Detroiters Connect in Shared Kitchens

IN MEXICANTOWN, on the Southwest side of Detroit, Chloe Sabatier makes French lava cakes. Sabatier sources as many of her ingredients as locally as possible, including raspberries, strawberries, and spices. She sells at farmers’ markets, cafes, restaurants, and specialty stores across the Detroit Metro area and her commercial kitchen is located in a banquet hall owned by Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Cathedral. How is it that French delicacies are being made in a church started by Polish immigrants in a Mexican neighborhood? The answer is an innovative program called Detroit Kitchen Connect(DKC).

By making abandoned or underutilized commercial kitchens available to local food entrepreneurs, DKC helps residents start food businesses with a minimal investment. “It’s an asset-based approach to solving problems and finding the solutions in neighborhoods,” says Devita Davison, Community Kitchen Coordinator at Eastern Market Corporation. In July of 2013, Eastern Market—one of the oldest farmers’ market organizations in the country—joined with FoodLab Detroit—a network of food entrepreneurs dedicated to growing Detroit’s local food movement—to create DKC.

Detroit’s population shrank dramatically over the last few decades, dropping from 1.5 million in 1970 to 700,000 in 2012. While people may have left, however, many office buildings, churches, and community centers remain. Many of them have commercial kitchens that are used sparingly or not at all. Instead of seeing these buildings as liabilities and signs of decay, Davison sees them as assets in a city where many people are struggling to make ends meet.

Like kitchen incubators such as San Francisco’s La Cocina and Hot Bread Kitchen in Harlem, DKC charges a low hourly rate, which gives local entrepreneurs access to facilities that would normally be out of reach both geographically and financially. But its Detroit location sets DKC apart from other incubators around the nation, because the project also has the potential to bring forgotten neighborhoods back to life.

Take the Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church. With its congregation shrinking and participation dwindling, the leaders were at a loss at how to connect with the community.

Before DKC got involved, the church had started a community garden and opened their banquet hall to rent for neighborhood celebrations, but the kitchen was only used on Sundays for a homeless outreach program. Now, the kitchen is a hub of activity that’s in use almost every day. Crème Detropolis makes gourmet sweet potato pies; Five Star Cakes makes traditional layered cakes.

With grant money from the United Way, DKC was able to give the church $5,000 for a new security system, a new door, security cameras, and outdoor lighting. “When we first started the program, this church was suffering,” Davison recalls. “Because the church didn’t have a good door, it was broken into several times.” Since the DKC upgrades, however, the break-ins have stopped.

And DKC provides services beyond the shared kitchen. DKC food artisans become part of the Eastern Market and FoodLab Detroit community of businesses. With these connections DKC tenants learn where to find local ingredients, where to sell their products, and how to navigate the city bureaucracy. Within this community, established business owners share their successes and failures with DKC’s fledgling food entrepreneurs.

As part of DKC, Detroit entrepreneurs also get help with the licensing process—another barrier to starting a food business. There are two types of licenses in the state of Michigan. The first license is for packaged food and is pretty affordable at $70 to $175. But the second type of license is for an entrepreneur who serves food such as caterers, restaurateurs, and food trucks. That license comes from the city of Detroit and costs $1,500, which is around three to four times more than any other city or county in the state.

“In a city that needs to promote entrepreneurism, in a city that is talking about using food as a conduit to grow the local economy, these barriers of entry are stifling growth,” Davison says. Her next task is to work with the city of Detroit to make the catering license accessible to more entrepreneurs.

Currently, 10 licensed entrepreneurs work in DKC’s two kitchens. April M. Anderson used to bake out of her home (under the Michigan cottage food law) but she had to turn down larger orders because her home kitchen was too small. Through DKC, she was able to rent space in a commercial kitchen and within a few months opened Good Cakes and Bakes in a retail space in Detroit. Anderson bakes at the DKC kitchen from 3 to 6:30 am and then heads to her shop at 7:00 am.
“I don’t know if April would have been able to open her bakery if she’d had to purchase hundreds and thousands of dollars of equipment,” says Davison. “She understands full well that this is what she has to do to buy her own kitchen. Until then we are her bakehouse.”

