Resort first opened. Hoekstra said it was definitely a challenge when the restaurant first opened. He said that once construction was done and they were cleared to come into the casino, the Michael Jordan’s staff had about seven days to get ready to open.
“We unpacked all of our small wares, containers, equipment, received all of our food products, cleaned and started prep,” he said. “We did mock service and did staff-on-staff training. We also did an appetizer party and a VIP party for the Tribal Council.”
Hoekstra said he takes pride in the fact that they have retained most of the same kitchen staff that they had when the restaurant first opened.
“There’s a lot of pride in opening a restaurant of this magnitude, it’s the only Michael Jordan’s Steak House on the West Coast right now,” Hoekstra said.
Although Hoekstra said his favorite type of food to prepare changes quite often, right now he would have to say that he’s enjoying cooking classic foods, or “re-imagined, modern takes on classics.”
“I love simplicity, but with intense flavors,” he said.
One of Hoekstra’s favorite dishes to prepare, and a dish that he said he feels he prepares quite well, is a really good macaroni and cheese.
“I know it sounds silly, but if you do it right with the shallots and the herbs and the heavy cream, the right cheeses, the right noodles … there’s quite a process involved in making a really good, hearty mac and cheese,” he said.
As far as business goes at the Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse at the casino, Hoekstra said it has been good. Weekdays are a little quiet, he said, but once it started raining and the weather wasn’t quite as nice, the restaurant started to see quite a bit more foot traffic. He said weekends are great for the restaurant, and the casino does a lot of promotions that drive even more foot traffic there.
“It’s great, we’ve been getting a lot of notoriety,” Hoekstra said.
Of the Michael Jordan’s Steak House menu items, Hoekstra said the most popular ones are usually ones that are “core” items at every Michael Jordan’s Steak House in the country. He said their number one items tend to be their 10-ounce filet mignon, the MJ’s Delmonico (a 45-day dry-aged ribeye) and, the restaurant’s number one top selling item – their garlic bread topped with Rogue Creamery blue cheese fondue.
Hoekstra said they also make sure to embrace as much locality as they can when deciding on products for the restaurant’s menu.
“We started using lamb chops from Anderson Valley Farms, we’ve had bread pudding with Hood River cherries, we’ve been using a lot of things out of Hood River,” Hoekstra said. “We’ve gotten our ribeye from Painted Hills (in Oregon), we get out bacon out of Pendleton, Ore. We’ve been embracing as much locality as we can.”
The Michael Jordan’s Steak House is located inside the Ilani Casino Resort, located at 1 Cowlitz Way, Ridgefield, right off of the La Center exit on Interstate 5 North.