Sharp young things

Mar 17, 2010 at 12:00 am

The Whitney, that grand old former residence, shines on a sunny afternoon in midtown Detroit. With its 52 rooms, 10 bathrooms and 20 fireplaces, the three-story pink-granite edifice is in great condition, and pots of forced lilies decorate the front garden. It seems the manse-turned-restaurant is preparing for a wedding party later that day, and the staff bustles through the elegant dining rooms, giving them a final spruce. It's so opulent that it looks every bit a century-old lumber baron's mansion.

The view out behind the building, however, looks much humbler. Out among the staff's parked cars, Dan Maurer, 26, the restaurant's executive chef, is cadging a cigarette off a fellow employee before settling onto a bench amid raised herb beds. Unlike the 19th century grandeur of the Whitney, Maurer is all 21st century flair, from his tattooed legs and arms to the waist-length dreadlocks he has piled under a ballooning cap. It's a sunny afternoon, and he loosens his hoodie to get some sun on his neck. 

Maurer is, um, quite a character. When he's excited, he weaves together sentences densely laced with so much swaggering profanity it sounds like a monologue from Ricky of the Trailer Park Boys. It's a comical fit with his egalitarian style. In fact, he's riffing on his shock over hearing a colleague refer to him by the formal title "chef."

"I can't believe somebody called me 'chef'! 'Cause, I mean, you work for some chefs and it's like, 'Yes, Chef. No, Chef. Please, Chef!' What the fuck's that about? Why would you want to remove yourself from your gang of cooks by saying, 'I don't have a normal fucking name to you guys?'"

In recent months, the sharp-tongued, self-taught chef has fallen into the limelight — ever since a buddy of his blogged about him, resulting in his appearance, with some other younger culinary peers, on WDET's Craig Fahle Show, exposing metro Detroit to a new cohort of young executive chefs. 

And these sharp, young chefs are shattering the mold. They wear tattoos more than toques. They're more likely to get drinks after work at Gusoline Alley than the Rugby Grille. In a city that can seem plagued with old food, stale recipes and stodgy airs, these twentysomethings have forged independent careers, drawing on culinary school, apprenticeships or old-fashioned book research. And, as local kitchens get less formal, more casual and take more chances, these young chefs are in a good position to capitalize and move up. And, despite any raffish edges, it's good news for area diners.

From bass to bouillabaisse

Executive chef Myles McVay is pulling some chairs down off a few tables in Royal Oak's D'Amato's. The restaurant is empty in the late afternoon, and he's free to talk for a while. At 29, the youngish chef looks clean-cut, with his short hair and clean white chef's shirt. But when he has a seat and puts his tattoed guns up on the table, you can tell something's up. A former colleague of Maurer, he often gets off work and strolls over to Gusoline Alley and meets him for a few. 

"We call it the 'straight walk,'" McVay says with a laugh, adding, "At a certain point in the night, we can look out the window straight down Fourth Street and pretty much see the door of Gus'."

A family man with a wife and a 2-year-old at home (and another child on the way), McVay is a little more settled than Maurer. In a soft-spoken voice, he tells how he's been cooking since childhood, and first picked it up from his Italian-American mother, learning elementary cooking techniques while helping make family dinners. He started working as a dishwasher in mom-and-pop pizza parlors as a teenager, more to get a car than to get a career. Still, he says, "I developed the sense early on that I could do that."

But McVay was more interested in playing bass guitar in bands, taking the stage at the Shelter, St. Andrew's, Alvin's and Smalls. When his group got a record deal with Cargo Music, it briefly looked like they would hit the big time.

McVay says, "I really didn't take cooking seriously until I was 18, and on the road with my band and not making any money. I faced the lifelong question of whether I'd go to college or try to be poor and gut it out the rest of my life in a band. So I decided to ante up, went to Macomb for a few years." 

He adds with a laugh about his formal culinary education, "Want to spend $60,000 on school? Guess what? You know what you're going to make when you get out of school? Ten dollars an hour — just like everybody else."

In McVay's case, the $10 an hour came working as a "low-level salad guy" at Opus One. The restaurant seems to encourage the growth of young, self-taught chefs, and it was only a matter of time until McVay's latent talent would be spotted — and he'd get a chance on the "hot line."

"They just moved me right along, taught me everything," McVay says. "I saw a lot of stuff that I never saw before, and I was like, 'Ah, I didn't know you could do that with food.' And then it clicked, and I got really serious about it.

"I didn't feel like I learned enough in culinary school. I felt like I was learning a lot more a lot faster actually working in a restaurant for good people. So I started learning stuff on my own. I bought really great books, stuff they recommended to me. I would see something that I liked and I would steal it right away, and I really tried to impress. Long story short, they gave me a sous chef job."

For McVay, it would be a baptism by fire.

