Chef Rick Halberg has been a fixture in Detroit area fine dining for what seems forever. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Rick worked at restaurants in Aspen, Colo., and upstate New York before returning to Michigan to raise a family. He worked with Yvonne Gill at Tweeny's and at the Holly Hotel before opening RIKs, a carryout and catering operation, and then a restaurant of the same name. In 1994, he opened Emily's in Northville, which became an instant dining destination, recognized as one the finest restaurants in Michigan. Regrettably, it closed six months ago, shortly after the opening of his storefront Tuscan restaurant in Farmington Hills, Tutto Bene, which closed after a brief run.
Metro Times: What happened to Emily's and Tutto Bene?
Rick Halberg: Tutto Bene was the last nail in the coffin for Emily's. I put everything that I possibly could into that financially and quickly realized that it wasn't going to happen. The economy for the past few years has made it difficult. The IRS took away the tax incentives for entertaining for the pharmaceutical companies. We counted on a lot of that. The area we were in has a lot of automotive people who live and work nearby. A lot of suppliers are nearby. The economy was just taking its toll. My family thought that within a short time of opening Tutto Bene, we'd be able to open two or three more, and to have that. I overleveraged everything and Emily's became the victim. I'm not sure it would have lasted much longer anyway. It lasted 12 years. It was kind of an institution. In the November issue of The New Yorker, there was an article about Detroit that spoke of many of the things that were going on in Detroit, including the closing of Emily's restaurant. Not that we were some obscure little restaurant, we weren't, but we made it to The New Yorker. Too bad they didn't mention us five years earlier.
MT: What went wrong at Tutto Bene?
Halberg: So many things. The location was bad. There was no beer and wine. People didn't perceive it as one of Rick's restaurants. We wanted to do a lot of carryout. It cost me a lot to build out. There were so many things. I know how to do really good food. That's what I've spent my life doing. I think we tried to do too much.
MT: How has your life changed? What do you like and what do you miss? You probably didn't go out for dinner for 25 years.
Halberg: I miss the interaction with the clientele that we built for many years. Emily's was a very special place for a long time for a lot of people. I've always felt that a restaurant is about more than just a place to eat. It's a place to share important moments, family time, all those things that make life worth living. I do love that I'm much more flexible with my time and that I can go out in the evening and don't have to be in the dining room or the kitchen. It's very different. It's a big adjustment for my wife, having me home at night. We've been married a long time. She's a teacher and I'm in the restaurant business. Now that our kids are pretty much grown, so it's nice that we have evenings together.
MT: You are now the director of culinary services at Hiller's Markets. What does that entail?
Halberg: We're still defining the term. My fundamental approach is to upgrade our prepared foods. I also have a small involvement in the wines, the meats and the poultry, but the prepared foods area is my focus.
MT: Should we expect a radical change?
Halberg: My focus is directed to healthy, fresh foods that translate well to the home: salads, side dishes, vegetables. Proteins don't work as well reheated. Somebody said to me that we are dealing with leftovers. I was ruffled by that initially, but it really is true. We're making food, cooking it fully, putting it out on display in the air. People take it home. In a sense it is a leftover. So the challenge is making things that work well in that situation. I also hope to develop a line of foods that are prepared and packaged for people to take home. We are taking it slowly. We're not a gourmet market, per se, but we are trying to prepare foods that, while reasonably priced, will make us a destination, not just a second thought. Jim Hiller is a forward-thinking businessman.
MT: What emerging trends do you see in the food industry?
Halberg: In the industry I see much more awareness of sustainability, whether it's seafood, agriculture, poultry or fish. I see that as an evolving awareness, but pricing is on people's mind. We're in America. A lot of people don't even care about global warming enough to make any significant changes. Organics I'm a believer. I started in the health food business in the early '70s and I've constantly tried to remain involved in that. We have a good supply of organic produce and naturally raised meat and poultry. People are very price-conscious.
There are six Hiller's Markets. For store locations see hillers.com.
Jeff Broder does this twice-monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]