Saffron bucatini; peekytoe crab chawanmushi; fried Heiwa tofu: taken from the menus of Portland’s (arguably) best-known trio of restaurants, these are the syllables around which Big Tree Hospitality chef and co-owner Mike Wiley now fashions his days. “I have always loved words,” says Wiley. Born in Portland, Wiley graduated from Colby College in Waterville with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and religious studies. He would go on to complete a master’s degree before turning his attention to the culinary pursuits that would eventually earn him a James Beard Award for his efforts at Eventide Oyster Co., one of three Portland restaurants he owns with Andrew Taylor and Arlin Smith.
“Reading is big in our family,” says Wiley. Growing up, his parents would frequently discuss books with Wiley and his brother at the dinner table, and make specific recommendations. His father, a longtime anesthesiologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, suggested titles like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. “He went to med school out in California in the 70s and got really into transcendental meditation,” says Wiley. With his characteristically dry sense of humor, Wiley jokes, “He ruined lots of cocktail parties.” Wiley’s mother, a former intensive care nurse, changed careers when Wiley was in elementary school. After finishing a doctorate in English, she became a professor at Colby Sawyer College in New London, New Hampshire. “I had it from all angles,” says Wiley.
Wiley has fond memories of his early years in Hanover. “It’s a really wonderful place to grow up,” he says. “Right on the banks of the mighty Connecticut River, with its amazing rope swings.” Wiley skied a lot as a kid, and went mountain biking. He also continued reading: Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game were favorites. He was, briefly, a fan of Stephen King. Then his father recommended that he read the book It. “Honest to God, for three or four years— maybe even five years—I would run past storm grates and sewer drains. And flush the toilet and sprint out of the bathroom. It absolutely ruined me for Stephen King.”
While at Colby College, Wiley participated in a study abroad program in Nepal. In addition to learning the Nepali language, he studied the yak herding culture of the Solo Khumbu Valley. “Nepal is an incredibly beautiful country; everybody I met was just very warm,” he says. “And I got a great sweater out of it, that [my business partner] Andrew Taylor is fond of making fun of—it’s made out of yak fur and it cost two dollars and fifty cents.”
After graduation, Wiley moved to Colorado at the suggestion of a girlfriend, who found them employment at Elk Creek Ranch in Meeker. “I was hired as a bartender, and then quickly they said, ‘You’re not any good at this at all. We thought that anybody could do this, but it turns out you’re the exception to the rule.’” Fortunately, a place opened up in the kitchen. “It was great because in my first cooking job I got to work with truffles, and really incredible beef and local vegetables,” says Wiley.
After five years of being a “skiing and climbing bum,” which he financed through working as a chef, Wiley decided to return to the academic life. He opted for a master’s degree in rhetoric at the University of Colorado at Boulder. While eating with his parents one night at a local restaurant, Wiley had a revelation that would change the course of his future. “I was looking at the cooks and I thought, ‘I miss doing that. Those guys are really lucky. I miss being in a kitchen.’”
Rather than apply for a PhD, Wiley returned to the East Coast in 2010. “I’ve always been kind of a Yankee at heart,” says Wiley. “All my ski buddies were guys from Vermont, guys from New Hampshire.” Fortuitously, James Beard-award-winning chef Rob Evans had recently placed an ad on Craigslist. “I wrote a really pompous cover letter, talking about how I longed to return to my natal state and wear flannel proudly,” says Wiley.
Despite the letter, Evans hired him at Hugo’s, where he began working with his future partners, Arlin Smith and Andrew Taylor. In March 2012, the trio purchased Hugo’s, opening sister restaurant Eventide Oyster Co. later that same year. They founded The Honey Paw in 2015. After two previous nominations, Taylor and Wiley won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northeast in May.
Wiley now lives in Portland with his fiancée, Abby Farnham, a food access project coordinator with the Maine Farmland Trust. They will be married next June. His adventures in academia seem to have fostered not only a fondness for literature, but also a willingness to explore unknown terrain—a necessity as he continues to grow his career. But Wiley is happy to have found a familiar base camp. “I was born in Portland. I went to college in Maine. My parents used to bring us up here when we were kids. I always loved Maine, and I knew I wanted to come back.”