For These Chefs, Detroit Is Still a City of Firsts
Jennifer Jackson and Justin Tootla reflect on their adventures in the Midwest.
July 25, 2018 ● 4 min read
By Cassandra Landry
Justin Tootla admits he was a bit of a snob before he met Jennifer Jackson.
To be fair, fine dining will do that to you after so many years. Jackson grew up cooking with her grandmothers in Georgia—her voice still carries a friendly, twangy cadence—and learned her instinct for local sourcing by working on a farm. She couldn’t get Tootla out there roughin’ it though,, she says, teasing.
They’re sharing a phone between them as we speak, pulled over by a park somewhere, their words overlapping and breaking up as they laugh at something the other says. They’ve been together a decade, hopping from state to state and kitchen to kitchen. At Prune and Le Bernadin, Chez Panisse and Yusho, they’ve sweated it out for visions that weren’t wholly theirs—until now. At Voyager, a neighborhood oyster bar just outside of Detroit, and Lovers Only, a burger and sandwich joint in Capitol Park downtown, they run the show according to their hard-won culinary whims.
Not that it’s all sunshine and daisies in Motor City. Not yet, anyway.
“You have to make your relationships in person if you’re out here,” Tootla says. “Jen wanted to showcase oysters from the South, but reaching out to these small distributors over email wasn't good enough. They had no confidence in sending out their product to Michigan. It was like, We don't know you, we don't think people are going to eat oysters in Detroit. Pass.
“We had to fly down and show up on their doorsteps and be like, ‘Remember us? Can we please have your oysters?’”
So be it: they went door-to-door (or, pier-to-pier?) and it paid off, in the end. Still, this kind of thing seems hard to believe now that Voyager snapped up a spot on Food & Wine’s Restaurants of the Year for 2018; at the moment, it’s got 24 dang oysters from all over the country on the menu.
“We've stayed true to ourselves,” Jackson says of their exacting standards, those that underpin even the simplest items on their nostalgia-driven menus. For them, for their peers, for the talents they worked for and admired, a beautiful ingredient you can stand behind is a kind of North star. It’s non-negotiable. If they have to hold its hand all the way to the city they’ve chosen to love, they’re going to do it. “It keeps us sane, I guess.”
Detroit, like so many Midwestern outposts faced with the return of prodigal culinary talents who can’t afford to cook in the big cities they left for, has seen a steady—if modest—adoption of the food renaissance. Three years ago, Andy Hollyday of Selden Standard told me that it was easier to appreciate that new restaurant around the corner or the lush garden farm in-between burnt-out lots because of the hardships the city has faced. You felt like you were part of the change, the healing. “It’s a very underground city in a lot of ways,” he said. “I would just advise people to see it for themselves—mostly people are surprised by what they find. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
In the years since, the industry community has continued to grow with new additions like Jackson and Tootla, himself one of those chefs returning to his home state armed with a discerning palate.
“There's still a general insecurity and nervousness about the direction of Detroit, and it takes a lot of convincing,” he admits. “Since Food & Wine, business is up 20-30%, which is great. But our food gets sent back all of the time. Some people still want asparagus in November and fish with potatoes and rice. It's challenging convincing people how to eat differently.”
But for every send-back, there’s a guest who approaches the pass and thanks them, wholeheartedly, for the meal. And even with all the wheedling and occasional bruised ego, the city still presents as a kind of siren song. An almost-blank slate, where you can experiment and cook with the kind of freedom bigger markets have forgotten.
“Detroit is in this very defining moment. Whatever you decide to do in this city, you can,” he says. “It's still a city of firsts.”
So you've landed in Detroit. Want to know where to start? Add these favorite hide-outs from the Voyager duo to your list.
The Detroit Metro Times crowned this spot the best in the city this year, and for return visitors Jackson and Tootla, nothing comes close to chef Brad Greenhill's energetic Corktown ode to the markets of Southeast Asia. It's loud, it's vibrant, and not afraid to wield generous spice.
Via Taqueria El Rey
Jackson, in particular, was relieved to find a thriving Mexican scene in town. Her heart belongs to Taqueria El Rey, a bright culinary beacon with a cheery orange facade, where the aromas of their famous chickens waft out into the street, taunting you before you even get in the door.
Coffee, and more coffee
Music to a chef's ears: Detroit doesn't mess around when it comes to coffee. When they're downtown, Jackson and Tootla love Stella Good Coffee, located in the Fisher Building; in Ferndale, they hit up Chazzano Coffee Roasters.
Where else would a pair of recovering New Yorker-Chicagoan hybrids go for a drink but a restored saloon from the late 1800s? By now, the building's had many lives, but in its current iteration, Kiesling, modern cocktails meet a retro Midwestern sensibility, with cushy leather couches and vintage furnishings. It reminds Jackson of the best iconic dive bars—the ones that have seen more than you could possibly imagine.
A good drive
And then, sometimes you just need to take it all in. “Sometimes on our days off we like to drive around the city,” Jackson says. “You go from midtown or downtown to the outskirts where our farmers are, and it’s like the wild west.”