Jeffrey Kalich, sitting in the balcony of the restaurant he built with his own hands, muses, “What would Jeffrey want to do when he grows up?”
It’s a question he can answer easily: “Own a restaurant — or two or three or four, be a recording artist, be a race car driver, ride horses, invent things and retire in the south of France when I’m 70.”
Twingo’s, a popular eatery near Wayne State University, is Kalich living his dreams. He was 22 when he bought the building and began, with the help of his father, Len (aka Skip), to convert an old bookstore into a restaurant, which opened in 1995.
“I was at that point of OK, what to do next with my life. This felt right. It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since I can remember. Since I was in a highchair I’ve been exposed to the public dining experience. In my family, it would be a rare treat that we’d eat at home.”
The early Twingo’s, named for a car made by Renault, was known for its tables lacquered with French newspapers and plywood chairs with cutouts in the shape of starry exclamation points. The chairs are gone (customers complained that they were too hard) and French newspapers are now creeping up the walls. Two years ago, Twingo’s expanded to the space next door, more than doubling its capacity. A wine bar and live music completed the concept.
“It’s most definitely turned into something more grandiose than I had anticipated,” says Kalich. “I thought it would be a coffeehouse serving soups and salads, muffins and baked goods.”
In addition to the restaurant, the business now includes a catering service and has a second kitchen, as big as the entire restaurant, around the corner where all the prep work is done.
How did Kalich prepare for his career? Not the traditional route of cooking school and working his way up the ladder in ever-fancier restaurants.
He explains, “There are things that you just kind of know how to do and your love of doing them makes it a lot easier. I could always taste food and I always enjoyed putting unique creations together, coming up with different things, experimenting. I can taste food in my mouth just by writing it down on a piece of paper. Most of the time when I eat something, I can tell what’s in it — not always, but I do try. It’s a fun little game that I play when I go out to eat. Nine times out of ten I can get it.”
Another dream undeferred: The live music on Friday and Saturday evenings often features chef Jeff on vocals. Kalich says he loves to sing, and one night while his dad’s jazz trio was rehearsing, he just picked up a microphone and joined in. He had fun off-stage, and “then I moved it over to singing in front of the public, which was scary but it worked.”
In a characteristically understated way, Kalich says, “I’m not the type of person who plays it safe. I want to live each and every day and take risks, and find out what life is about. My friends call me a sponge. I’m a sponge — I love to experience new things. What’s the worst that can happen? You fail at it? I don’t believe in that. Failure is not trying.”
Kalich has a little book full of ideas and inventions. “My mind constantly runs,” he says. “Since I’m a very hands-on person, a lot of my inventions have to do with ways to do things easier — whether it be a screwdriver (or) something to aid in doing laundry. It’s the same thing with restaurants. I have concepts for 50 different restaurants that would all succeed if they were started up properly with the right amount of capital.” (He concedes that Twingo’s was started with no capital.)
Twingo’s has become a family project. In addition to his father’s role, mother Christine bakes the fabulous desserts and sister Leah is manager.
But the restaurant is Jeffrey’s baby. “Twingo’s is an extremely personal expression of me. It’s like a child. It’s a big reflection of me.”
Kalich keeps his food simple, without a lot of overlapping flavors. “Cluttering food with a bunch of different spices and flavors confuses the palate,” he says.
His favorite dish on the menu is chicken champagnois. It has a sauce made with champagne, shiitakes, portobello mushrooms, cream and spices. Daily specials and nonspecific menu items, such as salmon du jour (“prepared to today’s whim of our Chef”), keep the job creative and fun. Kalich especially enjoys making soup. In the summer, peach and basil is a favorite. He likes to be inspired by what’s available at Eastern Market.
Making things from scratch and using the freshest possible ingredients are operating principles, possibly born of necessity. “We had a limited amount of refrigeration and storage space here, so it has forced us to keep everything absolutely to the freshest of its potential. I get produce orders every single day. I get my chickens and seafood, all of that stuff comes in fresh, and it’s vital to start with a fresh product like that, not something that’s canned or premade. That’s a really great starting point. We get our whole pieces of salmon and skin them and bone them — same thing with whole chickens, we do everything but take the feathers off.”
His love of France is apparent to anyone who reads the menu. Under “Spécialités de la Maison” he describes his introduction to baguette avec brie: “I was sitting in a small café on the Left Bank one rainy Sunday afternoon. Then while I was enjoying this same exact dish in Paris, a rainbow broke out and a most awesome sunset followed.”
If he has regrets, it is perhaps that he had to tone down his concept to the tastes of his customers. “To me, Paris is a magical city and France is a magical country. Twingo’s is not authentically French by any stretch of the imagination. I have customers who are from Paris and they say, ‘What’s French about this place?’ Well, not too much, but it’s a theme and it works. I loved those chairs, but people did not find them very comfortable. I relate those chairs with our original baguettes, which was from a recipe from France, but people found it to be far too crispy and crunchy on the outside. Now we make an American baguette. It’s not what I would choose if I were in Europe or New York, but there’s fun little French twists here.”
Some weeks Kalich is able to pare down his 80-hour weeks to 50 or 60, but he finds it hard to relax and rarely eats out. “When you own a restaurant, you’re always at work, even when you’re at home because it’s always on your mind. I like to sit by a fire, be with friends, go to a movie, cook dinner at home. I’m constantly building, reworking things. I don’t know, it must be a curse that I have.”
Twingo’s is at 4710 Cass, Detroit. Call 313-832-3832.
Read other chefs' stories in Chow (this week's special restaurant collection):
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• 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.