Like many people, chefs Jennifer Jackson and Justin Tootla have had a lot of time over the past few months to ponder their next move. The co-executive chefs of Voyager in Ferndale helped put the sustainable-seafood restaurant on the map (it was one of Food and Wine magazine’s best restaurants of the year and one of Esquire’s best new restaurants of the year, both in 2018), and if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, they probably would’ve been too busy this summer working at Voyager to think about launching their own restaurant.
Now they are striking out on their own with not just one but two new restaurants in Detroit: Bunny Bunny, a regional Chinese eatery slated to open this week in Eastern Market, and an all-day café concept inspired by Jackson’s Southern roots in Core City, where it will debut sometime this fall.
“These past four or five months really gave us time to pause and figure out what we really want to do and figure out how to do it,” says Tootla, who grew up in Bloomfield Hills. As a child, his parents would take him to Eastern Market to shop for turkeys every year (back when you could still buy live animals at the market, he recalls). When he turned 18, “I told myself I’d never drive up and down Telegraph again.”
He went on to study at the renowned Culinary Institute of America in New York, where he met Jackson. From there they embarked on a culinary journey that found them cooking at some of the country’s best kitchens: Le Bernardin in New York, Chez Panisse in the Bay Area. Before coming to Michigan, they were executive chefs at Thank You Chinese in Chicago, which shuttered after a fire in 2016.
Along the way they would work summers in Traverse City and during one visit home, he brought Jackson. They spent the afternoon in Eastern Market and checked out hot spots like Takoi and The Sugar House in Corktown. Seeing the new restaurants and businesses in Detroit “solidified it for us that if something comes up in Detroit we should move.”
That opportunity presented itself with Voyager, which they opened with proprietor Eli Boyer. They would go on to open Lovers Only and Iggy’s Eggies in downtown Detroit with Boyer. As they built up restaurants and racked up accolades for Voyager, they kept thinking of a place of their own.
“We've always been on the lookout for something in the city and we really wanted to be here and be a part of the community,” says Tootla. They were acquainted with Kyle and Lea Hunt, former owners of the restaurant Gather and the beer bar Collect on Gratiot in the Eastern Market district. They closed both those businesses last year but are planning to reopen Collect on the second floor, with Bunny Bunny on the first floor where Gather once was.
“We talked and realized that we kind of both wanted to do this thing together in this building,” Tootla says.
At Thank You Chinese, it was the duo’s first exploration professionally of Chinese food. They originally started as cooks before getting promoted, and they changed up the menu to offer Asian-inspired dishes like street sandwiches filled with simmered sesame, garlic, and chili eggplant; Dan Dan noodles; and Mapo Tofu.
“Ever since the fire, we've always wanted to get back into cooking Chinese food,” Tootla says.
But those dishes were through an American lens, he says. Instead of Chinese-American classics like eggrolls or General Tso’s chicken, Bunny Bunny will offer regional Chinese dishes that explores the country’s diversity, from cumin lamb and hand-pulled noodle soup with mushrooms in tomato gravy from the north to Hainan chicken served with broth, chili crisp, and pickled vegetables in the south. Everything will be made from scratch as much as possible, from hand pulled noodles and handmade dumplings to soy sauce and sesame oil made in house.
They are approaching the menu as two chefs who have done their research with love and appreciation for the cuisine. There won’t be any “cheffy” spins or modern twists.
“As we were editing ourselves over the past couple of months, we realized that the best thing for us to do in representing this cuisine is to be purely textbook, to not put Chinese food through the lens of two white American chefs,” Tootla says.
Tootla is mindful of the fact that neither he or Jackson are Chinese, and with Bunny Bunny they aim to run a different kind of restaurant, eventually turning Bunny Bunny into a nonprofit to invest in the community and their staff.
“It has to more has to do with representation,” Tootla says. “We’re of the mindset that if we are cooking food from another culture and we are exploring food from a culture that’s not our own [that the goal is to] not profit from it necessarily. That doesn't mean we can't obviously pay our staff and pay ourselves but any extra revenue we're going to put back into the community.”
For starters, Bunny Bunny will be donating a portion of its profits to local charities such as The Bear Hug Foundation (a nonprofit that gives at-risk youth and special needs kids the chance to go to summer camp and where Tootla served as a counselor for three summers); Association of Chinese Americans (a local chapter devoted to the support and development of the Chinese community in Metro Detroit); Gleaners Community Food Bank; and Ruth Ellis Center (which provides a safe space for young adults of color and the LGBTQ community).
With the still-to-be-named Core City café, which will be in the Pantry space in the Sawtooth Building, the vision is to make the most out of Core City Park.
“That park is huge and beautiful and a big motivation to get open in the next month or so to utilize the last bit of warm weather,” Tootla says, and perhaps beyond, with pumpkin patches in the fall and a Christmas tree farm in the winter.
As chefs launching their own businesses for the first time, it’s an opportunity for Jackson and Tootla to be active participants in changing “the larger narrative about how we treat each other and what a restaurant as a business really means to the community,” Tootla says. “We've kind of been preaching this for a long time while we were working for other people, and now it's our chance to really put it to test.”
Bunny Bunny is open only for takeout and delivery via Postmates and the website from 4-9 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and 12-9 p.m. Saturdays. For more information, visit bunnybunnydetroit.com or follow Bunny Bunny on Instagram @bunnybunny_detroit.