The Detroit culinary scene isn't pretty, but like Detroit, its beauty comes from the people working on the front line. And when it comes to food in the Motor City, there's no shortage of up-and-coming young chefs working their tails off.
The militant cheftestant
When I first called the Root in White Lake, I was told executive chef James Rigato was unavailable. He was, as I was told, "prepping for dinner." Later, I found out he was dealing with a truckload of goose livers. It takes a special kind of person to spend an afternoon elbow deep in goose liver, and Rigato is that kind of guy.
Rigato speaks like he cooks — candidly and unafraid. He's got nothing to hide, and he wants to make sure you know that.
If Detroit's culinary scene has a leader, it is probably Rigato. Not because he willingly picked up some kind of leadership mantle, but because he's good (the Root was the Free Press' 2012 Restaurant of the Year, and Hour Detroit named Rigato its Best Chef in 2013 and 2014). Oh, and also because he's a TV star: Rigato is currently appearing on this season's edition of Bravo's Top Chef.
Although he's being beamed into homes around the country as a Top Chef cheftestant, Rigato's mind has always been on Michigan.
"Being on Top Chef is great," he says. "It's getting me and the restaurant some national attention, which is nice. But my goal ... has always been to go on and rep Michigan on a national stage."
Rigato looks at cooking in Detroit a little differently than you might expect. He doesn't look at other local chefs as competition. He looks at them as family.
"We're all on the same team," he says. "We all have the same joys and the same problems. I'm not competing with the other real chefs around here, the ones who are dedicated to the craft. Here in Detroit, we're like a culinary militia. You would think we're competing, but we aren't. We're competing with the fluff — the bullshit restaurants. The corporate steakhouses that don't care about harvesting culinary talent — that's who we're competing against."
To say Rigato's beginnings are humble might be an overstatement. He grew up in a trailer park in Howell before moving out on his own at 17. He enrolled at Schoolcraft College and graduated with a degree in culinary arts at 20. He bounced around some local places until he opened the Root at 26.
Now, four years later, with a successful restaurant to run, he's still focused on Michigan.
"I try to put as much of this state into my cooking as I can," he says. "This is a place with four seasons, and we try to make sure our menu represents that. This is a great place to cook when it comes to using indigenous ingredients and putting together diverse dishes."The local innovator
Nikita Sanches got tired of people coming into his restaurant Rock City Eatery in Hamtramck, and not finding the burgers and fries they craved.
So he did what any logical chef would do. He reopened a popular burger spot just down the street.
"We like to do a lot different stuff at Rock City," Sanches says. "We're always playing around with stuff. And not everyone appreciates that kind of cooking. We were getting a lot of requests for basic American food. Essentially, people wanted coney island-type things. They want hamburgers, but we've got lamb burgers on the menu. So we got a little crazy."
To Sanches, "crazy" is reopening Campau Tower, a staple burger joint in Hamtramck that shut down earlier this year.
"So now we've got two places," he says. "And when people want something a little more traditional, we can just send them down the street."
The chef is an innovator, constantly looking to mix new and unique flavors. Some of Rock City Eatery's menu items include poutine with duck confit gravy and Hoison pork belly, made with peanut purée and pickled cucumbers.
Sanches has found a home in Hamtramck. A lifelong local to the area, the chef appreciates the diversity and wants to bring more people back.
"It's different in Hamtramck," he says. "It's a lot more raw. No one really cares about it except the people who live here. Suburban people come here once a year for a paczki, but we're trying to give them a reason to come back."
Hamtramck, which over the years has become less Polish and more Middle Eastern and South Asian, less working-class and more priced-out-of-Midtown hipster, is a city in constant flux. Sanches says the diversity allows for some unique ingredients.
"Ingredients are pretty easy to come by," he says. "The Polish markets are still here, the Middle Eastern markets are here, that makes it easy to get local stuff. And I think that's important. If you're going to be making food in this neighborhood, you should be getting as many of your ingredients as you can from your neighbors. Sourcing stuff locally is important."The Michigan man
While every chef we spoke with seemed to be a champion for Michigan and for Detroit, no one seems to put that into his menu the way Garrett Lipar does. As the executive chef of Torino in Ferndale, Lipar has overseen a huge change.
When it opened in 2011 near the corner of Woodward Avenue and Nine Mile Road, Torino was a turn-your-head-and-keep walking coffee and espresso bar; now it's the Free Press's 2014 Restaurant of the Year. And much of that is because of Lipar.
The chef has put forth a menu that embodies the local. One of the most unique items on Torino's (or any other restaurant's) menu is a plate of birch bark waffles, a dish created with flour made by scraping local birch trees.
Despite rave reviews, Lipar says he's still figuring out what it means to cook Michigan food.
"I honestly don't know what Michigan food is," he says. "Nobody does. Any chef that says he does is out of his fucking mind. This isn't an area with a rich culinary heritage. You look around, you go to restaurants and most people just want burgers, and that's fine, but as chefs, it shows we have a long way to go."
But Lipar seems to be making strides, and it hasn't been easy.
