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How four young chefs ignited Detroit's restaurant renaissance

Justin Vaiciunas, Top of the Pontch

Andy Hollyday, Selden Standard

Nikita Sanches, Rock City Eatery

James Rigato, The Root


Back in May 2012, our partners at Metromode introduced you to metro Detroit chefs on the cusp of making a serious impact in the under-appreciated, and then mostly underwhelming, local culinary scene. Oh my, what a difference a few years can make! 

Now, metro Detroit's dining scene is having a serious moment – one that has been a long time coming and one that might have been hailed a bit too preemptively, but is certainly making good on its promise. 

With national attention on Detroit, a palpable DIY creative energy, and our notoriously low rents, local chefs have flourished. Ex-pats have returned home and are making national headlines with their work in local kitchens, and chefs from America's culinary capitals have even been imported into the city to much acclaim. What was, nearly three years ago, a question of "Why not us?" has in turn become a bold proclamation of “here we are.”

With that in mind, we now check in on our four chefs from that (dare we say visionary?) 2012 article to look at where our then-"Almost Famous" and now legitimately actually famous chefs are today. 

Andy Hollyday, executive chef and partner at Selden Standard, Detroit

Andy Hollyday, Selden Standard
THEN:

As the executive chef at Michael Symon's Roast, there was a stretch of time when your average Detroiter didn't seem to be aware that someone other than Michael Symon was running things behind the scenes in the kitchen. Arguably Roast is a sea change restaurant, its opening marking the rise of Detroit's contemporary culinary scene. Since then, Roast and Andy Hollyday have earned their place in history as one of Detroit's finest restaurants and finest chefs. But around the time the CIA-trained chef began to get the recognition he deserved, he also started working on plans to open his own restaurant. 

NOW:

Hollyday, along with business partner Evan Hansen, opened Selden Standard on Second Avenue in Midtown just this past November, and Hollyday hasn't slept since. (We're only sort of kidding.) 

At the time he and Hansen met, they began discussing mutual but independent plans to open a restaurant. Hollyday says other opportunities were presenting themselves with different types of deals and investors. Once the two were connected, however, they found that their mutual visions were very much aligned and decided to partner.  

For his part, Hollyday had the confidence that they would be able to deliver a good product and run a good business. He also believed that Detroit was ready for it. 

"I've lived here in Midtown for eight years," he says. "Being down here, you're a little more connected to the buzz and the climate of what's actually happening. My friends and I, we travel a lot, and we were asking, 'Why aren't there more restaurants here? Why isn't [this kind of place] in Detroit?' We saw an opportunity and a hole in the market." 

Andy Hollyday, Selden Standard

 
To Hollyday's and Hansen's estimable credit, the $1 million Selden Standard looks like it could be picked up and plopped down again in the middle of Chicago's restaurant-savvy Wicker Park or West Loop neighborhoods (thanks also to design work by Et Al Collaborative and other exceptionally talented local craftspeople). Yet it is every inch a Detroit restaurant, but one that than can easily compete on a national scale.

Now that the crush of the initial opening and the holidays have passed, Hollyday can focus on the things he wants to fine-tune, including more frequent menu changes with a focus on seasonality, more investment in the staff's knowledge, and building more partnerships with Michigan farmers and producers. This summer, the large space will expand even further with the addition of a patio that can be used for dining service and various events. 

Justin Vaiciunas, executive chef at Top of the Pontch, Detroit

Justin Vaiciunas, Top of the Pontch
THEN:

When we first crossed paths with Vaiciunas, it was part fluke and part serendipity. At the time the very young chef was leading the charge at ZIN Wine Bar in Plymouth, trying his hand at an approachable kind of molecular gastronomy, catering to metro Detroiters who had never seen food presented in such a way. At the time, he was the only chef in town doing so. The Plymouth restaurant has since closed, but the Schoolcraft grad has gone on to much bigger things. 