"I was thrown into a situation I probably wasn't ready for. ... I'm walking in knowing really nothing about how to cook at that pace, at that level, in a fine-dining establishment where everything is tweaked and the bar is high, so I was thrown into this hectic situation, just getting my ass kicked, just sucking for a while, and my chef just encouraged me. He saw a young kid coming along, probably like he did himself, and he was like, 'Just keep doing it. Don't let it break you.'

"And, ever since I was 20 years old, I never looked back. I'm creeping on 10 years of being a chef in this business in metro Detroit and I've never cooked anywhere else."

The fuck-up pantry guy

Though McVay would hone his cooking chops in several kitchens, he says the best learning experience he ever had was when he worked at Royal Oak's now-shuttered Fiddleheads. It was there he met Dan Maurer.

"Dan's a really funny story," McVay says. "When I worked at Fiddleheads, he was the pantry guy." Suppressing a laugh, he explains it carefully: "At the time, I thought he was the biggest piece-of-shit guy. I was like, 'This guy's such a loser, man! We gotta get rid of this asshole!' He was notorious for going out on Saturdays and getting bombed out of his mind, and he didn't show up for me on a Sunday brunch when I was sous chef, and I told my chef Brian Brenner, 'We gotta fire this guy. Let's get rid of this fuck-up pantry guy, man. He's more headache than he's worth. He comes in, he's hung-over, he doesn't want to do it.' So we did. We fired him. He was out at Fiddleheads."

Asked if he really was a "fuck-up pantry guy," Maurer laughs. "Yeah," he says, "I was young and I was with all these badasses at Fiddleheads and I was just the runt of the group, fucking everything up. It was an awesome learning experience, but they hated me. They fuckin' hated me. I was, like, 22, and they were all at least a few years older than me. They'd been doing it that many more years and they just knew what the fuck they were doing, and they just accepted me for my personality. 

"I was partying too hard, just living at a little house with a buddy in downtown Royal Oak. We just fuckin' partied like crazy. I was like, 'Uh, it's a $10-an-hour job, whatever. It's Saturday night. I can't fuckin' work brunch tomorrow!' And the chef there at the time was a good friend of mine too, so I got away with it a couple times, showing up a couple hours late on Sunday. Finally, the owner was like, 'Brian, I know he's your friend, but he's setting a bad example.' 

"So one night, the chef and me are sitting around drinking beers after shift on Saturday night getting pretty hammered, and Brian's like, 'Well, Dan, I got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that you're gonna have a lot more free time. The bad news is they're making me fire you.' I was like, 'Alright, cool.'

"Looking back, I wonder how they put up with me. I see the guys who work for me now doing what I used to do, like being a fuckin' mess and looking like they just got in a fuckin' food fight ... and I'm like, 'Sonofabitch! How did those guys put up with me? I'm ready to fuckin' kill this guy right now.'

"Anyway, I went back to doing construction for my dad, which I'd done with my brother since I was, like, 13. ... It was just a little under a month I was doing that and I was just going nuts. Working for your dad is like, 'Holy shit, dude, I'm going to end up fuckin' hating you! And I don't want to!'"

As fate would have it, McVay cut his hand severely and suddenly needed help with his job. "The group of people that you really like in this business is pretty small," McVay says, explaining why he'd ever consider calling Maurer back on the job.

"I called him out of the blue one day. I was like, 'Dan, it's Myles. Do you think you could come in for a little bit and help me work?' He was like, 'I don't know. I'm working some construction for my dad.' I was like, 'Well, think about it and call me back. By the way, I think I still have your chef's boots here. Come pick them up.' It was one of the stupidest conversations. ..." Maurer gladly returned.

Back at Fiddleheads, Maurer began pushing himself a lot harder. McVay recalls, "He was like a different guy about it. I think when he was out of work and he got fired, he was a little bit down on his luck. I think that was his moment where he really just stepped up, and he's been a different cook every since."

Maurer agrees. "It wasn't, like, a big fucking awakening or anything. When I got back in the kitchen I was like, 'Now I know I love this. I keep doing this because I'm addicted to restaurants.' I was just going through the motions before."

Enter the mentor

The biggest influence on McVay and Maurer would be Fiddlehead's then-new executive chef, Tim Voss. McVay calls Voss a "culinary savant," and says, "I figured I could learn something from this guy. He came in and, sure enough, probably had more culinary knowledge than any person I've ever met, just a culinary wizard." 

Maurer says, "When Tim was there, we would learn more in a day than we'd learn through all the other chefs we'd worked for. Because Tim is a natural teacher, he's like a fuckin' encyclopedia of cooking." Indeed, Voss has a reputation for scholarship, and has been known to reel off the scientific names of ingredients, and to describe restaurants as "living beings." 

