This story was originally published in Tostada Magazine.
The year 2020 has proven to be especially devastating for restaurants as the deadly and consuming virus COVID-19 has forced much of the country to halt all forms of social and dining gatherings.
For Chef Omar Mitchell, the pandemic has only further exacerbated his struggle to put the Avenue of Fashion on the fine-dining map.
Mitchell says he was hoping that this year would be the moment for him to introduce Detroiters to his brand of “show and tell” fine dining. When he opened Table No. 2 last spring, his new eatery was met with resounding success. Tables were booked for weeks in advance and plans were already in the works to open a second restaurant in Dearborn. Almost immediately after opening, though, Mitchell ran into his first major challenge when a large swath of the Avenue of Fashion underwent a major construction project, effectively bringing business to a halt for several months.
Just when the construction drama subsided, Table No. 2, like the thousands of restaurants across the state that were forced to close their dining rooms from the public over the past few months, was met with another challenge: How to recreate a fine dining experience in a to-go format.
Mitchell went into survival mode, serving curbside pickup meals, appetizers, and salads for customers to pick up.
“Fine dining is not set up for carryout so I gave our customers 50% off their orders so that we could keep them coming in,” Mitchell says.
At first, he found a way to make it work. Table No. 2 sold 450 dinners for Mother’s Day and 335 for Easter.
Mitchell was also approached by organizers behind the Pay It Forward initiative, which raised more than $50,000 to hire chefs to prepare meals to people experiencing homelessness and at-risk girls through the Neighborhood Service Organization and Alternatives for Girls.
The effort lasted for several weeks between April and June and featured a rotation of chefs like Mitchell who provided gourmet, healthy meals to communities that have also been particularly harmed by the pandemic.
“It was humbling, filled with pleasure bubbles,” he says of the experience with the campaign. “Truly, an honor.”
Mitchell has also kept busy doing similar outreach, including, with the Feed the Frontlines campaign produced by the city of Detroit and Angel’s Share, Inc.
While Mitchell was able to pivot directions and continue doing what he loved, he was faced with another setback. In May, the landlord of his space informed him of plans to sell the building and that he needed to leave.
This latest blow to Table No. 2 has forced Mitchell to shift gears yet again. And he’s determined to not let it get in the way of his dreams.
A budding culinary journey
Mitchell was born and raised on Detroit’s east side and credits the Detroit Public Schools system for fueling his passion for the culinary arts. It was at Joy Middle School where he was exposed to a style of cooking that fused international cuisine to American flavor approaches to create a flavorful masterpiece.
While taking an advanced kitchen class at Golightly Career Tech Center under the instruction of Chef Margie Gibson, executive Chef Joseph Mucaria, and Claude Thomas, Mitchell was both inspired and instilled with the discipline and determination needed to succeed in the industry.
“My DPS instructors taught me the elegance of fine dining…It takes a great deal of passion and love to figure out what works and I’ve learned to form a ‘show and tell’ on the plate.”
Taking advice from his chef instructor, Mitchell applied for his first culinary job as a prep cook at the highly acclaimed Golden Mushroom under the direction of Master Chef Milos Cihelka in Southfield. After graduating from Finney High School, he moved to Providence, Rhode Island, and began a rigorous culinary curriculum under the tutelage of Johnson & Wales University, well known for its culinary arts program and among the largest foodservice educators in the world. He eventually went on to work as a sous-chef at the historic London Chop House.
When he was ready to take the leap from working in someone else’s restaurant to opening one of his own, he initially had hoped to find a space in downtown, thinking that’s the ultimate destination for fine-dining in the city.
“I was very lucky when I was asked to plant Table No. 2 on Livernois’ Avenue of Fashion, I initially wanted to be downtown but didn’t want to be tied down to the political red tape of being downtown,” says Mitchell. “I didn’t know all of the African American history of this community and I’m so proud to be a part of this legacy of black business ownership and entrepreneurship.”
Table No. 2 is a culmination of that training and inspiration. Mitchell describes it as a throwback white-tablecloth fine-dining restaurant touting tableside preparations of Caesar salad and Bananas Foster. He expertly riffs on the table dessert made famous by critically-lauded Chicago chef Grant Achatz at the three Michelin-star restaurant Alinea (Table No. 2’s online menu even uses a photo of the well-recognized Alinea dish). This modern molecular gastronomy masterwork is notably a far cry from tableside Caesars, offering diners both nods to the classics and dramatic culinary twists.
The Disney of Restaurants
As he plots his next steps, Mitchell says he’s continuing to refine his concept so that Table No. 2 and his next concepts become known as the “Walt Disney Experience of Restaurants.”
It’s all about making people happy, he says.
“What I know to be true is that food is healing. Why do you think depressed people eat? Because food is comforting. Food makes people happy, food closes deals, food can ignite a relationship,” says Mitchell.
“People come to dine with us or consume our food because it makes them happy. They are coming for the experience and I take that responsibility very seriously.”
This article was made possible through a collaborative storytelling effort with In Good Co. Detroit powered by the New Economy Initiative, a project by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to build an inclusive regional network of support for entrepreneurs and small businesses.