Lillie Howard was contemplating retirement when her son Pierre told her that he had found the perfect place for the restaurant of her dreams. So began Misha’s, a tiny eatery with a black-and-white checkerboard floor and a groaning steam table laden with collard greens, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes and pinto beans. Lillie Howard is cooking behind the pass-through, but she’s keeping an eye on things, often coming around from the kitchen to check on her customers’ appetite and satisfaction.
Located in Indian Village, the restaurant is named in memory of her second youngest son, Misha De’Andre Howard, who died in a car accident. “We’re building a name,” says Howard. “It’s the name of someone whom we love very much, so we have to keep it alive.”
Howard was raised in the business; her parents owned a restaurant on Warren. She was the middle child, sandwiched between two older sisters and two younger brothers.
“My mother wouldn’t let me in the kitchen,” Howard recalls. “Her thing was that the two oldest girls is going to get married and they’ve got to learn how to cook. There was time for me.
“But the aroma from that kitchen! You know how you just gotta taste it. My sisters were in there sampling everything, and I could never get in. I just sat there thinking, ‘When I grow up I’m going to have my own kitchen and ain’t nobody going to tell me to get out of it.’”
Howard went to cooking school in Chicago. “It was a huge building with a lot of ovens and a lot of peoples in there that’s showing you all kinds of different things,” she remembers. “I started out on salads. There was 72 different salads that I had to learn to make. So many other peoples was working on the same dish — somebody cutting the onions; everybody had a little spot to do, then we all combined it together. Then they went to carving ice and fondues, and all that other stuff, to bring me into the one thing that I wanted to do and that was just plain cook.”
After graduating, she couldn’t find a job in the profession. “They wouldn’t hire me as a cook in Chicago. Oh, how can I tell you this? Chicago, at that time, and mostly all places in the North, were very prejudiced. But because of my complexion, and I had long black hair, they hired me as a waitress, I think one of their waitresses was ill, and so with all of my know-how and my coming from cooking school, they thought I could train. And I fell right in because I had been around restaurants because of my mother. When the waitress got well, I got the boot. My boss told me, ‘I can write you a recommendation that you’re a very clean, unique young lady, but this is the wrong time for you.’ That’s what I was told. So I said, ‘Thank you,’ and put it on the chart as experience.
“I’ve done a lot of things that wasn’t connected with the restaurant. I did modeling. I was 17 or 18, 19. I won a beauty contest when I was a girl which tied me up with a movie. Yeah, I played in a movie when I was a girl. We all went to California together. The thing that started me was this contest I entered, and I won it from Patricia Stevenson [a modeling agency] that taught you how to walk, and ‘strut’ as they said, and hold your chin up with books on your head. I had quite a background coming up.”
Back in Detroit, Howard worked as a waitress at the now-defunct Steering Wheel. She recalls, “It was right down on Grand Boulevard, near the Fisher Theatre. They used to race cars, and each car that came off the track that won, they would put it in the middle of this restaurant. And you know what kind of people came in there. Wealthy! That’s where I really started making a lot of money, right there. I remember Jim Brown coming in. I had my picture taken with Cassius Clay — I still got it. With his tip in my hand! I had a huge Afro — that was back in those days. I look at those pictures now and don’t I laugh.”
Howard worked as a chef at O’Shay’s, a Novi restaurant, for 20 years. “That job was the love of my life,” she says. “I did the cooking, the ordering, the hiring and firing. The O’Shays were like family to me. Their kids call me Mom.”
Howard raised seven children, and three of her sons have worked with her at Misha’s: Don King, Pierre Dorsey and Jeremy Howard. She is always happy if one of her 14 grandchildren stops by; her macaroni and cheese is a favorite with the grandkids. She says: “I was married three times, and I’ll say right now the reason that I couldn’t make my marriages work was because I didn’t want them to teach my children anything. I wanted to be the sole teacher of my children. It takes two to raise children, I know that now, but I was Mom and Dad, and I liked it that way. I always wanted a big family. I felt I was less loved because my mother kept kicking me out of the kitchen. So my whole thing in my life was when I grow up I’m going to have a big family — I’m going to build my family around me.”
When asked where she likes to go when she eats out, Howard can only laugh. “When do I have time?” she asks. Her days begin at Eastern Market at 7 a.m., and she is often at the restaurant until 10 or 11 at night. On Mondays, her day off, she might be doing some catering, or washing dishtowels and aprons at the Laundromat. She moved into a new apartment before Christmas: “I haven’t even used the kitchen!”
Howard bristles at the suggestion that Misha’s is a soul food restaurant. She prefers to call it “home cooking.” The food, in addition to being delicious, is distinguished by her healthful slant. She puts no meat or salt in the greens or beans. You can get a slab of ribs — and catfish, perch, cod and whitefish are fried, but they’re also available grilled.
When she wanted to deepen her knowledge, Howard wrote to famed Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme and volunteered to work in his New Orleans restaurant for two weeks. “I told him I was a lady who would like to cook with him, no charge. I just wanted to see how he cooked and learn from him. I got the idea of mixing spices from him. I have 12 different spices in my greens.”
As if on cue, a young woman comes in at that moment and orders greens to take out. She tells Howard, “I wish I knew how to make greens like yours. Mine never taste this good.”
Howard laughs, “What did I tell you!”
Misha’s is at 8027 Agnes (in Indian Village), Detroit. Call 313-821-5133.
Read other chefs' stories in Chow (this week's special restaurant collection):
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• Food for a small planet’s working week at the Small World Café.
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