SEPTEMBER 2017 – Each month, we take a moment to spotlight ingredients Cindy’s chef de cuisine Keith Potter loves and is using on his menu at that time. He’s talked about tomatoes, berries, salmon and ‘shrooms. But this month, we’re taking a turn. Instead of talking about specific ingredients, chef Keith reflects on the idea of collaboration and the importance of having a tight chef network, whether locally or across different cities. The idea sparked in him following a trip to Detroit after being invited there to take part in a collaboration dinner at that city’s Mabel Gray restaurant. Instead of us paraphrasing and trying to get inside his head, we’re letting him riff and tell you in his own words …
Chef Keith Potter on collaboration, chef friends and Midwestern values
Roughly one year ago today I was invited to Mabel Gray restaurant in Hazel Park, Mich., to take part in a collaboration dinner between Chicago and Detroit chefs who shared common pedigrees and kitchen cultures. I had previously eaten at Mabel Gray with a close friend and had such a transcendent meal that I immediately jumped at the chance to cook with the chef, James Rigato.
All I previously knew of Detroit was that it was a city facing economic challenges and a population decrease, part of America’s rust-belt where industry and development once thrived yet had fallen over the past decades.
When I arrived in Detroit, all I saw were young chefs and restaurateurs running thriving contemporary restaurants, all remarkable spots regardless of their location — whether from Hamtramck or Hazel Park, Corktown or Ferndale. After eating in several of the places chef James sent me, Detroit convinced me it offered everything — and perhaps more — than Chicago does. Each chef was so gracious and honest, involved wholly in lifting up his or her community and the dining scene in Detroit.
My point? I have always responded better to collaboration over competition. I have always pushed for a kitchen culture that emphasizes team before individual, the collective goal before my own. By ensuring our weakest team member or cook had all the tools to succeed and that each day we all tried to be better than the day prior. Lifting each other up with a collective mentality and an understanding that collaboration and a shared vision is the only way to achieve true success together.
When James invited me up to Summer Slam, both 1 and 2, his goal for a collaborative dinner inspired me to raise my game. To push harder in the weeks leading up to these events, bringing in foreign ingredients like binchotan charcoal or wagyu beef tongue. As I had to raise my game, I then exposed our kitchen to new techniques and products. The Detroit/Chicago collaboration forced growth here at Cindy’s and further inspired all of us to push harder and stay ahead and relevant.
Several outstanding Chicago names have made the move up to Detroit. Namely Thomas Lents formerly of Sixteen, now at the helm of the Detroit Foundation Hotel. Or John Vermiglio of Grey Ghost, just to name a couple.
We look forward to more collaboration with Detroit’s chef community in the future. Cindy’s is currently developing a Detroit takeover evening event this winter. Our plan is to bring in five to six big names and share the kitchen and dining room with them, perhaps also some amazing Michigan brewers and winemakers. Our dining public is uniquely tied together. Many diners frequent both cities for business and travel alike. Our success is linked and intertwined. Most of the farms we use at Cindy’s are located in Michigan. Many of my colleagues hail from Michigan. Midwestern hospitality and a bond to the earth, region and seasons are common among us all.
The more we push one another and collaborate the more we raise the Midwest and place it firmly as a world class dining region.
I want to include James’ words — his story and thoughts on his city and his community —to wrap up this piece. He is a true visionary and a continued inspiration to me and my team. Go to Mabel Gray and eat his food. I cannot say enough about him and the incredible things his restaurant is doing. But enough from me. Here’s what James had to say.
“My favorite thing about Detroit — and really the rest of Michigan — is that it is such a DIY area. The history of industry, the Great Lakes and their climate, four seasons, foraging, hunting, diverse agriculture, 300-plus breweries, wine culture and history of immigration has created a unique thumbprint that I haven’t seen elsewhere. Many of us chefs around the area come from different backgrounds and families, but the Midwestern hospitality and relationship the state has to nature forms a bond for all of us.
For pretty much my entire career until The Root (2011) I never saw the chefs I worked for hanging out or cooking together. Restaurants around the city would feel threatened by each other. Post-9/11 and into the Great Recession, Detroit’s restaurant landscape changed as a number of old classics closed and many up-and-coming cooks fled to other markets looking for better opportunity. The cooks and chefs who stayed behind and committed to elevating the food scene at home all felt the absence of a mega-chef or celebrity or culinary empire that we could cling too. We didn’t have a Danny Meyer or a Grant Achatz (who happens to be Michigan born) to learn under. So many of us traveled to stage or eat and would return with new ideas or techniques to try out. Many, including me, still do this.
I met chef Paul Virant at a wine event in Grand Rapids and we hit it off. He invited me to cook at his restaurant Vie, in Western Springs, Ill., for a collaboration dinner. I was stoked and surprised to see that Paul Kahan (Blackbird, Publican), Johnny Anderes (The Kitchen) and Bill Kim (Urbanbelly, BellyQ) were the other guest chefs. I felt out of my league but had worked hard on sourcing and prepping and felt good about my dish. We had a blast and when I came home I couldn’t get the collaboration element of cooking out of my head. It was as if I entered the next chapter of my career. I needed to make a family of chefs here in Michigan and introduce all of the chefs who I respected and cared about to each other. We needed to support each other and collaborate and share ideas. So I started a series called Young Guns where I called upon the new generation of chefs in Detroit to come together and cook. Many of these chefs would meet for the first time at these dinners and have since stayed in touch. I even brought Johnny Anderes out for one of them. We did six of them in a year and I began to see other groups of chefs around town copying the dinner format. Some people groaned about it, but I was happy to see the collaboration. Chefs were talking and collaborating and the food scene here became better for it.
The collaboration element of cooking is a fundamental part of my business at Mabel Gray. We are celebrating two years in business this September and I’ve had at least 20 guest chefs come through. Sometimes five at a time for one night only and sometimes 1 chef takes over for a week or longer. Last year we were a Taqueria for three weeks while I was in Italy. We’re bringing it back for one week this September. I will fly my friend Omar Ramirez in from San Diego and he’ll slay for a week while I’m cooking in Hudson Valley at Angry Orchard.
Needless to say, a collaboration dinner is well worth the time and energy that goes into it. It’s an exciting change of pace for the staff, it’s an opportunity to be introduced to new food for the guests and fellow chefs and it’s an important opportunity for chefs to share ideas, stories and resources. I’ve benefited tremendously from my time hosting chefs. I learn something from every chef. It’s amazing.
With the Detroit food scene gaining attention it’s important we deliver on all the promise that can come with expectation and accolades. Chicago has been attracting serious and well-deserved attention in the food world for three decades. Not to mention it seems to be at an all-time high. If Detroit wants to ever compare or compete it will have to be with a unified food community where we talk, cook and learn together. Collaboration seems crucial.”