Among Detroit's one-of-a-kind restaurants are a few housed in old homes. One of them is Cuisine, which occupies a 1920s home in Detroit's New Center, near the pre-theater dining crowd that favors it. The man behind the restaurant is chef and owner Paul Grosz.
Grosz has a serious fine-dining pedigree. He started young in the business, going from cleaning floors at a donut shop at age 9, washing dishes in a diner at 14, working his way up to a top cook by the time he could apply for a driver's license. After studying cooking in school, he moved to Chicago to work at the highly rated French restaurant Le Francais, where he learned principles of French cooking. Through his connections there he traveled to France, learning from about 10 different chefs, mostly in Lyon and Nice. He even spent time at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, studying French pastry techniques. Not long after he returned to this country, he was wooed by Dearborn's Hyatt Regency, which was looking for a chef to run its fine-dining restaurant. After success there, he moved on to Detroit's Whitney, where he grew as a chef and also honed his business skills.
After several years there, he pulled together his plan for Cuisine. As he prepared to open his restaurant, he found an old plan he'd written for a restaurant as a boy: It turned out to be almost identical to his business plan at Cuisine — further proof that he always knew what he wanted to do.
Grosz is known not only for his food but for his personal style, which fits with the residential feel of Cuisine: He's a chef who wants to know what diners think. He doesn't come to your table just to glad-hand you; he actually wants to get your advice about his food. He was kind enough to take time out to speak with us recently.
Metro Times: I gotta say first thing, I heard this restaurant was an old speakeasy.
Paul Grosz: Yeah, years ago. I don't know the exact dates or exact years, but the home was built in 1923. It was a home for a while but after that it turned into a nightclub-speakeasy. I think they did a small amount of food back then. It didn't become a full-blown restaurant until the mid-'50s. It had a 15-year-run as a clublike atmosphere.
MT: If these walls could talk, huh?
Grosz: Yeah, right? [laughs] We might not want to know what they'd say, right?
MT: So this has been a restaurant for—
Grosz: For a while, yeah. Proabably seven or eight different restaurants. I don't know them all, but, it was most notable as Fisher 666 back in the '60s and '70s. And prior to me it was Il Centro.
MT: Does running a restaurant in an older home present you with any special challenges?
Grosz: Yeah, of course. Like any home, especially an old home, there are repairs needed all the time. It's ongoing; there's always something. We're working on the roof right now, and then the front, we're making some cosmetic upgrades on the outside, but like any other business, I'm sure you have the same obstacles. It's just such a big old place. It doesn't hold heat, it doesn't hold cool air. So it's not too fun getting the utility bills.
MT: Well, at least the air gets exchanged several times a day!
Grosz: [laughs] That's for sure! There is airflow in this building.
MT: That said, it seems a home is a great setting for your personal style, given your reputation for mingling with diners, talking with them, consulting about wines and such.
Grosz: Yeah, I agree. I like to be able to talk to guests, and get their take on everything. Food and wine are very simple, there are no rules that you have to like this or it has to taste like this. It's all up to the individual, you know. And for me to be one-on-one with people, seeing what they like, it helps guide me to where I need to go with my thoughts on food and wine pairings. The interaction is important and I love it. I don't go out to the dining room seeking compliments or anything like that, it's just advice. I'm looking to see where people are going with their thoughts on flavors.
MT: Is that different from how it used to be?
Grosz: Much different. Over the last 15 years or so, the intelligence of the average diner has grown dramatically. They want to know a lot about the food. They want to know where it's from, how it was bred, how it was raised. They're very educated compared to how they were 20 years ago. With that in mind, I have to adhere to their needs. And that helps me think about menu design and combination of flavors. There is a lot of thought that goes into every placement, every detail. And it's always changing. If you have an idea or process that doesn't work, you change it. You have to evolve. And you can't do that on your own; that would be selfish. You have to know what the customer likes. That's the direction I take.
MT: But you also have to be gracious about accepting advice.
Grosz: Oh, sure. No question. That's why we're here. I tell people that I design the menu the way I like to eat. Yes, that's true. But it's also about how I think they want to eat, because I do have that connection with people, talking with them. I meet hundreds of people a week. It's kind of neat.
MT: Does segueing between being chef, owner and host ever get people feeling like guests in a home instead of a restaurant?
Grosz: Well, when I hear someone say they feel like they're in someone's dining room, that's the best compliment of all. They're that comfortable to say that, like they're in someone's home. That's how comfortable I want them to feel. It's really nice when the place is busy, and complete strangers are looking at other people's food and they start talking about food. That happens all the time. And I love that. That is so cool. Total strangers who never met before and they discuss the food and the conversation can go anywhere from there. Even if they're talking about another restaurant or somebody else's food, that's fine. It starts with what's on that plate, where it's from, how you made the combination of flavors work. It's food talk, you know? And it's pretty cool.
MT: Helping create that spirit of conviviality must taste like success.
Grosz: Yeah, it feels good. It's what you do with it, though. You can't sit back on your laurels and say, "Oh, yeah. I've done a good job!" No. You're only as good as your next dinner! [laughs] You're only as good as the next product you put out, the next plate. And so you've always got to stay on the edge. I love it. It's kind of sad in a sense, though: I'm never in a comfort zone, you know? Because every time I feel I'm comfortable with something — boom — something happens. It's never relaxed that way. It keeps you on your toes.Grilled is an occasional column interviewing local food folks. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org