Meet Thrillist Detroit's Best Chefs of 2016
At the end of a beyond-exciting culinary year for Detroit, marked by highly anticipated openings, celebrity restaurant chains (Welcome to Detroit, Marky Mark!), and inventive cuisine like kimchi-topped pizza, it’s important to remember the true stars of the show: the chefs. Behind every gorgeous food porn pic, delicately crafted small plate, and complex flavor profile, there is a talented chef devoted to the art and experience of great food.
With so many openings, menu changes, and kitchen-switching, it’s exceptionally difficult to choose the frontrunners of the pack when everyone is charging forward with such gumption. However, nine Detroit chefs shined exceptionally bright in 2016, earning themselves the title of Thrillist Detroit's Chefs of the Year:
Top Chef contestant, Best of Detroit winner, People’s Best New Chef: Great Lakes Region -- Chef James Rigato wears many hats (other than a toque blanche). The chef is two for two: After opening the Root Restaurant & Bar in 2011, Rigato went on to open the much smaller but highly successful Mabel Gray in late 2015. The menu is “approachable and energetic, reclaimed and refined, it is a commitment to complex contrasts,” writes Rigato on the website. He helms the kitchen daily, skilfully developing and plating dishes in what he calls “a true return to form as a craftsman.”
True craftsmanship, indeed. Over the last year, Rigato has developed an always-changing seasonal menu that utilizes the bounty of Michigan, catching the eye of the James Beard Foundation and scoring an invite to cook at the James Beard House in New York. (He packed up a van of Michigan ingredients and road tripped to the event.) Back at Mabel Gray, he continues to surprise diners with guest chefs like Omar Ramirez, who imbued a taqueria-like atmosphere, and Top Chef winner Mei Lin.
Beyond the kitchen, this year Rigato teamed up with WDET-FM's Ann Delisi on a 17 episode food and music podcast titled Culinary Remix, announced a partnership with Wyndham Hotels, and hosted various philanthropic dinners, including Regenerate Detroit, benefiting the Detroit Food Academy. There’s no denying that it was a great year for Chef Rigato.
Greenhill first created Katoi alongside Courtney Henriette as a simple food truck with a home behind Corktown’s Two James. After closing for the winter, he went on to sell out multiple pop-ups at Revolver before settling in a place of his own.
It took two long years, but the “mothership” officially landed in Corktown in late March 2016. Since then, Katoi has combined Detroit’s unique nightlife and attitude with an upscale menu featuring flavors unlike anything else in the city. Dishes change constantly, highlighted by Thai-fusion favorites like bahn mi sandwiches and crispy sour pork ribs. The eatery has gained national attention with Greenhill also traveling to the Beard House in in October, and taking home a Rising Stars Award from StarChefs earlier this month.
We're excited to see what 2017 has in store for for this rising chef. If he puts as much passion and effort into the next thing as he did with Katoi, we can guarantee it will be good.
Chef George Azar easily dominated the Detroit pop-up scene in 2016. His Vietnamese cuisine, served only on weekends out of Vernor Coney Island, is as unexpected as it is delicious. His signatures dishes like caramel chicken wings and Ca Chien Sot Ca (fried fish in tomato sauce), as well as his inventive desserts earned a spotlight from StarChefs earlier this year.
While the outspoken chef has a deep-rooted home in Southwest Detroit, he has made culinary appearances all over metro Detroit through the years, including stints at the Stand Gastro Bistro in Birmingham and Local Kitchen + Bar in Ferndale.
This is only the beginning for this Detroit chef. In recent months, he not only extended dinner service an additional day, but began taking reservations. Most recently, Azar shared with sources that he will be joining the world-renowned Noma culinary team for a couple months in 2017, putting the pop-up on temporary hiatus. Flowers is also expected to undergo a full renovation in the months to come and will open full-time this upcoming summer
This chef earns the title of one of the most recognizable names in the Detroit food scene (despite being so intimidating to pronounce). It’s easy to see why -- he’s been a busy guy. Aside from launching the incredibly popular Peterboro just outside of Midtown and heading up the famed Wright & Co., Djozlija, along with Detroit Optimist Society partner Dave Kwiatkowski, launched SuperHappySushi in MOCAD.
In August, the two paired up with Townhouse sushi Chef Rob Lee, taking over the cafe once a week. It’s since grown to replace the previous Cafe 78, at least until the brick-and-mortar location opens sometime in 2017.
