Since the 1980s, Chef Phil Jones has been transforming Detroit’s foodscape through his commitment to making healthy food more affordable and accessible. He has found that food has the power to closely connect and improve communities.
At Farmacy Food, he makes sure each meal is ready to go to maximize health benefits while creating lively, vibrant flavors. The organization relocated to the Marygrove Conservancy where Chef Phil is the Chef in Residence. Creating and curating flavors for events on the historic campus, he and his team are also working to revamp and modernize the kitchens for their use and for other food entrepreneurs to have a space to make their culinary creations.
On Thursday, Aug. 12, Chef Phil was honored by The Detroit Free Press and Metro Detroit Chevy Dealers as the Chef of the Year.
The honor was about more than just his food, although he does make the best-grilled chicken that I’ve ever had, but about his character and contributions to the city during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chef Phil will tell you that life changed for him on March 11, 2020.
He was booked to serve several corporate events. When they were canceled, he had an excess supply—food that could either go bad or be put to good use. He chose the latter.
During much of the pandemic, Chef Phil joined with several other metro area chefs and launched “Too Many Chefs in the Kitchen for Good.” They cooked and distributed thousands of gourmet meals to Detroiters in need. Helping others is at the center of Chef Phil’s life philosophy and he has integrated it into his business.
Farmacy Food creates food that heals and nourishes. “We say that you are what you eat,” Chef Phil said during the event. “That is about culture and economics.” Further, he believes in telling food stories.
At the Chef of the Year event, the chef served a seven-course meal. Before every course, he told a story about what inspired the meal. I would not be exaggerating, if I said, it kind of made the food taste better. “A meal shared is a story told,” he said—in a quote that I am adding to my life.
From the amuse course titled: My Detroit Revisited—where he talked about how he came to the city and some of the earliest restaurants where he worked. To the Fourth course—inspired by his heritage as a native of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, the event felt personal and intimate even in a dining room with one hundred guests.
Detroit had a presence on almost every plate with several local gardens providing vegetables for the occasion. Chef Phil explained what it meant to him to have that support, saying, “There’s no magical elixir… maybe the way Detroit moves forward isn’t by some power coming to save us. But, it is more likely in working the land that we already have.”
Chef Phil lives with dysthymia—which is a chronic depressive disorder. He notes that while he has many days where it is hard to persist and move forward—food has always been his saving grace. Further, his rising visibility in the food equality movement has given him a mission to live by. “I never intended to be a public person when it comes to food activism, but somebody has to do it,” he says.
A large and imposing man until you look at his kind eyes, Chef Phil was brought to the stage to the song “Godzilla.” He said that his chefs and line cooks often called him by the legendary monster’s name because he was so no-nonsense in the kitchen.
Yet, to know him is to love him.
Outside of the kitchen, the chef is a soft-spoken storyteller who loves to talk about the community. He has a spirit of innovation and collaboration. Unsurprisingly, he is even an ordained Baptist minister, but he notes that his ministry is food.
With the Marygrove Conservancy, he plans to “transform what the food system in Detroit looks like.”
Farmacy Food is planning to launch a meal kit delivery service (think: Hello Fresh) boxes that will be sold in tiers that people can prepare on their own. They will also sell pre-packaged food subscription services and are looking to launch smart fridges where people can purchase and pick up food.
With 60 organizations already working on the campus of Marygrove and another 50 on the waiting list, collaboration is the name of the game. Chef in Residence, Chef Phil, and Farmacy Food will be curating the tastes of Detroit. “I have always had a collaborative spirit,” he says. “I believe that by teaming up with folks, we have more buying power and knowledge power. While it’s complicated, I think it’s always shown to be worth it.”
This is part of a series supported by Marygrove Conservancy that will showcase the work the nonprofit organization is doing to preserve the legacy of Marygrove College and how it is serving Northwest Detroit and the city overall.