Former Aposto chef Phil Shires takes on new role in the skywalk
La Mie Bakery’s new location in the Des Moines skywalk at Two Ruan Center is set to open Wednesday. Wochit
Chef Phil Shires moves quickly down the line at Elevate, La Mie Bakery’s new location in the Des Moines skywalk at Two Ruan Center. He’s under deadline to get the 90-seat restaurant ready for opening day, and there’s a ton of prep to get done. Bakers and cooks weave back and forth, carrying trays of chocolate truffles and boxes of produce in the giant kitchen.
He’s been working for days, and he’s getting the gleaming kitchen ready to pump out dishes from La Mie Elevate’s greatly expanded menu. He directs the culinary crew with efficiency and a friendly smile.
Phil’s been doing this a long time. But after years of working in the industry, the repetitive motions of chopping, slicing, whisking and stirring have taken their toll on his body.
“As you get older, your body just can’t take it,” said Shires, 37, formerly of Aposto restaurant. He has carpal tunnel syndrome in his left arm, and he wears a compression sleeve to work. The pain affects his left hand, elbow, shoulder and neck.
Shires has had cortisone shots and two surgeries to help alleviate the pain and tingling, but his doctors suggested it’s either time for a change of profession or time to lighten his workload.
“It was either that or go under the knife for neck and spinal surgery,” Shires said. He’s trying to avoid that at all costs.
Before the surgery, the pain affected Phil’s attitude. Seventeen years of 12-hour days prepping his own dishes’ ingredients from scratch in a smaller kitchen have worsened the problem that started about five years ago. And he also cranked out hand-rolled pasta for other restaurants around town, which made it worse.
An EMG, or electromyography — which assesses muscle tissue and the nerves that control them — showed a potential blockage in his elbow. When he went through the minimally invasive surgery for carpal tunnel, his orthopedic surgeon also cut open his elbow to assess the blockage. She had to slice through one of his tattoos but did such a clean job, the scar is barely visible.
“After the surgery, I was out for about 12 weeks,” Shires said. “I went through a lot of physical therapy after that. But that’s when I became the host of Aposto for a while instead.”
The pain lessened, but he knew he must take it easy from here on out. Sufferers of carpal tunnel syndrome take an average of 28 days away from work per year, according to a news release from the U.S. Dept. of Labor, and that’s usually for surgery. And cooks, institution and cafeteria workers rank at the top of the list for carpal tunnel sufferers.
Carpal tunnel is considered a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) by OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which also lists tendinitis and rotator cuff injuries, among other physical ailments, as MSDs. MSDs also account for 33 percent of all worker-related injuries.
“This profession that I am in and many I know are in can take a toll on the body,” Shires wrote a few weeks ago in an Aposto newsletter.
But Shires wasn’t going to let carpal tunnel stop his love of cooking, and he certainly wasn’t going to leave the profession. After he announced his decision to Tony Lemmo and staff of Aposto, he ran into Joe Logsdon, owner of La Mie, who is also a friend and former employer. That’s when Logsdon offered Shires a new role at La Mie’s new location.
Shires' family is happy with his decision.
“We love watching him do what he does and he’s so good at it,” said Kevin Shires, Phil’s younger brother. Kevin has followed his older brother’s career closely over the years, and he’s watched as Phil’s condition changed. “We are all relieved that he has made a change so we are hoping for the best for him. We think his new position at La Mie will be a good fit for him.”
Shires' career stretches back to his teenage years. His first job was working in the kitchen of a nursing home. After that, he got a job at Ted’s Coney Island on Ingersoll Ave., where he worked for several years. But he already had ambitions of working at the top of the hospitality industry.
“When I was 15 or 16, I wanted to own a bed and breakfast,” Shires said. “I always wanted to own a cool house and make some good food while I’m at it.”
He went on to earn a business degree from Pierce College in Philadelphia, Pa., before going to culinary school at Cook Street School of Culinary Arts in Denver, Colo. It was there that he honed his skills.
“The focus was on regional cuisines of France and Italy,” he said. “And whatever pastries and croissants we made that morning, we sold to the public at the counter along with coffee and espresso.”
It was an accelerated program with only 14 students. “We started out chopping vegetables, and your lab was to make lunch,” Shires said. “But we also had regional wine tastings and learned how to pair our dishes.”
After moving back to Des Moines in 2002, Shires' career took off. He worked at Des Moines Embassy Club, Jimmy’s American Café and La Mie. That’s when he, Lemmo and Lemmo’s sister Katie opened a restaurant in the current La Mie Express location called Host, which transitioned into a hot dog shop called Hotshots.
Chefs and restaurant owners in Des Moines share a special bond.
“We all grew up in the ranks of the Des Moines culinary scene,” Shires said. “We are all part of this Des Moines food scene that’s happening, and it’s pretty awesome.”
After Hotshots, Lemmo opened Café di Scala in Sherman Hill, and that’s where Shires blossomed, earning a James Beard Nomination in 2014.
“I wanted to let the food speak for itself,” said Shires, downplaying it. But his brother will tell you different. “He was walking on air for a while,” said Kevin Shires.
After many years in the industry working late into the night, he’s about to undergo a huge lifestyle change with his new role at La Mie.
“I’m just ready to settle in and start another chapter,” Shires said. “That kitchen (Aposto) was my home for 10 years.”
Instead of working from noon to the wee hours, he’ll be working at the crack of dawn until the afternoon. Instead of being slammed on the weekends, he’ll have Saturdays and Sundays off. And he’ll have a big staff to do the prepping so he can focus on more details like La Mie’s “Grand Macaroon” – a larger and more ornate macaroon cookie that La Mie is rolling out this spring.
La Mie opens Wednesday at 7 a.m. and people are already abuzz about their new menu items like hearty grain bowls, fluffy crepes, hot sandwiches and fresh salads. Everything’s made from scratch, and Shires' French culinary background should come in handy. He’s found his new home in La Mie. He’s ready to shake up the skywalk lunch lineup. And Des Moines food enthusiasts can’t wait to see what he does next.
La Mie Elevate
Find it: Skywalk level, Two Ruan building, 601 Locust St.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday