As I slowly walked beside my bicycle on that bitterly cold December morning, the last thing on my mind was food.
Or being a chef for that matter.
All I could think about was that I was cold and tired.
Mostly, I was tired of my paper route.
Every day, I peddled (or walked) my bike a mile each way to the paper station, where I stuffed and folded my papers and dutifully delivered them to my 50 customers. About the best thing I got out of it was the exercise because my income (for lack of a better word) was eaten up by my junk food habit.
It was a drag.
The only thing I looked forward to was hanging out at the Party Store next to the station, where I’d buy a soda, some chips or maybe a candy bar.
That morning was different, however. That morning, I took a different path, and it changed my life.
Instead of peddling off down my usual street, like an old horse on a milk wagon route, I decided to wander past a couple of new stores down the street. It wasn’t much out of the way.
As I drew close, I noticed one was an Italian American restaurant, and it had a large window in front where you could see cooks flinging pizzas and big deck ovens. Ahhh, those were the days!
I wasn’t impressed by anything, except that there were kids my age working there, and they were warm while I was freezing to death.
Long story short, I applied and then leaned on some kid that worked there. Eventually, I got an inside job.
Had it have been a hardware store instead of a restaurant, I’d probably be a manager at The Home Depot.
Thus began my culinary career at 15 years old making 85 cents an hour. Before I left, I was making a buck eleven. But I liked it! It was fun, and I took to it instantly. Everything seemed easy to me, and as my high school years began, I worked at other restaurants and took some culinary vocational classes. Later, I continued my education via colleges, including The Culinary Institute of America, where I began the teaching part of my career after graduation.
I eventually came back to Detroit, just as the city was going through a changing of the guard. Gone or fading were the Mona Loa, Fisher 666, Little Harry’s, Topinka’s on the Boulevard, Top of the Flame, Top of the Ponch and the Salamander Bar.
I was, however, fortunate to work at both The Money Tree and The (original) London Chop House during their hey days.
It was quite an education, needless to say, but I fell in love with Detroit and spent a good deal more of my career working in the city, including opening The Detroit Plaza Hotel in 1976 (now a Westin), and of course, opening Opus One in 1986, where we won an inaugural DiRoNa (Distinguished Restaurants of North America) Award in 1992 (only two Michigan Restaurants made that list that year) and Restaurant of the Year in 1993.
More recently, as Corporate Chef of Epoch Restaurant Group, I also had the opportunity to work on the opening of the Luxury Concessions at Ford Field with Levy Restaurants (Chicago).
My takeaway from all the time I have spent on my career in Detroit is that the city has some remarkable culinary talent and an equally incredible resilience, persevering through near depression-like economic conditions and questionable governance.
Food has a way of bringing people together, though. When I dine in Detroit (which is quite often), I’m amazed that more people don’t take advantage of this tremendous resource. There are some terrific restaurants, clubs and pubs awaiting your visit.
Give Detroit a try. It’s right down the street.
Below are a few of my favorites, in no particular order (some for the great food, some the atmosphere, and some, well, just because). Keep in mind that I’m just referring to strictly downtown and New Center places here.
Have a few favorites of your own? Share the great Detroit restaurants on your plate.