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Almost Famous: Metro Detroit's Up And Coming Chefs

Zen Wine Bar in Plymouth  Photo by Dave Lewinski
Zen Wine Bar in Plymouth Photo by Dave Lewinski
Metro Detroit isn’t exactly known for its cutting-edge culinary scene, but that’s not the same as not actually having one. It seems like we’re almost always the bridesmaid (getting sloppy drunk and shoveling gobs of buttercream frosting down our throats as we insist we’re really happy for the bride, really) when it comes to James Beard awards and invitations to compete on Top Chef.

Sure, occasionally we manage to eke one out – Eve Aronoff of Ann Arbor’s Frita Batidos and John Somerville of the Lark in West Bloomfield are still the only Top Chef competitors from Michigan to date, though both got booted early on; Executive Chef Alex Young from Zingerman’s Roadhouse won the James Beard Award (nicknamed “the Oscars of Food” and presumably just as political) for Best Chef: Great Lakes in 2011, which brings the grand total of Michigan winners up to three since the awards were established in 1990 (the other two were Takashi Yagihashi in 2003 for Tribute and Jimmy Schmidt in 1993 for the Rattlesnake Club). Hell, if it weren’t for Coney dogs and Phil Cooley’s Corktown metro Detroit might as well just be Ann Arbor’s country cousin for all the recognition it gets from national tastemakers.

Is the economic brain drain also true for chefs? Or is it more probable that our local boys (and girls) just don’t get their due props? As home to the respected Schoolcraft College Culinary Arts Program in Livonia – which offers a level of one-on-one training with American Culinary Foundation Certified Master Chefs to rival the CIA’s Hyde Park campus – metro Detroit is churning out chefs with the knowledge and passion needed to compete on an international stage … though most are happy to stay here.

Here are just a few of metro Detroit’s chefs you need to know.

The (Almost) Celebrity
Andy Hollyday, Executive Chef at Michael Symon's Roast, Detroit

Andy Hollyday may not be a Michigan native, but he has proven himself as a tried-and-true Detroiter. He grew up in Toledo and began his career in the restaurant industry the same way so many other accomplished chefs who came before him did - as a pimply teenager washing dishes. "I always felt at home in the kitchen," he says.

Hollyday attended culinary school at the famed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He traveled all over the west coast, the east coast and Europe before finally landing back in Toledo, when he took a job working under world-renowned Chef Takashi Yagihashi at Tribute in Farmington Hills. Through the tight-knit world of the restaurant industry, Hollyday landed the position as Sous Chef of the newly-opened Michael Symon's Roast inside the newly-renovated Westin Book Cadillac. After 8 months he was promoted to Executive Chef and has been overseeing operations of metro Detroit's most high-profile restaurant for the past three and a half years.

While it is Symon's name on the marquee, Hollyday is the one making the daily decisions. "Certain things are [Symon's] signatures and are there for a reason," he explains. "[Otherwise] I can do whatever I want with the menu."

Hollyday stays in line with Symon's meat-centric philosophies, but he has also been able to lighten up the menu a bit, introducing more rotating specials and emphasizing more seasonality. "I like to keep things good and honest and let the ingredients stand out," he states. "I've been working a lot lately with farmers in Detroit and building relationships with farmers to get the best produce right out of the ground."

Of Detroit's burgeoning food scene, Hollyday notes, "I live downtown. I think there's a lot of people who are aware of good food and enjoy it and want better things. I definitely think there's a market [here] for people doing different things and pushing the envelope"

The Artist
Justin Vaiciunas, Executive Chef of ZIN Wine Bar, Plymouth

At just 24 years old, Justin Vaiciunas is one of the youngest executive chefs in the state of Michigan. He's also probably one of the most ambitious. If you ever thought Grant Achatz was crazy … well, try telling him that. He of the molecular gastronomy fame and chef/owner of two of the top-rated restaurants in the country (Chicago's Alinea and Next) single-handedly proved that Americans, and particularly Midwesterners, are capable of "getting" the whole molecular gastronomy "thing." Vaiciunas, a graduate of Schoolcraft who has worked at top fine dining restaurants all over metro Detroit, is banking on Michiganders being equally amenable.

