FORT HALL — As a boy Michael Mendez often helped his mother and grandmother with the cooking.
"I remember stirring a pot or rolling out pie dough for Grandma or my Mom," said Mendez, now the Food and Beverage Manager at Fort Hall Casino. "Grandma was famous for her cooking when the family ran the Oregon Trail (restaurant at Fort Hall).
"I enjoy cooking," Mendez continued, noting that he was the head cook at the casino from 2005-2008, took a break to work as a cook for ON Semiconductor's staff operation, then returned.
"One of my goals is to become a certified executive chef," he continued. He and the head cook are well on their way toward that goal. It requires about a year of testing out various aspects of food service.
"We want to expand our culinary minds," he said. "We're definitely very open-minded for change whether the ideas come from our customers or other employees. We're just striving for that good customer service. We want to keep the restaurant filled."
When his department is fully staffed, Mendez manages 40 employees including the hostess staff on the gaming floor.
Mendez was born in Fort Hall, but moved to Fort Worth, Texas, at age 10 when his father, Thomas, took the family there while he attended graduate school. He graduated from high school in Texas, then joined the Marine Corps.
"I was on an anti-terrorism team," he said. Members of his platoon responded to the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen and served in Kosovo, among other places. After his foreign service he was transferred to California where he worked for a general who eventually became the Commandant of the Marine Corps.
Upon completion of his enlistment, he returned to Fort Hall.
"My family had all moved back and I didn't want to go back to Texas without family," he said.
"I got tired of carrying a gun," he said of his decision to get into food service. As a Marine, he was basically a security guard, but didn't want to pursue that career.
Most of his food service career has involved on-the-job training. He received some inventory management training and became ServSafe certified last summer.
He is married to RoseAnna Arthur, who is a supervisor at the Arctic Circle in Blackfoot. The couple has three children — Natasha, 8; Marcus, 7; and Vanessa, soon to be 4.
"The passion for cooking is shifting to my kids," he said with a laugh. "When I cook at home, they want to help."
Away from the Buffalo Horn Restaurant, he volunteers at Dr. Slaughter's House of Terror in Idaho Falls during the Halloween season. The money raised there goes to the DARE program.
"I enjoy watching my kids grow up," he said. "That's a big thing for me. It's nice having that base with your children.
"I want to build a house to raise my children in," he continued. "I want to push education and I want to be an influence with my kids."
The restaurant is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and from 9 a.m. to midnight on the weekends.
"This is something that I enjoy," he said. "I look forward to getting into the surrounding communities with our food. It makes me feel good that me and my staff had a part in making their experience a good one. I couldn't do it without my staff. They're a huge part of our success."
He and his staff cater various events around the area. They have been catering the Greater Blackfoot Chamber of Commerce's monthly luncheons since last summer.