2016 Rust Belt Rising Stars: Why They Shine

2016 Rust Belt Rising Stars: Why They Shine

The Rust Belt restaurant scene has been gaining momentum for years, steadily stealing back cooks and artisans from Chicago and the coasts and bringing them home as tastemakers and agents of culinary change. Over the last eight months, the StarChefs team visited 130 chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, bartenders, and artisans in Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. And in those cities, the restaurant industry has become synonymous with boosting hometown pride, creating jobs, and attracting tourists. There’s an energy and can-do, community-oriented attitude that would make any market envious.

The Rust Belt’s industrial past left a characteristic combination of stunning architecture and arts institutions mixed in with a fair amount blight (and inexpensive commercial rents). Its industrial past did not, however, leave a clearly defined regional cuisine, making way for a diverse, vibrant, and idiosyncratic restaurant scene—one that’s open to a whole sway of immigrant influences. We ate vegan Eastern European, Alpine Italian, and Vietnamese food, along with fish and grits, fried bologna and waffles, and chicken-liver spiked oatmeal. We drank mustard-laced cocktails, natural wines, and a beer named Hubris with 260 IBUs. These cities are marked by individualism and unencumbered by trends.

We came in search of industry leaders, and we found them selling pizzas from a mobile oven, pouring wine in a sprawling casino, and butchering red waddle pigs to make impeccable sausages. The Rust Belt Rising Stars are as original as they are inspiring. And here’s why they shine.

Chef: Jamilka Borges, Spoon

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Jamilka Borges had dreams of flying. She wanted to be pilot. Although that dream would change, a flight landed her in Pittsburgh right where she needed to be. It was at Bar Marco where Borges began making a name for herself, cooking inventive, Ameri-kinda-Mediterannean-ish food. This year, she joined S+P Restaurant Group, helming Spoon and making plans to launch a concept that speaks to her Puerto Rican heritage and love of the ocean. Sophisticated and wholesome, Borges’ foods tells a story, whether it’s personal (pastele), inspired by a friend (lamb pickle), or a combination of her original and adopted homes (lobster, corn flan, and gandules). She’s bringing her delicious dreams of the sea to landlocked Pittsburgh and perhaps starting to tell a new story for Puerto Rican food in America.      

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Sardine, Squash-Yucca-Green Plantain Pastele, and Sun Gold Tomato Emulsion
  • Lamb Pickle, Crème Fraîche, Blood Orange Vinegar, Sherry Preserve, Pea Tendril, Amaranth, and Mint

 

Chef: Brad Greenhill, Katoi

Katoi means “the third sex” in Thai and is an apt metaphor for the singular mystique of Brad Greenhill’s cuisine—born of his love for Thai food, a Midwestern sensibility, and his engineer’s brain. Greenhill’s kitchen is home to terracotta and granite mortar and pestles (for different applications), along with CVap, Vitamix, and sous vide baths. His technique is precise, and his flavors, bold. In fact, Greenhill’s biggest challenge is changing the menu fast enough to keep up with his ideas. A wok-charred brassicas dish was inspired by Caesar salad, and larb gets its protein from rabbit. As Katoi expands, and Greenhill formulates plans for other concepts, he’s poised to lead Detroit’s dining landscape and capture the imagination of a national audience.        

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Wok-charred Brassicas: Napa Cabbage, Chinese Broccoli, Miso, Tahini, Pickled Chiles, Rice Crispies, and Mint
  • Rabbit Larb: Pickled Ramps, Chiles, Lemongrass, Shallots, Lime, Cilantro, Mint, Dill, and Toasted Rice Powder

 

Chef: Nick Janutol, Forest Grill

Deliciousness is in the details at Forest Grill. Did you know Pakistani pine nuts have more pine flavor than others? Chef Nick Janutol does. The CIA, EMP, L20 alum has rules to live by in the kitchen: every dish must be as simple and flavorful as possible, plated in 30 seconds, and have no more than five ingredients. Janutol’s cuisine is clean yet decadent, classic yet unusual, and he’s on a perpetual quest for guest satisfaction. His staff is made up entirely of Michiganders, and once they learn his rules and techniques, he sends them out to stage and (hopefully) return to enrich Forest Grill. Ignoring offers from the West Coast, Janutol is dedicated to Detroit, aiming to build a restaurant group worthy of his faithful diners and the cooks he’s training.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Black Rice, Tomato, Cobia, and Toasted Nori
  • Farm Egg, Brock Pastry, Maitake Mushrooms, Sherry Vinegar, Salt, Sabayon, and Parsley

 

Chef: David Kocab, Trentina

David Kocab is a Clevlander come home. After spending formative years cooking on the West Coast in Portland and Los Angeles, he now leads the kitchen at Jonathan Sawyer’s elegant, Northern Italian Trentina. Kocab is comfortable and confident in the tasting menu format, making refined plates that draw inspiration from the Alps and are rooted in the flora and fauna of his Ohio backyard. Kocab’s strength lies in nuance: the koji cure on a grouper collar or the funk of fermented broccoli stems spiking beef tartare. It’s exemplary cooking with a voice that celebrates the city while pushing it forward. To taste Cleveland and its potential is to dine at Trentina in the hands of one of her native sons.  

