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Iridescence: A Rock Star in Detroit's 4 Diamond Kitchen

I remember it well: the sunny morning when I received the e-mail from my editor giving me permission to pursue my interview with Iridescence's new executive chef, Don Yamauchi. I leaped up and did a happy dance.

I first discovered Yamauchi at Tribute, which in its prime was one of the best restaurants in the country. Yamauchi was able to capitalize on and further solidify Tribute's reputation for avant-garde cuisine. He left for MGM, only to later reunite with Tribute's Epoch Restaurant Group to head their Birmingham location Forte and re-conceptualize the restaurant to be more accessible to a wider audience. Now Yamauchi is charged with doing the same at Detroit's finest dining establishment, the AAA Four Diamond-rated Iridescence in the Motor City Casino Hotel.

Sigh. Chef Don Yamauchi. It's the Detroit foodie equivalent of interviewing ... Yngwie Malmsteen? Neil Young? or maybe David Bowie? Well, you pick your rock star.

Sitting down with the Don

Iridescence sits high atop the Motor City Casino. I had never before seen this view by day: an absolutely breathtaking panorama of downtown Detroit seen through 60-foot-high, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows. There really is no other view quite like it anywhere in the city.

Chef Yamauchi meets us in the dining room, which adjoins an open kitchen where there is a flurry of activity as his team prepares for the day ahead. His PR reps sits in on our interview and you know you are a rock star when a PR rep is there  to make sure you don't say anything unsuitable. Either that or she's watching to make sure I'm not some crazed fan who might pounce on him and try to steal a lock of his hair. Which is not entirely impossible, I suppose.

In contrast to other high-profile chefs, Yamauchi is more down to earth. His stature is slight (though he jokes that he's getting fat taste-testing different kinds of beef for the restaurant), and he is free of flashy tattoos and a self-important swagger. He has a completely unassuming air about him: calm, humble, and down-to-earth, and completely lacking the all-too-common, self-serious "chef ego."

"I've had a few humbling experiences," Yamauchi says, laughing. He jokes about being cocky enough to start his own business. "It failed in 18 months," he says. He decided to try it again a few years later. The second venture did great ... until it didn't

Yamauchi's background is far more modest than world-traveled chefs from exotic locations. "I grew up in Chicago and worked there until I came to Tribute," he says. "I started at a deli, worked at Red Lobster and TGI Friday's. I had no concept of fine dining." He tells a story about his first day at the North Shore Hilton, where he had to cut 7,000 pounds of chicken (and I'm not totally sure that he was exaggerating). After 13 hours, he accidentally tipped over the cart holding the chicken and had to start over. "I was almost in tears," Yamauchi says.

His experiences with Epoch Restaurant Group and MGM taught him much about both ends of the business -- cooking and business. MGM didn't allow him much autonomy as a chef, but it made him a great manager; Forte didn't leave him much chance to manage (although he dramatically reduced prices which in turn led to a one-year profit increase of 47%).

At Motor City Casino, he will oversee all of the restaurants and catering, including Iridescence. "The sous chef has been here 7 years, the managers have all been here 6 years or more. Very few restaurants across the country can say that their people have been with them so long, and that gave me a great level of comfort. This is a team that can roll with the punches."

Rock star menu at garage rock prices

If he were a rock star, he'd be the type who wants to sit down and have a beer with you rather than be worshiped. He is Bon Jovi in a world of Axl Roses, and he extends this ethic into the new menu at Iridescence.

"I wanted to make the menu more accessible to more people," he says. "You can't beat people over the head with the prices. I want to be conscious of the economy, and conscious of the people who aren't as knowledgeable. It's all about balancing the chef ego with the chef business."

The rest of the menu is, as Yamauchi describes, "haute cuisine made with simple dishes." It is classic Midwestern food elevated to a higher level; less Beluga caviar and more hearty chicken. But still fine dining, let's be clear. There may be an upscale chicken pot pie on the menu, but the 2-pound lobster routinely sells out.

"The perception of value is so key in this market, and we're really listening to what people want. They want chicken; they want steak," he says. "We can create the haute cuisine experience if they want it, but most would only go for that once or twice a year. We want to be more relaxed; less stuffy. And we won't be increasing prices once the economy improves; this is the concept that we're sticking with."

But what about quality? How can you charge less and still maintain the same quality? "Steaks are still USDA certified prime; the lobster is actually higher-grade than before," Yamauchi says. "You're getting world-class dining, just not at world-class prices. And the response has been awesome."



Iridescence is one of 17 restaurants participating in Detroit Restaurant Week, happening Sept. 18-27. Detroit Restaurant Week is presented by Paxahau Event Productions and sponsored by the Greater Downtown Districts, as well as Model D and Metromode. Participating restaurants will offer 3-course meals for $27.

Read more of Nicole Rupersberg's interview with Don Yamauchi in her blog, Dining in Detroit. Send feedback here.

Experience your own Detroit Restaurant Week preview at "Taste of Eastern Market," inside Eastern Market's Shed 2 every Saturday beginning at 10 a.m., with cooking demonstrations featuring chefs from participating DRW restaurants. Coming up this Saturday, Sept. 5: Michael Symon's Roast.




Photos:

Have a seat at the bar

Iridescence's new executive chef, Don Yamauchi

View from dining room

Evening dinners

Sefood pasta topped with panko encrusted poached egg

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D Contact Marvin here

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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