The 39-year-old, now executive chef at Greektown's Mosaic, is surprisingly soft-spoken. He doesn't seem like the product of the French-dominated kitchens of Chicago, which he describes as full of "yelling and screaming and slamming pans." Unlike the divas who trained him, Voss is an enthusiastic teacher, a crew-builder of the to-teach-is-to-learn school. And he's very proud about his old crew from Fiddleheads.

"Such a small percentage of people really want to soak up everything around them," Voss says. "I've worked in places for a long time and, every once in a while, I get waves or groupings of people like that, like a coach building up a crew again. We're excited, we're still making mistakes, but there are windows with a crew when it just comes together and it sings. It's so difficult to put to words what happens — and I'm not saying it's necessarily pretty — but when you get to the end of a super busy, crazy day, it's pretty awesome."

At Fiddleheads, McVay and Maurer were part of a team that harbored other aspiring young chefs, including Matt Dalton, now-chef de cuisine at Birmingham's Chen Chow Brasserie. Maurer says, "It was, like, the baddest-ass crew of cooks you could find in metro Detroit, and I was like their retarded little brother."

McVay says, "The knowledge I obtained from working with chefs ultimately set me apart. ... I never say to somebody, 'I went to culinary school, and that's where I learned everything.' I always tell people, 'Yeah, I'm self-taught with a little bit of help from some other people.' I don't put a stamp on it like I'm entitled to be a chef because I went to culinary school."

Voss agrees, saying, "There are some wonderful, well-established culinary schools in this area, but there's that little pat on the back: 'Here's your diploma. You're a chef now.' Just like you're an architect, or an accountant or anything else. Well, yeah, you got a diploma. Now you can start your career."

Or, as Maurer puts it: "If somebody comes in and drops off an application and they're like, 'I went to culinary school,' I'm like, 'Sweet, that means you think you're a chef but you have no fucking experience is all that tells me.'"

Gaining experience in a good kitchen is something young chefs are often willing to take a pay cut to do, especially if it means getting on the fine-dining path. It can be an apprenticeship in everything but name. Voss says aspiring chefs should do it when they're young enough to work all night and come home to "a six-pack of beer and a jar of peanut butter in the refrigerator." It can involve going to stage, a French term meaning to work for free somewhere to learn from other chefs. Voss explains: "You put yourself up on a stage for someone. It also gives the restaurant a way to see what you can do."

'These kids all murder me'

When he was casing a move to the West Coast, Maurer went on his own stage to San Francisco. He packed up his knives, took a flight out, and stayed with a buddy. Through dumb luck he gained entry to the kitchen at San Francisco's hallowed Cortez, where the youthfulness of the kitchen blew his mind.

"It was really badass, and it was kind of an eye-opener because it was all young kids. Around here, in a lot of restaurants, it's older dudes cooking. I show up in this restaurant and the chef's 29, the cooks are like 22 to 26, and they're just all fuckin' badass. Just every fuckin' one of them. I was working this hot station with this girl. I'm just like, 'Holy shit, if you were in Detroit you'd just practically be running shit.' But [in San Francisco] there are just so many restaurants and so many cooks — it's like everybody's a badass. It's a totally different scene. I was like, 'Wow, I know absolutely nothing. I mean, these kids all murder me.' And everything ran so smooth. I'm used to Saturday nights being pretty hectic. And I saw this 29-year-old chef at Cortez, and he's just the most cool, levelheaded person. He talks to everybody like they're people, and everything just ran like a dream. And I was like, 'Oh, that's how things are supposed to work.'"

The experience left such an impression on him, Maurer planned to leave his job as sous chef at the Whitney and move out West with a friend. But one Tuesday morning his cell phone was blowing up and he was tapped for the head chef job. 

"We were closed Monday, and I'd been out drinking all Monday, so I wake up at noon with like 30 texts and texts from people and chef friends and cook friends that aren't even connected to the Whitney. 'Hey, your chef got fired.' 'Your chef got fired.' My general manager called me like 30 times. My two-month plan was to be in San Francisco and that was when dude got fired."

If Maurer sounds like an odd fit for the ostentatious Whitney, bear in mind the youthful clientele of nearby Wayne State University. For years, the grand mansion sat next to a parking lot; now the university has built new, multistory campus housing. A hip, twentysomething chef — and garden parties hosted by DJs — can make a statement to younger prospective diners.

It sometimes causes uneasy laughter for Maurer. He kids, "Some people feel intimidated coming inside this place. Sometimes, I'm more intimidated than they are. Servers will be like, 'My table really wants to meet you.' I'll be like, 'What do they look like. 'Cause if they're, like, 80-year-old men, I'm going to offend them or something.' It could go bad with an old dude, if he looks at me and he's like, 'This is the chef? I used to come here 40 years ago and the chef was my age. He wouldn't have tattoos and long hair! That's not what a chef is!'"