But he ain’t done yet. Most recently, Djozlija had a hand in opening the hotly anticipated (and mildly controversial) Bad Luck bar, housed in the Kahn in downtown. Like others on this list, Djozlija gained national attention in 2016. Him and Kwiatkowski attended the International Chef's Congress in New York hosted by StarChefs in November. Now that’s a notable year.
As the Executive Chef of Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails in Midtown, Doug Hewitt has come into his own, taking the already renowned restaurant to the front of the farm-to-table trend, attracting even more local and national attention. Hewitt has continued to tweak the menu, adding more hot dishes like maple brined pheasant breast and refining the cold selections, subbing poke for decadent steak tartare.
Since Hewitt took the reins, Chartreuse took home the Detroit Free Free Press restaurant of the year in 2016 and earned nods from seemingly every local publication, from the Detroit Jewish News to Crain’s, and even garnered national attention from publications like USA Today.
Among the press and praise, Hewitt has kept busy. In 2016, he made appearances in the Savor Detroit diner series, teamed up with Vernors to develop recipes for the brand's 150th anniversary, and hosted various benefit dinners. Like a fine wine, this chef only gets better with age. Here’s to hoping 2017 follows suit.
One of the largest culinary shakeups of 2016 occurred when chef and partner Brandon Edwards left Standby over disagreements with restaurant management. After a short stint as a guest chef at Katoi, Edwards took over as head chef for Gold Cash Gold after Josh Stockton announced his exit.
Under his guidance, the already-popular restaurant is starting to gain new traction. While he has stayed true to the restaurant’s southern comfort food roots, only offering mild changes to the menu for now. But new dishes like dry-aged duck and drunken beans have begun making appearances.
But regulars: never fear. The pickle brine fried chicken, GCG's staple dish, isn’t going anywhere. Instead, Edwards has simply stated that he would be putting his own twist on the menu. Only time will tell, but if his previous experience is any indication, GCG fans won't be left disappointed.
It’s hard not to commend the executive chef behind Detroit’s culinary juggernaut, Selden Standard. It’s even harder to remember that this is Hollyday’s first restaurant -- and it’s not just beginners luck.
Selden describes the fare as “flavors born in local farms, captured at the peak of the season, prepared in our wood-fired oven, and served small plates-style in perfectly shareable portions.” We couldn’t have said it much better. Those flavors helped Selden Standard take home best restaurant awards from multiple sources, including Hour Detroit and Detroit Free Press. It also earned a nod from Zagat on its roundup of “next hot food cities.”
Individually, Hollyday has made it to the James Beard semifinals both in 2015 and 2016. He’s earned a shout outs in a recent articles from Vogue and USA Today, appeared as a guest chef everywhere from Savor Detroit dinners to Plum Market events, and has been credited with helping jumpstart the Detroit food renaissance.
In his own kitchen, Chef Brion Wong has come into his own, developing a unique and well-received menu at the Peterboro. Wong originally relocated from New York after almost a decade to assist the stumbling Antietam. After less than a year with reasonable success, the chef unexpectedly left in 2015 and started his own pop-up series before sliding in as the Chef de Cuisine of the Peterboro.
This new venture has churned out Chinese-American dishes with a twist you could only find in Detroit. Not bad for only living in the city for two years. Staple dishes like Wong’s take on almond boneless chicken coated in a crispy IPA beer batter caught the attention of diners early on, but other recent additions like Sunday ramen specials have kept the menu fresh and exciting. As this Queens native continues to flourish while finding his footing in a new city, we only expect more great things in the months and years to come.
Lisa Ludwinski, Chef and owner of Sister Pie, has been holding it down in West Village for a little over a year now, continually impressing locals and visitors alike. The pie shop has expanded its menu beyond pastries with the inclusion of Sister Salads and Soups with flavor profiles as complex as their pie brethren since officially opening the brick-and-mortar locations in 2015. She’s surely used the $50,000 from winning the Hatch Award in 2014 well. The shop consistently sells out, especially around the holidays.
This past year was an exciting one for Ludwinski. Not only did she take home a Rust Belt Rising Star award from StarChefs, she earned nods from Bloomberg News, and a full feature from Bon Appetit -- “We'd Visit Detroit Just to Eat at This Pie Shop,” reads the headline. Ludwinski has done her neighborhood and Detroit proud as one of the founding forces behind Detroit’s culinary renaissance.
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