NOW: 

Very young and very ambitious, it didn't take long for Vaiciunas to outgrow ZIN. Ready for something bigger, he packed his bags and headed out west, working the luxury resort scene in Utah for a ski season, then returned to Detroit renewed. As the announcement was made that new owners of the vacant Pontchartrain would be remodeling the iconic downtown hotel as the Crowne Plaza Hotel Pontchartrain, Vaiciunas was hired as executive chef and director of food and beverage for the entire property, overseeing every detail at the property's two signature restaurants. The Jefferson House and attached lounge, Urban Cellars, saw Vaiciunas return to form with his own approach to seasonally-focused, artfully-presented cuisine. But his crowning achievement was the reopening of the Top of the Pontch this past summer.

Top of the Pontch is yet another high-end fine dining establishment that was once a Detroit icon, joining the ranks of the London Chop House and Joe Muer Seafood as one of Detroit's old-school destination restaurants given new life. Opened in September, Top of the Pontch allows Vaiciunas the opportunity to push his culinary boundaries even further. He describes it as "high-end fine dining at its best," and makes no apologies for the fact that it's expensive. The dining crowd is primarily comprised of business lunches and dinners, where hosts will sit and entertain their clients from all over the world for several hours.

Soon after opening, it became clear that Top of the Pontch demanded his full attention, so he is no longer overseeing the kitchen at Jefferson House (where a new chef has taken the menu in a different direction) or the hotel's other food operations. Top of the Pontch is his baby, where all of his attention and creativity currently go. 

Justin Vaiciunas, Top of the Pontch

 
But Vaiciunas isn't resting on his laurels. This Sunday he flies out to Los Angeles to compete on a popular cooking competition show for national TV (which can't be named for confidentiality reasons), where he hopes to…well, win, obviously, but also gain some national recognition for himself and Top of the Pontch. He hope this will encourage local Detroiters who might not be familiar with the restaurant or the kind of food served there to come in and experience it for themselves. 

James Rigato, executive chef at The Root, White Lake

James Rigato, The Root
THEN: 

In 2012, James Rigato was the most buzzed-about chef in Michigan for taking a highly unlikely location in a strip mall in White Lake and turning it into a dining destination for people all over the state. During its first year, The Root was bestowed with the Detroit Free Press's coveted "Restaurant of the Year" title. Since then, its reputation has skyrocketed.
 
A "Michigan chef" to his very core, Rigato speaks passionately about the bounty of Michigan's produce and natural resources and does not suffer the so-called chef who doesn't make everything from scratch, right down to in-house butchery. 

NOW: 

Rigato is still the most buzzed-about chef in Michigan after a four-episode run in this year's "Top Chef" season 12. He proselytizes the importance – nay, the absolute necessity – of chefs building a network with one another and supporting each other, and has been working hard to do exactly that within his local chef community and beyond.

Rigato, easily one of the most well-networked chefs in the state because he goes out of his way to visit every single restaurant he can, really began to shepherd the solidarity of the local chef community when he started his "Young Guns" dinner series at the Root in December 2013. Showcasing six culinary talents from around metro Detroit – including Hollyday and Sanches, with Vaiciunas appearing at Young Guns 3 – the inaugural Young Guns dinner was all about letting the chefs' individual talents shine and exposing each of them to a new audience (and vice versa). 

After filming "Top Chef" over the spring and summer of 2014, Rigato invited fellow chef-testant Rebecca LaMalfa from Trenchermen in Chicago, to participate in Young Guns 5 at Trattoria Stella in Traverse City in October. Young Guns 6, which happened Jan. 25 at Bacco, featured three of his fellow "Top Chef" cohorts from both coasts (including Dearborn native Mei Lin, now at Ink in Los Angeles and currently in this season's final three) alongside top-tier talent from Chicago and metro Detroit. Rigato isn't just building a network of Michigan chefs – he's now doing it on a national scale.

James Rigato, The Root

 
"The best thing about ['Top Chef'] was the network of chefs, hands down; getting to work with those chefs and the way we bonded," he says. "Everyone just became this spider web of culinary activity, creating this network of nationally relevant chefs who now all have a stop in Detroit on their repertoire." 

