The Detroit Dining Scene: An Interview with Chef Steven Grostick

Chef Steven Grostick has never worked in a kitchen outside of Michigan. It’s a remarkable accomplishment in an industry focused on apprenticeships in France, Italy, Japan, on jumping from stove to stove in New York City, on doing a turn at a resort in Arizona. Staying in-state has let him amass a network of purveyors, and he’s calling in favors from as many as he can at his year-old restaurant Toasted Oak in Novi, a growing, mostly white town halfway between Ann Arbor and downtown Detroit. I sat down in his restaurant’s bustling lounge to catch up and gauge the temperature of eating out in the area.

“I was born and raised here, and with the way the economy’s been, and the way the dining scene is, I’ve always said that Michigan is not a dining state,” Grostick tells me. “Nobody says ‘Hey, let’s go to Detroit to eat,’ not like Chicago or San Francisco or Vegas. But we’re such a food state in the fact that we’ve got the five Great Lakes, we’ve got all the fresh seafood, we’ve got awesome amounts of farms here.”

So what’s happening with Michigan farming?

“There are some really, really awesome things that are going on in Northern Michigan. I’m a part of the Northern Michigan Small Farms Conference. They do sustainable farming, and there’s a farmer up there called Paul May-he’s up in Frankfort, Michigan-and he started this really cool system where he gets these barren plots of land, takes it over and he splits it up into 52 sections. In the first section he lets cows go in and graze, and then the chickens come in, and then the pigs come in and root up the soil, BOOM, now you’ve got refreshed land to farm in.”

What are some difficulties with Michigan farming, besides of course the weather?

“The hardest part has been sourcing things because when you run a restaurant, you go to a small farmer, say a chicken farm, and I get all geeked up and say, ‘Oh yeah, I want to put your chickens on the menu.’ And so they go ‘Okay, how many do you want?’ and I say, ‘Can you give me 50 a week?’ You never hear from them again. So I’ve kinda changed my approach when it comes to this. Now it’s, ‘Well, what can you give me? What can you supply me with?’ So I might not put that particular farm on my menu if they can’t produce what I need, but I’ll use it as a special and say ‘So-and-so’s chicken’ or ‘Wordhouse Farms pork tenderloin’ if I only have a short supply.”

What’s the concept behind Toasted Oak?

“The idea of Zingerman’s Deli is actually part of what I wanted to do-I wanted to bring that concept here with the deli cases and things. I ran a fine dining restaurant for many years and I realized that fine dining is kind of dead. It’s got its place out there but you can’t survive on just fine dining.”

What’s the vibe at your restaurant?

“The guests want that chef-that white coat [as he grabs his own white jacket]-walking out and talking. So I encourage all my cooks and sous chefs to know our guests and our customers.”

I hear you’re going to the James Beard House in New York, the fancy foodie HQ that invites rising star chefs to cook for the NYC food world. What’s on the menu?

“I cook Michigan, and that’s exactly what I call my menu for James Beard, ‘I cook Michigan.’ I’m taking farm raised products, Michigan wines and I’ve actually found a Michigan distillery that makes whiskey, New Holland. The hand-crafted, smaller products are always much more fun because they’re so in demand.”

What’s it like to do business in Detroit? What’s the secret to success here?

“People expect quality no matter what you’re doing. Detroit, we’re the Motor City, so whether it’s a quality car product, a quality food product or whatnot, people want value and they want quality and that’s what I like to produce.” When his restaurant won two two Best of Detroit awards from Hour Magazine, “It’s not restaurant of the year where a food critic comes in and says you’re restaurant of the year, it’s my guests, the people sitting in these seats, that say it. So that’s a really cool honor.”

What other restaurants in the city are doing great things?

“Downtown they’ve got some really cool places that have built reputations. Whether it’s in the big casinos, places like Roast or Saltwater or Iridescence, those are your higher-end restaurants. But you’ve also got Slows BarBQ, this tiny little barbecue joint.”

When I was in Chicago, a woman from Detroit told me to try a Coney dog. What the heck is that?

“One of the things I’m taking on my James Beard menu is my version of a Coney dog because New Yorkers think they invented the Coney dog because of Coney Island. Actually, it was invented here in Jackson, Michigan. It’s a Vienna all-beef frank, and there’s a chili that goes on top made from beef hearts and beef liver. That’s a Coney dog, but the Michigan dog is the same Vienna all-beef hot dog, the Coney sauce that goes over top of it and then two strips of yellow mustard and chopped onions.”

After spending your whole life in Michigan, and as a small business owner, do you still believe in Detroit?

“It takes a certain type of person. You met that person out in Chicago who told you about Coney dogs, and I bet she was proud to say she’s from Detroit. My sister lives out in Colorado Springs but she sports the Detroit Tigers cap with the D on it. She’s proud to be from here. I think us as Detroiters, we’ve been through-it’s just like that car commercial-we’ve been through hell and back. Those of us that were born and raised here, we really believe in what we do. We want to stay here, which is why I buy local. I want to keep my money in Michigan.”