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Mugolio Glazed Carrots and Turnips, Genmai, and Sugar-packed Spruce Tips
  • Ama Koji Grouper Collar, Rye Shio Koji, Hollandaise Espuma, and Sumac

 

Chef: Kate Lasky & Tomasz Skowronski, Apteka

Pittsburgh’s Apteka is a mark of how far dining has progressed in America. It’s a funky, vegan, Eastern European restaurant born from a wildly successful pierogi pop-up. The brick and mortar emerged from the hands-on labor and shoestring budget of Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski, who worked in Pittsburgh kitchens to learn the craft of cooking and the business of owning a restaurant. Apteka is homey and honest—and thrilling. Fried and piled high pierogis are showstoppers, and dishes like Kartofle z Jogurtem (potatoes, kraut, nut yogurt, ligonberries, and apple) show off their sweet-and-sour sweet spot. Lasky and Skowronksi are passionate cooks, cultural curators, and partners who are succeeding on their terms, with an unconventional vision of dining. 

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Sauerkraut and Mushroom Pierogi, Roasted Beets, and Mustard-Yogurt Sauce
  • Kanapki: Carrot Pâté, Radish, Cucumber, and Dill; Polish Salad, Celeriac, Pickle, and Potato; Leek, Apple, and Mint Butter Czarnuszka

 

Chef: James Rigato, Mabel Gray

Think about California cuisine or Tex-mex. Imagine dishes from a seaside New England restaurant or at a wedding buffet in Georgia. Now think: Michigan? (Exactly.) James Rigato is on a mission to fill in that blank spot. After staging around France, Rigato opened Mabel Gray in Detroit’s working class neighborhood of Hazel Park. From the restaurant, he’s not only a voice for Michigan product, but also for the band of cooks who stuck it out through the financial collapse to help rebuild the city. Rigato’s menu is a seamless balance of food for “people who ride the bus” and those who drive in from bucolic suburbs. With his loyal following, Rigato is using Michigan’s four seasons, post-industrial influences, and singular ethnic blend to cook the story of a new regional cuisine. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Wings: Chicken and Duck Confit, Habanero Jam, Orange, Shishito Peppers, and Pickled Mustard Seeds
  • Berkshire Pork Chop, Sweet Corn Spoon Bread, Green Chile Mustard, Cabbage Mousse, and Sweet Onion paired with Whaleback White Ale, Leelanau Brewing Company, Dexter, Michigan
Chef: Brett Sawyer, Plum Cafe & Kitchen

There’s a lightness in Brett Sawyer’s cooking—conceptually and on the plate. His dishes at Plum Cafe & Kitchen would be at home in Chicago (where he was last posted) or even L.A., but they’re a wink to a larger national scene rather than a derivative bow. While 2016 may have been the year of hot chicken,   Sawyer serves “cold” chicken instead, as a mousseline laced with truffles and honey. In modern Southern mode, crispy grit croquettes sit atop smoked shrimp, fermented peanuts, and micro okra. When you eat this kind of food—well executed, unexpected, and fun—you can’t help but notice a smile creeping across your face. Sawyer is a spark, and his Plum Kitchen leads the market in whimsy and imagination.

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Yellow Corn Grit Croquettes, Smoked Shrimp Rillettes, Fermented Peanut, and Micro Okra
  • Winter Farm Salad: Apple, Potato, Kale, Gremolata, Candied Skins, Mulberry Capers, and Jalapeño
Chef: John Vermiglio, Grey Ghost

Fried bologna? Bring it on. General Tso’s sausage? Yes, chef! Smoked whitefish everything bagel? Put it in my face! There’s no pretense at Chef John Vermiglio’s Grey Ghost—just playfulness and pure, satisfying, addictive flavor. After finding his footing and voice as a chef in Chicago, Vermiglio is back home and earning the trust of Detroit’s dining public. His food has prosaic inspiration but elegant presentation and refined technique, and it’s the culmination of a personal journey that can be consumed in one rapturous bite. Opened this summer, Grey Ghost is at the heart of a neighborhood’s revival, and it’s just the beginning of Vermiglio’s plans for palates as he roots down in Detroit once again. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • General Tso's Chicken Sausage, Sesame, and Scallion
  • Summer Squash, Farro, Kalamata Olives, and Yogurt
Community: Ben Hall, Russell Street Deli

