As the sun begins to set on Detroit's New Center, it's a sleepy scene, as most of the area's commuters have left for home. But the Jam Handy space on Grand Boulevard is just heating up, as cars park on the boulevard and people head in. The space is warm and lively, with music, food, and dozens of guests dining buffet-style at long tables.
The party marks the one-year anniversary of the hip Cass Corridor eatery Selden Standard, and it's no surprise that head chef Andy Hollyday is there, along with his talented sous chefs Nick Elswick and Nyle Flynn. But so is chef James Rigato of the Root, as well as Sam Stanisz of Mable Gray. Before the evening is over, staff from several other hip restaurants will drop in as well, including Brian Perrone from Slows Bar-B-Q, Marc Djozlija from Wright & Co., and Dave Mancini from Supino — and not to take notes on "the competition."
That's because, increasingly, these chefs regard one another as collaborators, not competitors. It's all part of a startling transformation in Detroit dining: More than ever before, hip local chefs are hanging out together, sharing ideas and swapping information, finding ways to work together, trying to create a scene that's greater than the sum of its parts. It's a scene that includes not just the staff at Rigato's restaurants, but Matt Fitchett at Big Rock Chophouse, Michael Barrera and Brennan Calnin at Townhouse Bistro, Brendon Edwards at the much-anticipated Standby, Aaron Cozadd of Vinsetta Garage, any many others. This intentional community of chefs is paying off too, drawing crowds, building buzz, and rewarding those who give these chefs the freedom to do what they want.
Let's get together
At the center of this scene is 31-year-old James Rigato. He's the kind of chef who loves traveling all over the state and developing relationships with offbeat, small vendors. Similarly, he loves gathering together talented chefs and finding ways to work together. That was what drove him to start up a series of dinners in December 2013 called "Young Guns," which featured Selden Standard's Hollyday and more than a dozen others in collaborative roles.
"When James started the Young Guns, it brought people together to work, and we had so much fun we'd blow off some steam together," Hollyday recalls. "It was nice because you got to meet chefs that you'd never worked with. He wanted to highlight chefs he felt were doing a good job, cooking good honest food, maybe finding opportunities for sous chefs who didn't have their own place, giving them the opportunity to put out a good dinner where there were no rules, anything goes, cook what you want."
While chefs have always hung out in the past, there's something new to the warmth and vitality of the community Rigato and others have helped foster. "In the industry," Hollyday says, "if you've never worked together, you don't always hang out with other chefs. So Young Guns was a good starting point for the camaraderie you see in the industry right now."
It's a point echoed by chef Doug Hewitt Jr. of Chartreuse: "James was at the center of it, especially at a time when the chef community wasn't very tight-knit. He was at the forefront of introducing himself and putting chefs in contact and really breaking that barrier that we had so long."
Selden Standard sous chef Flynn agrees: "The chefs, James, Andy, Doug, they're super close. They just want to bring up a small scene. So we all kind of feed off one another, and we're all really nice to each other."
That fellowship often expresses itself in after-work drinking sessions at Northern Lights or Honest John's in Detroit, at Loui's in Hazel Park or the nearby Madison Park Bowl, at Sneakers or the Oakland in Ferndale, or just knocking back dollar Jägers at Nancy Whiskey on a Wednesday night. Get more than one chef together and a social hour can turn into a vendor showcase, a hiring hall, or ingredient-sharing arrangement.
"A lot of time it starts with product," Rigato says. "We raised some goats on a farm and Andy is one of the few guys I tell, 'Yo, I got a goat.' So we have a goat on a night at the same time. I don't ask him for his curry goat recipe, but we both get our goat ragout or goat bacon."
"He's turned me on to a couple of his farms too," Hollyday says.
"We're talking about what events are coming up, what farmers we're using, what their prices are," Hewitt says. "Rarely do we just talk about our individual food. Purchasing and events are probably our No. 1 conversation topic when we're out."
"The farming initiatives are really at the forefront of what we're trying to do," Hewitt adds. "All of a sudden, we're not just talking about food, we're talking about our community, our industry, and really just rallying together and saying we're going to do our food. I think you see the independent chefs as all in the same battle."