His ability to network, foster friendships and a sense of chef community and solidarity might just be his truest calling as a chef. "You look at any successful food city, its chefs invest in their network. When people ask me where to eat, everything I suggest is from Young Guns. If you eat at any Young Guns restaurant you'll have an amazing experience. You need that support system [in a culinary community]." 

As for the future, Rigato is ready for his next chapter in life, even if he doesn’t yet know what that will be. "I love the Root and remain associated with it, but I'm looking for more. I'm hungry for more. I want to have another venue, another space to push food. The Root as it is right now is mission accomplished. I was gone two months last year and the team ran it phenomenally. The evolution of the Root is for it to be a creative space for young culinarians of Michigan."

While he would still be involved with the Root teaching cooking classes, cooking their signature "feasts," and consulting on the menu, he says he is very much in the process of conceiving his next project. He jokes he has a "vision quest" planned for this spring, during which he hopes to gain clarity. Find your power animal, James. Follow the tortoise. Slide. Gabba gabba hey. 

Nikita Sanches, chef/owner at Rock City Eatery and Campau Tower, Hamtramck 

Nikita Sanches, Rock City EateryTHEN:

Back in 2012, Nikita Sanches was metro Detroit's little-known culinary upstart. (He also had a "t" in his surname.) Known as the "Pie Guy" at the Rust Belt Market with aspirations of opening his own restaurant, Sanches was building a reputation for himself one salted caramel bourbon pecan pie at a time. 

NOW:

After making the final four of Hatch Detroit's 2012 small business funding contest, Sanches' name and pies were on the lips of metro Detroiters everywhere. While he didn't win the final $50,000 prize, he took every advantage of the name he built for himself and the resources available to him as a Hatch contestant, rolling up his sleeves and putting in the elbow grease to open Rock City Eatery in Hamtramck by himself. The restaurant opened in September 2013, a culmination of all that he had been burning to do as a chef.

Rock City Eatery has a down-and-dirty Detroit rocker/hipster/what-have-you vibe, but despite what some might look at and dismiss as just another fast-casual hip burger joint, the restaurant has global dining pedigree with a "f@#k it" attitude. Build your own mac and cheese with items like duck and pickled jalapenos served in a Parmesan bowl. Order one of the noodle dishes, inspired by the noodle craze happening full force in other cities, or an Asian-inspired vegetarian dish, or go for broke and get Nicole's Poutine with duck confit gravy and a fried egg on top (so named for a Nicole you might know).

But Sanches's dream of having a place of his own didn't stop at one place. This past summer, after the closure of the beloved downtown Hamtramck diner Campau Tower, he leased the space, kept the name and general concept, and re-opened the "Americana eatery" just a couple of months later, serving all the burgers and hot dogs and "American" items people often look for at Rock City (but with his own twist to include bao buns, street tacos, and pierogi).

Nikita Sanches, Rock City Eatery

 
The now bonafide restaurateur had even more on his plate in 2014, when he and his fiancé and business partner Jessica Imbronone flew out to Los Angeles to be a part of the second season of "Restaurant Startup," a show featuring successful restaurateurs Joe Bastianich and Tim Love looking for new restaurant startups to invest in. The show is part competition and part intensive angel investor interview. Their episode will air later this month, so they are not at liberty to share details, but Sanches did have this to say: 

"What I really wanted to get out of this was to actually make food for actually accredited restaurant judges and chefs who know and understand good food, who can see where your mind is going and what you're going for and see it and appreciate it. My goal was to make food for them to see if they appreciate it." 

So did he get that chance? Guess you're going to have to watch to find out!
 
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A version of this story originally ran in Metromode, Model D's partner site covering metro Detroit.

All photos by David Lewinksi Photography.

Read more articles by Nicole Rupersburg.

Nicole Rupersburg is a former Detroiter now in Las Vegas who regularly writes about food, drink, and urban innovators. You can follow her on Instagram @eatsdrinksandleaves and Twitter @ruperstarski.
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