Vidalia onion pie … it sounds interesting to say the least, but if you’ve tried it, you know the decadent desert is much tastier than its title lets on. It’s so revered that its creator, John Michael Lerma, ’89, was featured on the Food Network special "All American Pie" in 2006 for the unique recipe. “I guess the Vidalia onion pie is my claim to fame,” Lerma remarked.
The North Dakota-born chef, who’s appeared on the Food Network on several occasions, is coined in his industry as “The Pie Guy.” Name the food – he’s likely made it, or plans to make it, into a pie with bizarre flavors such as corn dog, Coca Cola, and watermelon pie on his list.
As Alumni Review magazine designer Kirsten Gunnarson and I were on our way to visit with him for this interview, we were delighted pie was on the menu. After hearing so much about it, it seemed necessary to try it for ourselves. We met Lerma at the Bookcase, a quaint little book store in Wayzata, Minn., where he was doing a signing on his latest book, Garden County Pie, Sweet & Savory Delights from the Table of John Michael Lerma. Today’s pie choices were a bit more traditional than some of his recipes, with raspberry and French silk pies on hand. We decided to have a small slice of each, which were both delicious. We can definitely understand how this guy makes money baking pies!
Though Lerma has always felt compelled and comfortable in the kitchen, his career path led him in a much different direction before he realized it was time to turn his innate passion into a profession.
Growing up on a North Dakota farm, he credits his grandmother, Thelma Anderson, for teaching him nearly everything he knows about cooking. The two spent hours making jellies, jams and relishes, preparing large meals, and growing fruits and vegetables in the garden. “Many of the recipes I use to this day were my grandmother’s, including the Vidalia onion pie. If people ask me where I was taught, I tell them, ‘In my grandma’s kitchen,’” Lerma proudly admits.
After graduating from UND with an English degree, Lerma worked at EcoLab in Grand Forks before taking a management position with a Fortune 500 company in the Twin Cities. As a form of relaxation, he turned to cooking and gardening – planting raspberries and blueberries in his suburban backyard. This is where the name of his business, Garden County Cooking, was born. “I planted the garden in my backyard and named each section like little townships in North Dakota. We had sweet corn, fruit, you name it. It reminds me of life on the farm,” he said.
As a hobby, Lerma began to enter his recipes in Minnesota State Fair contests. He soon realized he had talent when he began winning local and national awards and honors for his recipes including the highly acclaimed Gedney Award for one of his grandma’s favorites, sweet pickle relish.
Just when things were beginning to take off, Lerma was stopped in his tracks. In 2003, at age 42, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Unable to go into the office due to treatment and doctors visits, he began working on his first book, Garden County, Where Everyone is Welcome to Sit at the Table. “The first book was everything, appetizers, salads, desserts. The book got published and I decided to keep going,” he said.
By the time the book was published, Lerma was relieved to learn his throat cancer was gone. With a new outlook on life, the natural born chef quit his day job and continued making a name for himself in the food industry. And, what a name he made, winning awards at the 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 National Pie Championships in Celebration, Fla. Over the past few years, he’s also been a frequent guest on several Twin Cities television food segments, radio shows, and, of course, the Food Network. “My proudest moment was when I won a bronze medal on The Food Network Challenge – The Great Pie Cook-Off. It was like winning an Oscar. I am the only person in Minnesota to have ever won a Food Network medal thus far,” Lerma said.
Along with regular media appearances, he keeps himself busy as a corporate chef for the upscale Twin Cities cooking school Kitchen Window. He’s been featured at The Chef’s Gallery in Stillwater, Minn., and travels to Italy and the Caribbean each year where he is director of Tuscan Gathering and Caribe Gathering Food and Beverage Adventures (chef’s tour cooking schools). “I love teaching. Writing, that’s the hardest job in the world,” Lerma said, referring to the two books he has authored and the monthly columns he writes, “Word of Mouth” and “Off the Eaten Path” for Lavender magazine. Though it may be tough work, Lerma believes the English skills instilled in him at UND have helped bring him success. The first of two cookbooks he wrote was nominated for Cookbook of the Year by the Independent Book Publishers Association in Washington, D.C. This recognition brought the Food Network to his St. Paul home, where Lerma and the crew filmed for 14 hours straight. “They just made our home into their studio. When they left, it didn’t look like the same place anymore, but it was worth it,” he said.
The spot has since appeared on the channel many times, earning Lerma quite a favorable reputation in his area. “They’ve been running the Food Network special all week and the other day a girl in the grocery store recognized me and said, ‘You’re that chef from TV. ’ I told her she can just call me John Michael,” he said.
Though he enjoys the television specials and book signings, Lerma is humble and proud of his North Dakota heritage, along with his UND education. “The UND English department did so much for me. Professors like Kathleen Hully, Sherry O’Donnell and Ursula Hovet gave me confidence and taught me to have the freedom to think outside the box. I learned to be a good person and never be cocky. All of these lessons were learned in the English department,” he proudly stated.
Lerma credits his grandmother for many of the other valuable lessons he’s learned in life. Though she passed away a few years ago, he said he thinks of her often and turns to her recipes daily. “It’s almost as if grandmother is still living up in Grand Forks. I just haven’t called her for awhile,” he smiled.
While he’s accomplished many of his goals, Lerma still has lofty ambitions for himself. He hopes to win Best of Show from the American Pie Council, cook up some unique new pies to tantalize taste buds, and, he said, if the Food Network would offer him his own show based out of the Twin Cities it would be a dream come true.
Stay tuned. If he keeps climbing the ladder of success as quickly as he has over the past few years, it is likely the name John Michael Lerma will be as popular as his favorite Food Network celebs Nigella Lawson and Tyler Florence in no time.