On June 6, Detroitisit is kicking off the first Business of Food Summit in Eastern Market. The summit will focus on conversations about food funding and policy, equity and justice, urban farms and grocers, and highlighting chefs and the making of the restaurants in the food space.
One of the speakers is Jared Gadbaw, who captained the two Michelin Star restaurant Marea in New York City. Following its debut year, Marea and Gadbaw earned and maintained a two Michelin Star ranking for nine straight years. After 15 years in New York City, Gadbaw returned to his native Detroit to open Oak & Reel, a contemporary Italian restaurant with a primary focus on seafood.
Here, we learn about his experience coming back to Detroit, his unique perspective, and his thoughts on the future of food in Detroit. Oak and Reel was also the winner of Detroitisit inaugural Food Awards Best Fine Dining Restaurant of the Year! Watch more here.
What brought you to Detroit to open Oak & Reel?
I’m originally from Metro Detroit and it had always been my plan to move back. When I left in 2003 to go to French culinary school in New York City I naively thought I’d learn to cook and be back in a few years. I learned it takes a lot longer than two years to create a career. It was my ultimate goal to raise a family in the state I grew up in and provide my kids with some of the same opportunities and experiences that I feel formed me into the person I am today.
How has it felt coming back to Detroit?
Since I was gone so long it’s been a bit of starting over – which is not a bad thing at all. I’m learning more about what the infrastructure is with the community. We’ve been welcomed. The community of chefs and restaurateurs has been great. On the east coast, you just don’t get the midwestern friendliness and it’s immediately apparent upon coming back. It feels good and right to take part in this community and dining scene and help where we can.
To that end, how is Oak and Reel involved with the community?
We’ve done several partnerships with charities. Most recently we have worked with Forgotten Harvest and Uncork for a Cure. We hosted a restaurant takeover and brought in chefs from New York and around the world to cook for two nights and we raised almost $10K for both of these organizations. My wife, and business partner, is on the planning committee for the Downtown Boxing Gym, where they host an annual gala that we take part in to raise money for the gym. There are several other organizations that we donated food to their annual galas as well.
During the pandemic it was challenging, but over the past year, we’ve finally been able to set about the goals to do more and be more than a restaurant that serves food – to make it something that can do more for everyone involved, the staff and community.
What originally got you into food?
I am part of a big family and we always had these big family gatherings centered around a meal. I have great memories of these social gatherings where the food was a big part. Breaking bread together gave us the opportunity to share moments and make memories and I’ve always loved that.
I’ve always been an adventurous eater and love food. I grew up working in car dealerships with my dad where long hours were the norm.
I went to college and saw that hospitality was something maybe I could make a career of. Turns out I had a knack for it and was able to make my way in New York and take advantage of some amazing opportunities. The opening of Marea was one of the greatest restaurant openings of the decade in New York. We ended up achieving two Michelin stars and beard awards. These moments changed my world forever and set me on the path to come home.
How has the progression of Oak and Reel been since you opened?
Well, we opened in September 2020. The year was full of emotions… the highs of seeing a dream come to fruition followed by the lows of being shut down due to the pandemic.
I didn’t have an established brand yet so I couldn’t pivot. We had also not been open long enough to be eligible for any assistance so we were on an island of sorts. We had to figure out what to do with staff and how to earn money to live. So that second winter was pretty low.
But since February 2021 we’ve had a slow progression of upward mobility. Every week and month we try to improve and make our guests happy.
The one good thing that came from the pandemic is that it allowed us to get our feet under us so there was never this opening crush of business. It can be really hard to launch a restaurant and maintain standards when you have that. We’ve been able to build a team that wants be there and we’ve progressed naturally over the last two years. Now it’s about figuring out the next phase of owning a rest in Detroit.
How has the food/restaurant scene evolved since you opened?
I don’t know what it was like to operate before 2020. The pandemic brought many closures. But there is an optimism in Detroit I feel to re-establish that forward momentum that was happening a few years prior to the pandemic. There have been some great new additions to the dining scene and it’s cool to see chefs come back and open restaurants.
What is your biggest challenge?
There are three.
First is finding the time to do the things we want to do. In New York, I was blessed to work in restaurants where there were layers of support such as a cleaning crew and even a full corporate entity that provides HR and accounting, etc. In Detroit, it’s much more scrappy and smaller which translates to being more hands-on. You see most restaurant owners working in front of house or back of house daily. There is a never-ending list of things that a chef and owner have to do on a daily basis.
Second is staffing. It’s a constant challenge.
Third is understanding what guests want and what drives them out of their homes and brings them to Detroit to eat. With the pandemic and an economy that’s slowing down, now it’s not the same as it was a few years ago. You have to really work to figure out what people expect of a night out and what they are willing to spend their hard-earned money on and work to deliver on that guest experience.
What are your biggest opportunities?
Every moment is an opportunity. Every plate is an opportunity to create a memory. So, daily there are opportunities to create and share in people’s experiences. It’s one of the beautiful things about this industry.
There are also opportunities to improve upon the mold. The hospitality industry is challenging, and the back of house is challenging and as a chef-owner, you can see both sides. There is an opportunity to help young cooks and share my knowledge to in turn give them opportunities for a great career.
What do you think the future of food in Detroit is?
We really need the partnership of other businesses to succeed and thrive. The pandemic and work-from-home culture are challenging for bigger cities to try to cut a path through. Detroit lost so many daily workers. We are at an inflection point. We need an influx of people. The city has this great potential to find the momentum it had pre-2020 and I hope it will continue to grow and flourish
So, I think we’ll see optimism in people wanting to be a part of this renaissance of Detroit and see the city continue to grow. Some factors will bring chefs back to where they grew up open in Detroit as I did. The groundwork has been laid and my hope is it will continue to bear fruit and allow us all to succeed and fulfill that vision that is returning Detroit to its greatness.
The Making of a Restaurant panel is 3:40-4:45 pm June 6. Panelists include chefs Jared Gadbaw, Ping Ho, and Mamba Hamissi.
Register for the one day, two-part free Summit here. 9am-5pm panels and discussions. 5:30-9pm food truck competition, cash bar, and more.
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