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


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