Unlike kitchen incubators in cities that receive generous public funding, Davison says, “What we’ve done here is scrappy. We haven’t gotten a dime from the city.” Private funders, including the United Way of Southeast Michigan and the McGregor Foundation, have footed the bill since the program began.

With nearly a year under their belt and some visible success stories, DKC hopes to expand and open more kitchens. The goals, says Davison, go far beyond food. “We are building a more inclusive food economy in Detroit,” she says. “We are challenging the social, political, and economic structures that reinforce inequities.”


Published on Civil Eats by

 

Clarkston’s Woodshop: A Hand-Crafted Joint

I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYONE so excited about a pig.

We stand in the freezer at the Union Woodshop in downtown Clarkston and gaze down at a 209-pound female. My host is Executive Chef Aaron Cozadd, who is dressed in black pinstriped pants, chef whites and a bandana with a small white pin that has one word on it: meat.

Cozadd and two other men carry the pig into the prep room, hoist the pig onto a stainless steel table and prepare to cut off its head.

That pig will end up on the Woodshop’s Southern Pride smoker, located right outside the back entrance to the restaurant. The pig will be dry rubbed and surrounded in smoke for 12 to 14 hours, producing a smell that leads people to the restaurant like a piper’s pipe. Judging by the crowd milling outside the restaurant—the wait can be two hours on a weekend night—the restaurant is thriving in its second year. And since the Woodshop was named 2011 Restaurant of the Year by the Detroit Free Press, the restaurant’s reputation has spread far beyond Oakland County.

Of course a busy chef doesn’t have time to break down every pig, but once in a while Cozadd takes saw and knife in hand to do the work himself. “The better you know your ingredient in its raw stage, the better you can be in cooking it,” he explains. “Most people see meat as cut steaks in the grocery store. They don’t appreciate that an animal died for it.”

Cozadd owes a lot to the pig. He has built a reputation on his ability to craft hand-pulled pork, Tasso ham, spicy sausage, robust hot dogs and maple-cured bacon. Any meat—pork or otherwise—that is smoked or cured is done by hand in house.

This animal has all the qualities Cozadd looks for in a good pig. Before arriving at the Woodshop, the pig lived at Cook’s Farm Dairy, a family-owned farm just six miles away from the restaurant. There the pig had plenty of mud to wallow in, children to adore him and—best of all—a diet that included the leftover ice cream the dairy is known for. “If you love the ice cream and the pig eats the ice cream, you will love the pig,” Cozadd says with a smile.

Cozadd prefers local pigs over mass-produced pork because he believes local pigs tend to have better living conditions and eat good food themselves. He says that because mass-produced meat has been modified to be leaner with no fat and no marbling, the meat ends up dry with little flavor. He uses local pigs when he can, but is realistic about the economies of a restaurant. Even if local farmers could meet the restaurant’s demand for meat, only a portion of restaurant customers are willing to pay extra for that local meat.

Cozadd relies on local farmers for as many raw ingredients as he can. His weekend specials highlight the seasonal ingredients he buys from local farms. Squash blossoms from Law Family farm in North Branch top a market pie with pickled garlic, fresh oregano, ricotta and olive oil. Kale from White Pine Farm in North Branch is creamed and served alongside pancetta-wrapped hake and roasted red-skin potatoes. Maple syrup from Doodles Sugar Bush farms in Blanchard is the main attraction in the Woodshop maple-cured bacon and the sweet potato mash. When available, the restaurant uses local cherries, vegetables and herbs. Cozadd says that local products simply taste better.

“Ultimately, if you have really good ingredients to start with everybody is going think you are a better chef,” he explains. “The food does 80% of the work. Your job is to just stay out of the way.”

