It can probably be said that most of us miss our favorite Detroit dining spots immensely. Even if we’ve frequented them or picked up takeout, restaurant dining simply hasn’t been the same since the pandemic began. But for those in the industry—the chefs behind our favorite meals—what has the pandemic been like?
For both Chef and owner of Karl’s Kate Williams and Shinola Hotel’s Executive Chef Don Hammond much has changed over the past year, but that doesn’t keep them from learning, growing, and creating delicious food.
WHAT IS THE THING YOU MISS MOST ABOUT PRE-PANDEMIC DINING?
Kate Williams: “I mean, I miss the guests, I miss service… I went into this industry to, you know, to host people and make them
feel special and create an amazing dining experience and so… I didn’t dream that in my 18 years professionally working in the industry that somehow we’d just be doing takeout everywhere.”
Don Hammond: “That’s easy. Just the energy, the pulse of, you know, a full dining room, loud glasses, people laughing… that’s what we thrive on as chefs I think, and as restaurant workers in general. It kinda feels like we’re working without one of our arms, without having that hardcore energy pumping through the place.”
WHAT WORKED WELL DURING THE PANDEMIC?
Williams: “It was a lot about transparency and really just testing the comfort level of staff… feeling safe coming back, so that was one of the reasons that Karl’s really only did takeout. I think that helped a lot, in both of those reopenings in what they ended up being, and I think the same for guests…. Being transparent about what we were doing and then also holding ourselves accountable to that.
Hammond: “I think one thing that worked really well for us [San Morello], is, you know the sort of meal kit preparations. We were pretty successful for Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years’ and even a little bit for Valentine’s Day.”
WHAT HAS THE PANDEMIC TAUGHT YOU AS A CHEF?
Williams: “One, that it’s so fragile, and that… we needed to really take a good hard look at, even as diners… what the industry is and how it really supports its people and its community. I think it proved small business can kinda bring the economy to its knees, you know. Everybody talks about big corporations, and they certainly hold a lot of power, but I think that we all saw that essential workers and small business[es] really is the key to any economy—sustainable economy.
“I think the breakdowns in the meat production and all of that also… just teaching us again we really need to take a hard look at what we are doing as businesses, what we are as an industry, and what does that mean for workers across, you know all avenues… that it takes to get food on someone’s table in a restaurant.”
Hammond: “I think it’s definitely taught us to be more creative in terms of product utilization, and I guess what I mean by that is, you know, before we… might have 30 dishes on the menu and there’s no repeat items in the dishes because we wanted to keep it very… creative and authentic and all these things, but now it’s like you might see sunchokes in two different dishes, right, but they’re completely different and we are just doing that because honestly, sourcing product has become a real thing.”
HOW DO YOU PLAN FOR THE FUTURE?
Williams: “I think, you know, just to echo what I said before, it [the pandemic] showed that it’s [the industry] really fragile and I think it [the pandemic] caused a lot of people to leave the industry to be honest…. It kinda shows that we really need to be rethinking our entire business models.”
To do this, Williams suggests some things to implement in the industry’s post pandemic future:
“In a good way, I think the pay rate has to go up…. Just transparency and open communication with the team about, you know, this was a public health crisis right, so, like, now making sure we’re all in this together and what other safety measures we can provide to make them feel safe who then can, in turn, do their job and make guests feel safe… and we can operate.”
“In future things that I do, now that Lady [of the House] is closed, I’m also looking at different kinds of dining. Just rethinking what it means to be a chef and what more can I give and stuff.”
Hammond: “We’ve spitballed, you know, incentivizing [people]… coming to work here…. I hate to say this because it always makes it sound so sterile, but cost is really going to dictate a lot of things right now. I think we have to invest in the future though, I feel like a lot of… owners are starting to understand that.”
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT THE DETROIT FOOD SCENE?
Williams: “I love that… the industry is very collaborative, and I still think, even as it’s grown to be, you know, in the level with other huge major cities in terms of caliber… it’s still really kinda small town, collaborative, supportive, and less competitive.”
Hammond: “The camaraderie of it…. I really dig that, I feel like there aren’t a lot of egos in this town, like where the chef world is concerned…. It just feels like, you know, I’m part of a cool club, and I dig that immensely.”
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DISH IN THE CITY?
Williams: “It totally depends on what you’re in the mood for! Oh my god, okay give me a second… I mean guilty pleasure is definitely Sweetwater Tavern. The Steak Tartar at Selden Standard… any pasta at SheWolf, and like Mudgies—oh my gosh, I think they have some of the best sandwiches in the state.”
Hammond: “It’s funny because I work at a southern Italian-focused kind of restaurant, but my love and my passion is in South-East Asian food, and Takoi is probably my favorite restaurant in town, Brad Greenhill does really good food. He has a dish on the menu called Naem Khao Tod which is sour pork and crispy rice, it is super spicy and really delicious.”
WHAT EXCITES YOU NOW?
Williams: “I mean, obviously eating out with more people, you know, and being able to… have our celebrations at places again.
Certainly, the buzz of restaurants, what were we at 25% for a second there? I mean that is like… radio silence in the places and it… loses a little bit of its appeal for me.”
Hammond: “I’m very excited to see what these chefs who have been sort of kept in the stable, so to speak, I know they’re all frothing at the bit to get back out there and really start flexing, and I’m very excited to see like what James [Rigato] is gonna do at Mabel Gray and what’s Seldon [Standard] gonna pull out?… I know they’ve got some stuff up their sleeves, they’re just those types of people. Kate [Williams], you know, getting stuff moving over at Karl’s and that whole thing, It’s an exciting time, and I think, yeah man, I think it’ll be very cool to see what those chefs do.”