What the proprietors of Dish like about the restaurant biz — besides their own good food — is the freedom to be their own bosses and set their own hours. Because Lisa Debs, Paul Sulek and Peg Sulek are a team of three, “I can go get my hair cut and she’ll cover for me,” says Peg. “Sure, we could be making bank if we were managing a restaurant at one of the casinos, but we like the perks.”
The popular East Side take-away is crammed into 800 square feet, including the counter area. For four years now the three chefs have been packing in plastic such upscale, thoughtful dishes as potato-encrusted salmon with a lemon-dill-capers sauce, pork tenderloin with cilantro-stewed tomatoes, and steak and gorgonzola salad with grapes, red onions and walnuts.
“When you’re working for someone else, you’re locked into their schedule,” says Peg. “I wouldn’t trade this for anything.”
Peg and Paul met when she was a busgirl (her first job) and he was a butcher and prep cook at the Mallard Pub, a now-defunct East Side restaurant that specialized in wild game. Lisa and Peg met later at Sparky Herbert’s, where Peg was waitressing and Lisa was a bartender.
“I didn’t know Peg well at all,” Lisa remembers. “And one night she just walked up to me and said, ‘What do you think about you and me running this place?’ I thought, ‘Why not?’
“We took three days to get it together — we made an appointment with the owner and his wife, and they bought it and we were made a general management team.”
“I had been there five years waitressing,” Peg adds, “and I’d seen a lot of managers come and go. I was tired of the chaos, and I thought, ‘We could do this better.’”
They got what they wanted — experience in managing without having to put in 70 hours a week. Working collectively, they made the place efficient. Looking back, they scuffle briefly over which one played bad cop. Peg says, “I could tell we were on the same wavelength about organization and the way staff should be treated.”
They’ve been a team pretty much ever since. Just before Dish, for example, Lisa was manager and Peg office manager at Motor, the Hamtramck nightclub.
Meanwhile, Paul was earning kitchen cred at some of the area’s finer restaurants. At the tender age of 18, he had worked for his older brother at the ultra-swanky Mansion on Turtle Creek hotel in Dallas. As an apprentice butcher he split lamb racks, made sausage, prepped ducks and prepared bones for stocks. For a month he served as overnight chef, working room service for Larry Hagman while Dallas was being shot.
“It was a picture-perfect experience,” says Paul. “We had all the best products and all the best people. I decided, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’” The experience convinced him to sign up at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, one of the top cooking schools in the world (at $25,000 for five semesters).
In two years there he learned “a great appreciation for the methods of preparation. It doesn’t really matter what ingredients you have — all recipes are based on basic cooking fundamentals — how to braise things properly, your sauté or roast, how to cook vegetables properly.
“I lived right there on campus, so you just ate, lived and breathed culinary arts — that’s all you did.”
Students at the CIA (that’s what they called it) learned every aspect of the business, from waiting tables to managing the school’s five restaurants. Even the relatively lowly job (compared to chef) of prep cook, Paul explains, takes skills: You have to know how to use a knife, be well-organized and prioritize your work.
He came home to jobs, both cooking and as pastry chef, at the Whitney, Grosse Pointe’s Country Club of Detroit and the Meadow Brook Country Club.
In late 1997, the three heard that a tiny bakery, Lynn’s Pastry Shop on the Detroit side of Mack, was for sale. To buy the space, Peg and Paul refinanced their house and Lisa used her credit cards. They borrowed from friends and relatives, not bothering to ask at a bank, where they would have been laughed at, they say. Lisa used her skills as a tile artist to line the public walls with intense blue flowers.
Then Peg and Lisa did begin putting in 70-hour weeks. They concocted such dishes as shrimp Rockefeller quiche, “Motor Martini” salad with pearl onions, olives and capers in a vodka vinaigrette, tuna sandwiches with lemon mayo, and hot artichoke and spinach calzones — all to go.
It was rewarding in some ways, but exhausting. Both were relieved when Paul decided to take over chief responsibility for the cooking. “I like to cook,” says Lisa, “but at home.”
“I like to cook too,” says Paul, “but I like to cook here.”
“There’s nothing in our refrigerator at home except carry-out boxes,” notes Peg.
Today the two women share the baking, shopping and administration, while Paul does the ordering, thinks up the specials and minds the rotation.
“Cooking is so consuming, so demanding,” says Lisa. “I think that’s why chefs are crazy (except Paul). You have to be here at least 10-hour days to do the job right. I have people over for dinner every Sunday, anywhere from four to 10 people. That’s no pressure. Here, there’s the factory end of it. My biggest hurdle was always thinking up something new for the specials board.
“Baking is less stressful than cooking. You do it the same way every time.”
As we’re talking, a woman named Constance walks in; she doesn’t have to say a word, and Paul fetches a quesadilla, her three-or-four-times-a-week regular order. Then Jim Ellis, who was chef at the original Tom’s Oyster Bar, stops by for his weekly fix. Ellis likes everything about the place — but wants the three to open a sit-down restaurant, as do all the regulars.
“Our first choice would have been a sit-down restaurant, with a bar, in Grosse Pointe,” says Lisa. “We like the clientele here. They’re loyal. They’re a captive audience. They’re not trendy — they’re very routine. And they don’t have financial barriers — they don’t question paying for quality.
“A lot of really good people come in here, and they’ve kept us going by word of mouth. They sincerely care about our succeeding here. In four years, one check has bounced.”
The sit-down restaurant, which would require investor backing, is still a goal.
The team of three, together with one full-time and two part-time employees, now keeps their hours manageable (although during catering season, at Christmastime, they’ll be at Dish around the clock). Lisa runs four miles a day. Peg and Paul work out at a gym sporadically (all three are skinny). Paul likes to golf and garden, both flowers and vegetables. In good weather he rides a bike to and from home in St. Clair Shores.
As to eating out as a leisure-time activity: The three have major gripes with the metro-Detroit food scene. Peg: “There are some really good restaurants, but I feel like it’s an ordeal. You have to put on your makeup and drive to them.”
They like the Vintage Bistro across the street, which serves classic bistro food. Lisa: “But the atmosphere — we’re not going in jeans; we’re not going in sweats.”
“Paul and I are going to the Maryland shore next week,” says Peg, “and we’re looking forward so much to the crab cakes.”
Dish is at 18441 Mack Ave., Detroit. Call 313-886-2444; fax 313-886-7674.
Read other chefs' stories in Chow (this week's special restaurant collection):
• Eastern paths meet Western ways at the up-to-the-minute Eurasian Grill.
• There are no mad hatters at Fiona’s Tea House, only scones and assorted wonders.
• Misha’s is "home cooking" with a rich and moving past.
• New Yasmeen Bakery’s Souad Bazzi serves up Lebanese cuisine "naturally."
• Food for a small planet’s working week at the Small World Café.
• Chef Jeffrey Kalich makes Twingo’s a full-spectrum experience.