Although Cozadd has built a reputation on meat, he is equally passionate about his vegetable side dishes. He mixes his classical French training with modern ingredients and techniques to create side dishes and appetizers that are good enough to take center stage themselves. His wood-fired pizzas can be customized before preparation with toppings ranging from roasted garlic to smoked shrimp to pickled chilies. He smokes salmon before turning it into a paté and cold smokes cheddar cheese and sour cream for the kitchen and pickles and olives for the bar.

Cozadd has worked in professional kitchens since he was 16. He graduated cum laude from New York’s prestigious Culinary Institute of America in 2004 and then rambled around a bit—backpacking in Europe, cooking in the Florida Keys and snowboarding in Aspen. Eventually he returned to his roots in Clarkston, where he worked as a cook in the Clarkston Union. When the owners of the Union decided to open another restaurant down the street, they offered Cozadd the position of executive chef.

Cozadd’s first executive chef position at the Clarkston Café—which combined a fine-dining supper club with a pizza joint—was short-lived. With an upscale décor and a highly ambitious menu, the Café lasted only two years before Michigan’s economy tanked. In spite of attempts to lower the price tag and scale down the menu, the reputation of “fine dining” stuck, and struggling families turned to cheaper fare.

Undaunted, owners Curt Catallo and Erich Lines set about to reinvent the Café. Cozadd kept busy, and on the payroll, working on specials for the Union down the street. During that time Cozadd honed his skills in charcuterie—the art of preserving and flavoring meat. The team decided to create more than a typical barbecue restaurant and capitalize on the wood-fired oven they had, combined with Cozadd’s hands-on approach. They called it “a hand-crafted, wood-fired joint” and re-opened as the Union Woodshop in August 2009.

Two years later the restaurant is packed, even on a Sunday night, and Cozadd is nearly done cutting up his pig. Members of his staff wander in and out; some ask questions about the process, others make jokes and some shield their eyes and say “gross.” But behind the laughter and smiles is a deep interest in where our food comes from and a genuine respect for the man preparing it. As he finishes, Cozadd proudly shows us that he will use all but a handful of the 209-pound pig.

As humble as he is talented, Cozadd attributes any accolades to the ingredients he so carefully chooses. “It’s really easy to make something delicious out of something delicious,” he says.


Published in edibleWOW Magazine  by Chris Hardman

 

Mowtown to Growtown

FOUR YEARS AGO, Detroit businessman John Hantz received national attention when he announced his plans to create the world’s largest urban farm in Detroit. His plan to buy vacant city land and convert it to orchards and tree farms was hailed as visionary by some and nefarious by others. After 4 years of negotiating wit the city and meeting with neighbors, Hantz Farms was finally able to purchase 1,400 vacant city-owned lots on Detroit’s lower east side for half a million dollars.

“The purpose of the investment is to make neighborhoods more livable,” says Hqntz Farms president Mike Score. “Our intention is to take larger blocks of contiguous land and make our woodlands a permanent feature in the city.”

In a bankrupt city that has lost a quarter of its population in 10 years, vacant land has become a pressing  concern. The city of Detroit is drowning in the fniancial burden of owning nearly 200,000 vacant parcels–almost half of them residential plots.

The Hantz proposal, initially a plan to create commercial fruit orchards and cut-your-own Christmas tree farms, had been scaled back to a simpler tree-planting project by the time the city approved the land sale in December 2012. Hantz Woodlands–a subsidiary of Hantz Farms–agreed to buy 1,400 vacant parcels from the city, clean up the debris, tear down decaying buildings, plant 15,000 trees, mow the grass regularly,and pay taxes on the land. The parcels are interspersed among homes that people are caring for and living in.

A small, but loud, group of community activists allege that the transaction is a “land grab” and demand that Detroit’s surplus land go into a community trust. They accuse Hantz of greed disguised as philanthropy. What if Hantz sells some of those parcels for housing, they ask, and he makes a profit off the cheap land?