Vaiciunas speaks as passionately about plating as he does about produce. He uses liquid nitrogen, sulfurifications and foams to create plated presentations that could qualify as high art; the best part is his creations taste just as good as they look, with everything made fresh in-house from scratch utilizing only products from local growers and purveyors. His goal is to "take food to another level Detroit doesn't have." His menu is hyper-seasonal with ever-changing specials that highlight seasonal, regional flavors (no matter how limited their availability). This approach keeps people coming back every week just to see what's new, and after barely four months operating as ZIN Wine Bar, Vaiciunas has already turned it into a dining destination. "What we are hoping for is to bring people from all over Detroit to experience really good but different food."

The Trend-Setter
James Rigato, Executive Chef of the Root Restaurant and Ripe Catering, White Lake

Located more than 50 miles from Detroit's city center, the Root in White Lake is a hike for pretty much everyone who doesn't actually live in White Lake. Everything about this place was a gamble - from the far-flung outer ‘burbs location (in a strip mall no less) to the high-minded culinary concept of from-scratch, locally-sourced foods in an area where most restaurants have Keno and karaoke. Executive Chef James Rigato, another Schoolcraft grad, has worked in upscale kitchens all over metro Detroit and was a private chef for the Root's owner Ed Mamou before that gig evolved into a catering company, which then evolved into the Root. You would be hard-pressed to find a chef who isn't passionate about his work, but Rigato is damn near evangelical - listen to him for just a few minutes and you'll be an instant convert.

A lot of chefs talk the local talk, but Rigato walks it. (And brines it and butchers it and smokes it.) Every single item in his kitchen, from the breads to the pastries, is made from scratch; right down to the syrups and mixes at the bar. He works closely with local growers and local butchers, even carrying only Michigan craft beers on draft. Where some chefs gingerly toe their way into the "local trend," Rigato dove in head-first. He also hates calling it a "trend." "I'm doing what's been done since the beginning of time," he says. "I love Michigan products. We're in the best part of the globe, surrounded by the freshwater - water is the key of life! Here's Michigan sandwiched in all this fresh water, our natural resources are so beautiful ... there are plenty of chefs doing great things but this little pocket has been sort of forgotten."

Not anymore. The Root celebrates its one-year anniversary this month after already being named "Restaurant of the Year" by the Free Press and regularly pulls in clientele from all over metro Detroit for booked-solid evenings and sold-out theme dinners.

The Newcomer
Nikita Santches, chef/owner of Rock City Pies

You may be asking, who the hell is Nikita Santches? Well, he's the "Pie Guy." You can find him selling his pies (in flavors ranging from the crowd-pleasing salted caramel apple to the inventive smoked apple whiskey) at the Rust Belt Market in Ferndale every weekend. More importantly, you will soon find him opening his first restaurant (also called Rock City Pies) in downtown Detroit later this year.

Santches is the sleeper on this list. Born in Russia (his family moved here when he was 12), his background is markedly different than the others. He remembers growing up in "Mother Russia" (he says with a smirk) in a house in the woods, going to the market and buying milk so fresh it was still warm, picking mushrooms and eating them for dinner that day, watching grandma making pickles and distilling vodka in the kitchen. This rustic simplicity informs his cooking and his philosophy as a chef.

He is entirely self-trained and works as a private caterer (in addition to pie-baker). After taking a "blow off" cooking class in high school he would repeatedly receive invitations to attend culinary school. "I was like, ‘F- this, I'm not into this, I don't want to be a cook.'" Then school ended and he needed a job, so he got a gig as a dishwasher and worked his way up until he was eventually overseeing the operations of a large hospital and health care system … where he learned what it meant to work for a soulless corporation.

"I'm in this position where [I'm the boss] and I have to cut jobs and cut [people's hours]," he says, slipping in a few choice words about the greedy CEO still needing his bonus. "The whole thing really turned me off … [so I started] my own catering company."

The pie thing … well, that was kind of a fluke (at the time Rust Belt could only sell baked goods), but it's been working out for him so far. When Rock City Pies opens downtown he'll take the basic principles he has adopted as the Pie Guy - classic, familiar comfort food with an edgy twist - and expand it into a full menu. "[People ask], ‘Is this your grandma's recipe?' F- no! There's so many other resources now why wouldn't you try something new?"

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer, regular contributor to Metromode and popular Metro Detroit food blogger. Read her blog at http://www.eatitdetroit.com

 
All Photos by David Lewinski Photography
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