"We're constantly trying to elevate our game," he says. "We want to succeed and be the best that we can. I want to help usher in a new era for food in Detroit."The scene-builder
Kate Williams walked away from Rodin in November of last year. Less than three months later, the French-inspired Midtown restaurant closed its doors.
That's the kind of impact Williams had.
She's one of the brightest culinary stars in the area, and next month, she'll be back to work in not just one, but two restaurants.
Williams will be opening Republic, and Parks and Rec, in one of Detroit's most historic structures, the Grand Army of the Republic Building.
"It's been really awesome," Williams says of her new venture. "It's a new development, but it's in a historic building, so we're constantly finding cool stuff."
Williams says that during the renovation at the GAR, a supporting beam in the basement was found to be made by the Carnegie Steel Company, which was sold to U.S. Steel in 1901.
"How cool is that to have that kind of history in your building?"
After almost a year off, Williams is ready to be back in the kitchen, especially a Detroit kitchen.
"Detroit is unlike any other place I've worked," she says. "There's a lot going on here, and not just in the culinary circles. There's a lot of young talent coming up, and it's creating an atmosphere that just feeds itself. There are a lot of super cool things going on with music, film, and art. The food scene is just following suit.
"Detroit is coming back, and people are excited about it."
That doesn't make opening a pair of restaurants in Detroit proper an easy proposition, but Williams says she draws support from the other chefs in Motown.
"There's a different climate in the city right now," she says. "But I've never been in a city where there's this kind of support from the other chefs in the area. It's very much team-oriented around here."
Williams echoes Rigato, saying she doesn't feel like the chefs are competing; rather, they're all just trying to etch out their spot in the Detroit scene.
Williams expects both of her new restaurants will be open by December.The refresher
When it comes to tailoring a hip menu, Derik Watson is one of the best in the business.
Watson is the executive chef of Bistro 82 in Royal Oak, a local mecca for young, hip (but not so hip as to have high-paying jobs) professionals.
According to Watson, the secret to a menu with swagger is making twists on traditional items and changing things often.
"We're seasonal-focused, so we tend to change things up a lot," Watson says. "So it keeps things fresh, and no one gets bored. We do food that anyone can appreciate, but still a little outside the box. You aren't going to find a burger or a Caesar salad here."
Watson also says he follows what's trendy, but refuses to just put something on his menu because it's popular.
"You look at what's showing up on a lot of menus, and you see stuff like sliders and poutine — those things are hot right now," he says. "But we don't want to just take a number and follow everyone else."
That's not to say that an iteration of those items don't ever show up on Watson's menu.
"It's all about taking something and putting your own spin on it," he says. "That's the key to an appealing menu."
Watson's spin on sliders? Waygu steak. Poutine? Polenta fries with beef shank gravy.
"People get tired of the same kinds of foods," he says. "But they also know what they like. So if you can give them a spin or a riff on something they know, it's still an original dish. You won't ever see an actual hamburger on my menu, but we do a lot of experimenting."
As fall turns to winter, Watson says he's getting ready to change up the menu again. The dish he's most excited about? Duck confit fettuccine. Winter vegetables are also coming. "We do a lot with Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, and winter gourds," he says. "You have to keep changing to keep up. You have to keep getting better."The defector
As the executive chef at Michael Symon's Roast, Andy Hollyday had one of the best restaurant gigs in Detroit. He oversaw the kitchen in a restaurant that was almost always full and that had become a word-of-mouth destination for anyone visiting Detroit.
But that wasn't exactly want Hollyday wanted. So last year he quit. Recently, he opened the doors to his own restaurant, Selden Standard.
"The position at Roast was an amazing opportunity," Hollyday says. "Michael Symon is a great guy, and I loved working for him and for his company. But I think it's every chef's dream to have his own place and to be his own boss. I got that opportunity, so I took it."
Selden Standard, which is located at Second and Selden streets, is perched on the upper end of the historic Cass Corridor. With the new Detroit Red Wings arena soon to be constructed nearby, the restaurant will have a coveted location.
"Detroit is an incredible place to work," Hollyday says. "And our scene is building. Over the last three or four years, it's just been getting bigger. It started with a lot of pop-ups and underground dinners late at night; now you're starting to see those chefs in brick-and-mortar places. It's big and it's exciting."
Hollyday brought along his Roast sous chef, Nick Elswick, with him to Selden Standard, but otherwise, his staff will be almost completely new.
"There are a lot of curveballs when you open up a new place," Hollyday says. "You're working in a new place, with new people and new things. It's fun, but it's stressful."
Hollyday was mum about his new menu, but says that the food will be mostly locally sourced, using as many local ingredients as possible.RECIPES to UP your SWAGGER FACTOR
James Rigato's Spicy Grass-Fed Michigan Beef & Dragon's Milk Chili
1-1/2 pounds ground Michigan grass-fed beef
3-4 quarts chicken or beef stock
3 cups Dragon's Milk Stout
1 cup puréed tomatoes
1 cup cooked Michigan black beans
2 jalapenos, minced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 Spanish onion, diced
4 stalks celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons smoked paprika
1 tablespoon ground ancho
1 teaspoon cayenne
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1/3-1/2 cup masa flour
4 whacks Worcestershire
6 whacks Tabasco
Season with salt and cracked pepper at the end as needed. I like to serve with a lime wedge, Guernsey's Sour Cream and Shaved Smoked Cheddar.