Score has posed that question to the people currently living in the area. “If you go up and down the street and ask people, ‘What do you really want to happen in this neighborhood?’ they say they want a house on every lot,” he says. At this time, there isn’t a great demand for land in Detroit, but if in the future people decide this is a nice place to live and Hantz Woodlands can build houses on some of its land, Score says the neighbors would be pleased.

Hantz Farms maintains a small demonstration site next to its office on Mt. Elliot Street. Oak and sugar maple trees in tidy rows grow on 50 lots that formerly were used as dumping grounds. Gone are the frayed tires, soggy mattresses, and semi trailer full of chemicals. The drug dealer that used to operate on the corner has moved on, and the 80-year-old woman who lives on the street is delighted.

Although urban farming seems a viable income source for a city with a surplus of land an a shortage of people, Detroit lacked a formal policy for urban agriculture until recently. The city’s first agriculture zoning ordinance, adopted by Detroit City Council in April 2013, recognizes agriculture as a legal use of land and establishes guidelines for it. With the law on their side, Detroit’s farming entrepreneurs should now be able to avoid spending 4 years and a lot of money for the right to buy land in Detroit.


Published in Organic Gardening magazine by Chris Hardman

 

Eating Local at the Ballpark

AS A FAITHFUL Detroit Tigers fan, I have been known to purchase my share of ballpark food. It’s one of the only places I’ll let my kids eat cotton candy and one of the few places you’ll see me munching on a hot dog on a white bun. But as the editor of a local food magazine I am always interested in who produces the food we’re buying and where they are from. The more I researched, and the more I ate, I began to realize that one of the largest venues for Michigan foods is indeed Comerica Park.

Having a hot dog at the ballpark is almost obligatory. The most famous of all hot dogs, the Ball Park Frank, made its debut right here in Detroit. In 1957 the owner of the Tigers challenged local sausage makers to create the ideal ballpark hot dog. Hygrade Food Products Corp., a Detroit-based meatpacking company, answered the call and baseball history was made. Although Ball Park Franks are no longer made in Detroit, their tie to the Tigers remains.

The ideal vessel for the hot dog had already been in use at the park in the form of soft, white hot dog buns. Brown’s Bun Baking Company in Detroit has been baking buns for Tigers fans since the 1930s. The buns are also used for Winter’s sausage, the official sausage of the Detroit Tigers. This family-owned company was started in 1951 by a German immigrant and master sausage maker named Eugene Winter. His daughter, Rose Mary Wuerz, runs the company today.

Another Michigan company, Garden Fresh Gourmet, sells chips and fresh salsa in the ballpark. From humble beginnings in Ferndale, Jack and Annette Aronson have created a top-selling brand that is sold throughout the country. Not only has the company received awards for taste and freshness, Garden Fresh has also been recognized for its commitment to Michigan’s economy and to helping other small businesses.

Comerica even has local pizza makers. Little Caesars has six stands in the park. The well-known pizza franchise is owned by Ilitch Holdings, the same company that owns the Tigers. When Mike Ilitch, who once played shortstop for the Tiger’s farm system, purchased the Detroit Tigers in 1992, his baseball dreams came true.

For the gourmand, the exclusive Tiger Club offers a scratch kitchen utilizing local produce when possible. Regional Executive Chef Mark Szubeczak’s enthusiasm for good food sets the stage for this upscale venue. The menu varies from game to game, but freshness and quality stay the same. A beautifully appointed cheese table features house-made bread and a rotating selection of cheeses—from Michigan and beyond—displayed on cutting boards in the shape of the Michigan mitten. Fresh smoothies and sushi are prepared in front of waiting fans.

A baseball game wouldn’t be complete without at least one or two snacks. My kids always go straight for the cotton candy and now that I found out the candy is spun on site, I can’t use “It’s not local” as a reason to say no. As a matter of fact, many of the snacks are from local companies. Nuts come from Germack Pistachio Company, located on Russell Street near Eastern Market. The popcorn comes from the Detroit Popcorn Company on Telegraph Road in Redford Township. And the exclusive Tiger Traxx ice cream comes from a 118-year-old creamery on the west side of the state.