"There are so many different services you need at a restaurant," Hollyday says. "Just the day-to-day bullshit we can all relate to each other and vent to people who understand your pain and are in the same boat. It's a crazy life, a lot of hard work, a ton of hours, a lot of sacrifice. And when you're blowing off steam, it's nice to look across the table and know that this guy gets where you're coming from."
These chefs don't just get along with one another — their sous chefs and kitchen staff have an equally warm relationship with the chefs. If that sounds like common sense, it was uncommon a generation ago. Back in the days of blue cheese and sirloin, chefs were more likely to be cantankerous characters the staff would try to steer clear of in social settings.
Don't just take it from these sharp young chefs. Take it from Paul Grosz of Cuisine in Detroit and the Stand in Birmingham. Many of today's hip chefs regard him as a mentor, Hewitt included. Grosz spent years working in some of the toniest fine-dining kitchens in the world, and recalls it all well. He says, "The guys that us older guys have learned from? Those guys were tyrants. They yelled at us. They taught us, but they were not nice to us, so you went home not wanting to hang out with that guy." Recalling one chef he trained under, Grosz says, "I loved what he taught me, but I hated the sonofabitch. Every day I went to work, I really had to question whether I wanted to stay there."
Hewitt says, "That attitude really is gone now. A lot of chefs were pompous pricks. When I was coming up, I worked for a lot of chefs who really loved themselves. And I don't really see that too much anymore. It's more of a community now."
"Now it's a little different," Grosz agrees. "Everybody's a little friendlier. It's still serious and important, but ... when I came up, I had to leave town in order to learn to cook. Nowadays, you don't have to leave. There's enough good guys out there, here in metro Detroit now, where the young cooks can stay and learn different styles from chefs here locally. ... Which is outstanding. It's great to see all these guys."
The changes overtaking the fine-dining scene don't end with the family-like vibe among kitchen staffs, they have to do with sympathetic management as well. In the bad old days, a chef would be much more likely to receive rigid marching orders from an owner, and had to appease an older dining crowd seeking same-old fare.
Hewitt suspects these conditions drove a lot of the rivalry among chefs. "Coming out of culinary school and coming up as a young chef, it just seemed there was all this shit talk all the time," Hewitt says. "I think a large part of it was insecurity, maybe working in establishments where we didn't serve the food we wanted to, or to serve the food that we thought we were capable of serving, what the guests might want. Just being insecure of your own surroundings, I think that wedged a big barrier."
It's easy to see how that culture could pose an obstacle to creative young chefs who are, as Rigato puts it, "not chicken-breast-center-of-the-plate type of guys."
Or, as Hewitt says, "How proud are you if you work for a giant establishment that decides they want to put mahi mahi on with pineapple salsa? Know what I mean? Is that something you really want to go out with your buddies and brag about? There's no pride in that."
But when a chef can take chances, backed by a courageous or understanding owner like Sandy Levine of Chartreuse or Dave Mancini of Wright & Co., it can fill a kitchen with pride that keeps diners returning for fresh and innovative dishes. "Back in the day," Hewitt says, "I think you really had to drive through a lot of communities to get to these 'top tables.' A lot of us wouldn't call ourselves 'top tables' as you know them. We're just doing our food, our way, what we perceive our guests want to eat. And when there's confidence there, in our own style, our own cuisine, then, yeah, it creates a level of understanding and friendship."
In addition to fellowship and sympathetic owners, the other magic ingredient for this crop of chefs is a young dining cohort that wants to take a chance on something new. Hewitt sees that as an outgrowth of chefs goading one another on to new creative heights.
"It makes everybody else better," Hewitt says. "Especially because we eat out so much more. I didn't dine out that much before. Now I just can't wait to go see my friends, belly up to their bar, see how they're doing, and have them throw a plate at us. And because of that, everybody we're involved with who loves our food now enjoys other chefs' food, and what that does is create a community of people who expect and want more. Without that we're nothing."