James Rigato's Smoked Michigan Beef Pierogi
5 cups flour
1/2 tablespoons salt
2 cups sour cream (1 cup for the dough, 1 for the sauce)
1/2 cup melted butter
Splash of water
2 pounds (all-natural Michigan) strip loin or rib-eye loin trim
Root red chile spice blend: A good base would be 2 tablespoons smoked paprika, 1 teaspoon cayenne, 1 tablespoon ground ancho, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 1 teaspoon ground fennel, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 teaspoon black peppercorn
1 Spanish onion, diced
3 cups Widowmaker Black Ale
3 cups Water Street Classic Dark Brew Coffee
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon Tabasco
1 tablespoon Worcestershire
1 quart Sauerkraut
1 gallon water
3/4 cup salt
1 large head cabbage
Season Meat with Salt, Spices and place on rack and smoke at 160 degrees for about 2 hours. Pull out. Dice. Set aside.
Make a well in the flour-salt mixture. Add eggs and sour cream. Incorporate. Slowly mix in melted butter. Add splash of water until dough is slightly sticky but staying together. Set aside at room temperature. Cover with damp cloth. Get ready to roll.
Melt butter and add onions. Cook until soft. Add diced meat. Stir. Add coffee and beer. Cover and barely simmer for about 3 hours. Either hand mix or in a large Kitchen Aid paddle whip the mixture with 1/4 cup grated pecorino cheese. Add salt, pepper, Tabasco and Worcestershire. Cool mixture.
Roll out pierogi dough to desired thickness. Add filling. Fold. Fork the lip. Set aside. Blanch in salted water until floating. Shock in ice. Refrigerate or freeze until time to cook.
We serve the pierogi with house-made sauerkraut. It's a brined cabbage that sits for about 3 weeks and ferments. (To make it, boil water and salt together. Let cool. Pour over shredded cabbage in large nonreactive container for 2- 3 weeks.
Drain after 3 weeks.
Boil the liquid again, skimming any debris. Cool again.
Pour over cabbage. The next day: Drain the cabbage. Discard the brine. Rinse the cabbage. Pour 1/2 cup white distilled vinegar and 1/2 cup water over the cabbage. Use right away or let sit in refrigerator for up to a month.)
Simmer the sauerkraut in a little chicken stock. We toast some caraway seeds and fold them into the sour cream with a couple drops of lemon, Tabasco and pinch of salt. Pan-fry pierogi in butter. Plate pierogi on top of caraway-infused sour cream and sauerkraut. Top with sprinkle of parsley.
Nikita Sanches' Pork + Oyster
1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
4 teaspoons hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
2 teaspoons chili-garlic sauce
4 8-inch-diameter rice paper rounds
2-2/3 cups cole slaw mix (shredded cabbage and carrots)
4 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
8 teaspoons chopped fresh basil
8 cooked oysters
1/4 cup cooked pork
Mix first 4 ingredients in small bowl. Pour sauce into ramekin.
Submerge 1 rice paper round in large bowl filled with room-temperature water. Let stand until soft and pliable but not limp, lifting occasionally to determine if soft, about one minute. Place softened round on work surface. Mound 2/3 cup cole slaw mix at end of round closest to you; sprinkle with 1 tablespoon cilantro and 2 teaspoons basil. Top with oysters and pork, cut side down, in single layer. Fold in ends of round; roll up tightly into cylinder. Repeat with remaining ingredients to form 3 more rolls. Cut rolls diagonally in half; arrange on plate and serve with sauce.
Kate Williams' Venison Sweet Potato Meatballs
1-1/2 pound ground venison
2 sweet potatoes, mashed
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 shallots, minced
5 sprigs of thyme, leaves stripped and chopped
1/3 cup Michigan maple syrup
2 tablespoons corn starch
Salt and pepper to taste
Gin mushroom cream sauce
1 pound mushrooms (preferably wild Michigan mushrooms; button or cremini mushrooms can substitute) torn into small pieces
2 shallots, sliced
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons gin
1 cup chicken or beef stock
1 cup heavy cream
Lemon juice to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine venison, thyme, garlic, shallots, maple syrup, sweet potatoes, corn starch, and salt and pepper in a bowl. Mix gently just to combine and fully incorporate all ingredients. Do not overmix.
Portion into about 1/3- to 1/2-cup size meatballs and place on sprayed sheet pan with parchment. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until fully cooked.
Meanwhile, make the sauce.
Heat 2 tablespoons blended olive oil in a medium to large saucepan on medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and cook for 5-7 minutes or until all moisture has evaporated. Add shallots and garlic and sauté another 3 minutes. Turn heat to low and deglaze pan with gin. Let gin reduce by half then add chicken stock and heavy cream. Bring to a low boil and add lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste.
Pour sauce over meatballs and serve. Pour over your favorite rice or pasta.
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