Party by the bagful

Apr 12, 2006 at 12:00 am

Zachary Smith's friends used to have a delicious deal. All they had to do was hand over a $20 bill and some wine, and he took care of the rest, running out to the grocery store and returning with a party by the bagful.

Smith doesn't have time for that since opening the Chef Zachary Café in the lobby of the Michigan Building, located downtown on Bagley, eight months ago. But he has time tonight for his friends Greg and Victoria Thrasher. He's nearly just walked in, with his huge arms full of groceries, his young son, Little Zack, nearly knocking him over at the knees, and already Thrasher says he can smell the goodness. His wife, Victoria, has just walked out the door, off to exercise so she can feel good about eating the meal when she returns.

As Miles Davis' Bitches Brew lays down a sheen on the room like the soft light of dusk, the new Birmingham home hums and a fiesta of colors dances on the kitchen counter: a sweet orange bell pepper, fresh jalapeños, two kinds of fleshy salmon, blue cheese, brie, garlic bulbs, vine ripe tomatoes, broccoli, lemons, limes, a duo of tangerines, some avocados and a bag of mussels the deep shade of midnight. He pulls out one sunset-colored apple, propping it up for Little Zack, who grabs his prize, confessing like a connoisseur that he prefers "the red and yellow ones."

For all the talk about Smith's credentials — 25 years leading kitchens at premier hotel restaurants in California (San Francisco, Carmel and San Mateo) and Nevada (Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe), and as head chef at the four-star 123 restaurant in Grosse Pointe — what earns Smith even better rank is what his son eats ... by choice. Little Zack vibrates like a kid high on caffeine and sugar, but he's actually running circles around the kitchen busting up over brie — "I wants some bad, Dad, melted on a cracker!"

It's not too often you see a 6-year-old get excited about fish, fruit and fine cheese, pushing aside the crater-sized bowl of florescent popcorn. And for all the talk of canopies, blood soup and reduction sauces with shallots that Smith can whip off, it's his son's good taste that says Smith is fond of fresh and natural ingredients.

That's why it's a bit odd you don't see more of it on his menu at Chef Zachary Café, where they serve everything from crab cake sandwich to a special burger with fresh jalepeños mixed in, but little by the way of fresh veggies, which could easily replace the mozzarella cheese sticks on the menu. Maybe he just needs to have more faith in what Detroiters will eat.

Still, on tonight's menu, everything is fresh, and even though he was watched like a hawk the whole way through the cooking process, God bless him, he doesn't salt a damn thing — not even the boiling water.

This evening, he shopped for the meal the way he usually does, whether the ingredients end up in his café or his cousin's kitchen: by improvising. He usually walks in to Eastern Market or Royal Oak's Holiday Market without a plan, and admits he often gets carried away by the sights, sounds and smells.

"I go into a grocery store the way some people shop for clothes — I stop in for a pair of socks and come out with new shoes, a few sweaters and some shirts." Today he picked up some sockeye salmon, but was also intrigued by the organic salmon, so the meal became a seafood free-for-all, joined with mussels and complemented by white rice, freshly made Parker rolls, broccoli, salad and a three-apple pie with a lemon walnut crust for dessert.

For starters, to nibble while he cooks, Smith puts out a plate of brie and blue cheese on a bed of broccoli sprouts, and opens a bag of tortilla chips. He serves triangles of blue cheese on top of each brie slice so that each chip can be filled with both flavors, and each bite finished off with the grassy crunch of the sprouts. He washes Belgian endive, Bibb lettuce and tomatoes, as well as jalapeños and bell peppers for his salad. Then he cuts into an avocado, leaving the impressionable vegetable skinless yet nearly intact. After arranging the salad leaf by leaf, he spritzes it with tangerine juice, sets it aside to drizzle with oil later, and begins speaking about his childhood.

Growing up on the northwest side of Detroit, Smith remembers making breakfasts with his brother in secret, when he was Little Zack's age. He must have thought anything that much fun had to be bad behavior, so he even cleaned up the kitchen when he was finished. When his mom realized what he was doing and encouraged him, he made breakfasts for the whole family. By age 12, he was cooking meals of chili or pork chops. And with his grandmother, he stirred up big vats of ice cream with homemade custard.

After high school, he went to school in Arkansas to become a dentist, but quickly decided he had to figure out a better way to get in peoples' mouths. He ended up in California, and, without any prior formal training, studied with a chef who told him: "Keep your head down, listen to me, and in 10 years you'll be able to call yourself a chef." His mentor was right. After working all the stations in the kitchen, he was living a high life by the ocean.

Greg breezes into the kitchen after changing out of work clothes into something more comfortable and asks Smith, "You got a name for the salad?" Smith gently turns the big silver bowl with his fingertips and says, "Santa Fe Blush," like he's naming a painting, remembering the landscape on the West Coast.

He steams the broccoli and mussels and starts slicing the fish, laying down cubes of butter and covering both the sockeye and organic salmon with Chelsea and Blackening spices from his line of Chef Zachary's Gourmet Blended Spices (available at Eastern Market's Rafael Spice Company), none of which have any traces of MSG, sugar, salt, dyes or fillers. At dinner, there are no other sauces or spices served to soak out the flavor; only the white rice is wet with the nectar from the garlic mussels and lemon and lime is offered for the fish. Nobody drinks wine, juice or soda, just ice water.

Smith's a big man, but he eats slowly. Greg Thrasher has already cleaned his plate by the time Smith sits down, and so has Little Zack, who has eaten all his broccoli and fish and left only the bed of white rice. Smith's still focusing on his salad, which he eats at the end of the meal. Admiring his friend's gentle and artful nature, Thrasher looks at his friend and says, "Zack's tender about his food."


Sweet apple lemon crunch pie

2 yellow delicious cored and sliced
1 red delicious cored and sliced
1 Granny Smith cored and sliced
3/4 cup of white sugar, 1/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons soft butter.
1 1/4 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon Chef Zachary's Shana Spice or 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Lemon Crum topping:

8 ounces Lemon Zest pound cake or (8 ounces pound cake & zest of 1 lemon)
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup walnut chopped fine
In food processor mix all together.
1-9 inch pie shell

Place apples in saucepan with sugar, cook over medium heat, stirring continuously until apples are soft. You will notice that the juice from the apples and sugar will make a syrup. Remove heat, then remove the apples from the syrup. Take the flour and butter and mix, then add to syrup. Place on low heat until it thickens, add spices and apples and let cool. Reserve for pie. Place filling in pie shell, then place Crum mixture thick and evenly on top. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes or until top is crunchy.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]