If that sounds outrageous, Voss says odd reactions in the dining room aren't unusual for any chef. He says, "A very goofy reaction I get sometimes is, "You're the chef? Well, you're not fat!"

Updating dining

Luckily, generational strife is rare, and, as young chefs, Maurer and McVay are both given room to be creative, and to enliven exhausted bills of fare.

McVay says, "D'Amato's had become a pretty tired place when I took over. It had a lot of 'old food' and an older dinner crowd. There were a lot of changes to be made. ... I don't want to say it was 'spaghetti and meatballs,' but it was just boring Italian food, from my point of view. I said, 'If this is the direction we're going to go in, I can improve on this.' Plus all the desserts were bought; they bought all their pasta. Everything was already pre-done and pre-fabbed and I loathed it, especially coming from a perspective where you want to create and do your own thing and add a little bit of speciality to it. But we still have to have a little something for everybody. That's what the market is right now. You can't alienate people.

"But I've really tried to make my own style and do Italian-American fare with my own spin, and I steal bits and pieces from books that I see or recipes that I like, and people have taken notice. Our diner clientele has changed a little bit. It's become a little younger, a little hipper, a little fresher, and more often you see the same faces coming back, or coming up to me in the open kitchen's window and waving goodnight. That's the ultimate compliment."

Maurer echoes the diner-is-always-right mind-set: "Make the guests happy. If I were to get 300 e-mails a day asking, 'Why the fuck don't you guys have a cheeseburger on your menu?' what am I going to do? I'm going to put a cheeseburger on the menu! If they ask why isn't the cheeseburger more like McDonald's? I'll make a Big Mac better than McDonald's does, if that's what people want." 

Big Macs at the Whitney? No, but tastes are slowly changing. And it's often a challenge to give people what they want with what McVay calls "a side of integrity." He says, "Michigan is known for like stale, Old World stuff. Meat-and-potatoes Michigan, you know what I mean? Big portions, big plates of everything ... If you go to these big corporate chains and you find these massive plates of, like, fish sticks and fries or whatever, and that's kind of the norm in those places. ... Just boring stuff, you know. It doesn't have to be that way — and it's been that way around here for a long time. Of course, those high-end fine-dining establishments always had really tweaked food, but the middle class never really saw that unless it was a special night. But I think you can do that now. I try to bring high-class food into the middle class, to give everybody an opportunity to eat like a fine diner." 

Of course, you can't please them all. McVay laughs, "Some people still come in from the dark days, and they want their spaghetti and meatballs, and they'll be like, 'Man, this place sucks. I remember when it was awesome!' But I think we're on the right path."

So what does a rejuvenated menu look like? It is more casual, more accessible, and often more comforting. "With the economy, everybody kind of got knocked down a notch," McVay says. "The price of food's going up, but we can't sell it for higher prices. So fine diners are becoming upscale casual, the casuals are becoming fast food-eaters, and so on. 

And so you'll find less emphasis on hue-perfect colors and more on a mouth-feel of contrasting textures. "Not that food shouldn't be art," Maurer cautions, "but I think it should be more like art in your mouth. I'll add something crispy to a dish if I think it needs it, 100 times over, before I add a color I think it needs."

Rather than a dish with a garnish that diners won't eat, Maurer would rather serve dishes that don't look like much but are loaded with flavor. He describes one "ugly, ugly dish," brownish-orange sweet-potato gnocci, off-orange caramelized apples, white and brown caramelized fennel, and brown seared pecan-breaded pork tenderloin. "The whole thing comes out looking like an orange-brown mess," he says, but it gets good responses. 

"I think that's maybe even a benefit. Maybe it comes out unassuming and you eat it and you're like, 'Whoa, that ugly fucker was good!'"

But whether they're going for pitch-perfect presentation or earthy comfort appeal, McVay says chefs must maintain integrity, adhering to strict preparation techniques, improving consistency, ensuring freshness, making sure everyone in the crew is properly trained, and knowing how to adapt dishes to individual tastes and dietary restrictions.

And with more comforting, sensible, personally tailored dishes, casual diners are welcomed as never before. "We're a come-as-you-are place. You can come in jeans and a T-shirt and have a good time. We don't discriminate against anybody. I think the dark days of suit and ties, it's just out, man. Just come in, be casual, eat some good food, get a good bottle of wine and enjoy yourself. That's pretty much how it is. That's how it should be, anyway." 

On casual comfort, Maurer feels the same way. He jokes, "I got into it with the hostess here when I was out standing by the hostess desk. I overheard her taking a call, saying something along the lines of, 'Don't wear gym shoes.' And then she hung up the phone, and I was like, 'What the fuck was that?' She was like, 'We don't encourage gym shoes.' I was like, 'You've been here a month and you're going to decide what our customers can wear? You tell people they can come in drunk and naked if they fucking want to!'"

Michael Jackman covers the dining scene for Metro Times. Send comments to