Hudsonville Creamery introduced the limited edition Tiger Traxx to fans last year. Imagine vanilla ice cream infused with chocolate-covered pretzel baseballs and thick fudge swirls. According to Hudsonville sales and marketing lead Randy Stickney, the flavor was so popular with park-goers that the creamery was unable to keep up with the demand. This year Hudsonville has increased production and plans to offer the flavor at the park and at grocery stores until October or even November, “if the Tigers do what I expect them to do,” Stickney says.

Also debuting last year, was the Michigan craft beer stand near the standing-room-only section of the park. The stand features 26 local brews, 10 on draft and 16 in bottles. According to Bob Thormeier, general manager of Comerica’s concessionaire—Delaware North Companies—sales in that space went up 600% following the introduction of Michigan craft beers. The growing interest in Michigan specialty beers has created an entire generation of beer lovers who are faithful to their brands. Beer comes from local breweries including New Holland, Bells, Atwater, Motor City and Arbor Brewing. Thormeier points out that Michigan fans have supported the Tigers during good times and bad, so the Tigers simply want to give back.

While I enjoyed tours and tastings, the rest of my family shivered in the stands enduring high winds, sleet and temperatures below 40°. Within an inning of returning to my seat, I was too cold to dance during the seventh inning stretch. As I pulled my hood up over my Detroit Tigers baseball cap, I saw hail falling into my bag of Detroit Popcorn Company popcorn. I turned to my family and whined, “There’s no hail in baseball!”

But there sure is a lot of Michigan food in Comerica Park.


Published in edibleWOW magazine by Chris Hardman

 

Bumper Crop: A Detroit Garden

WHAT DO YOU GET when you combine zoo animal manure, coffee grounds and shipping crates? The answer is an environmentally friendly start to Detroit’s newest urban garden.

Located on Merritt in southwest Detroit, the Cadillac Urban Garden marked its first year with a bumper crop and steadfast community support in spite of the drought and the parched economy. “It has exceeded our wildest dreams,” says Sylvia Gucken, garden volunteer and assistant to the chairman of the Ideal Group, the local business that administers the garden.

The concept is simple: On Saturday mornings and after work, neighborhood residents are invited to stroll through the gardens and pick the produce free of charge. What happens next is magical. People stop to talk to each other. Neighbors who previously only exchanged a superficial “hello” become friends.

“Our mission is to create a space that promotes the health and security of our community,” says Frank Venegas, Ideal Group chairman. “Cadillac Urban Gardens is producing vegetables, community health and growth.” Ideal Group, an eight-time GM Supplier of the Year, worked with both for-profit and nonprofit organizations to create the garden. General Motors provided 250 shipping crates for the raised-bed gardens. The soil was supplied by Detroit Dirt, with composting materials, coffee grounds and food scraps from the Detroit Zoo, Astro Café, the Marriott Hotel and GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant. Better Day Ministries and southwest Detroit residents provided labor.

Children from the neighborhood are the heart and soul of this garden. Take 13-year-old Christopher Lara, for example. The adult volunteers credit him with keeping the garden alive during the summer drought. Pedaling back and forth from home to the garden on his bike, Lara spent between five and 15 hours a week tending to the 250 raised beds. With this summer’s inconsistent rainfall, Lara put a lot of his energy into watering the crops. The sturdy boxes of overflowing plants that cover a once-abandoned parking lot delight him.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says. His summer as a gardener has sparked an interest in becoming a landscape architect.

All told, neighborhood youth have contributed more than 800 volunteer hours working in the garden. Ideal Group’s Esperanza Cantu is responsible for motivating and organizing those young people. She draws on the nearby Cristo Rey High school, Latino Family Services, LA SED and Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision for labor. Many of those same kids will bring their parents to the garden to enjoy the vegetables they have planted.

Gucken summarizes the spirit of the garden in one sentence: “Anyone who comes here is part of the garden. They own it.”


Published in edibleWOW magazine by Chris Hardman