As co-owner of Russell Street Deli (where he started in the dish-pit), Ben Hall is nourishing his community with local, affordable, and delicious food. He has one of the few top kitchens in Detroit that genuinely reflects the city’s racial make-up, and his employees’ average hourly wage is $15.91 (it’s posted on a sign by checkout). Russell Street Deli is also the city’s lead purchaser of organic produce—veggies it converts into 5,000 gallons of soup each week for stores, soup kitchens, and 55,000 school children. If there’s a task force, he’s on it: Chef’s Action Network, Detroit Public Schools Culinary Task Force, and James Beard Impact Programs. For good measure, he worked on the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act and briefed Congress on the minimum wage. Hall believes in leveling the playing field through food and hard work—making him the ideal chef-as-leader for the Rust Belt. 

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Smoked Cherokee Purple Tomato Bisque
  • Buckwheat Lettuce, Chicken Thigh, Toasted Rice, Wild Sesame, Baby Chives, and Fish Sauce
Concept: Chad Townsend, Millie's Homemade Ice Cream

As the chef-turned-ice-cream-churner behind Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream, Chad Townsend bet that Pennsylvania eggs and non-homogenized Jersey milk would make a world of difference in his pints. Proving the point, his not-so-standard, four-ingredient vanilla is so dense and creamy, it’s almost chewy, coating the palate like a lingering ice cream kiss. Vanilla and “The Best Chocolate” aside, Millie’s flavors rotate seasonally, meaning customers have to wait until spring for rhubarb and strawberry. Soon, though, they will have even more places than ever to score a scoop. After opening his Department of Agriculture-certified plant, Townsend first distributed in grocery stores. Now, he has accounts in local restaurants, along with the first of several brick and mortars in the region. Soon Millie’s will be shorthand for flavor-forward, texturally magnificent ice creams, and Townsend, the king of cool in the Rust Belt. 

Ice creams that clinched it:

  • Vanilla
  • Lemon
Pastry Chef: Lisa Ludwinski, Sister Pie

There’s a reason people arrive at Sister Pie by the bus loads. (They literally arrive on buses and stream into the tiny shop.) There’s a feeling customers catch and leave with, and it emanates from Lisa Ludwinksi, her staff, and stacks and stacks of cookies and pastries. To cook to make people feel something is what many chefs strive for their entire careers. Ludwinski has created that connection through synergy of employee care, customer experience, and food. She’s a Milk Bar vet, who knows how to wield salt as artfully as sugar, and locally milled flours round out her pantry. Ludwinski and her Sister Pie are thoughtfully uplifting a neighborhood, and raising standards for pastry and pastry chefs in the region.

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Buckwheat Chocolate Chip Cookies, Peanut Butter-Paprika Cookies, Rose-Pistachio Shortbread Cookie, Coconut-Lemon Drop Cookie, Lemon Bun, Carrot-Beet-Navy Bean Hand Pie, and Blueberry Cornmeal Scone
Artisan: Neil Blazin, Driftwood Oven

Pittsburgh Baker Neil Blazin is the very definition of an artisan, whose naturally leavened, hand-shaped loaves exceed his resources or scale. Blazin is set up to be singular: he’s one man, using one wheat varietal from a single farmer to bake one type of bread from his mobile, wood-fired oven. Within that context, the variables are endless—the harvest date, the ratio of rye mixed in from the field, and the weather on bake day. Blazin adjusts and bakes on, selling his bread through a subscription program and at his regular (remarkable) pizza pop-up, Driftwood Oven. His slow growth means that he’s gotten a true education in baking rather than focusing his energy on retail. Soon enough, the moment to expand will come, and Blazin and his integrity-filled loaves will lead a market primed for true artisan bread. 

Loaf that clinched it: 

  • Naturally Leavened Bread made with Maxine Wheat from Weatherbury Farm
Artisan: Reed Jaskula, Platform Beer Co.

Reed Jaskula is a neighborhood transformer and community builder—who also happens to brew some of the most exciting beers in the region. When he opened Platform Beer Co. two years ago in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood, Jaskula paved the way for new restaurants and residents, just as his ongoing gypsy brewing project opens doors for the city’s brewers. The proof of his leadership, though, comes straight from the taps. Jaskula leans experimental. He serves a saison brewed with Shiraz and hop strains from Australia and New Zealand. He helped revive the smoky, meaty, light-bodied, pilsner-drinking gratzer style in the United States. From collaboration beers with top chefs to shelf space in the region’s most important beer bars, Jaskula and Platform are at the center of craft beer in the Rust Belt.

Beer that clinched it: 

  • Black Eagle Gratzer
  • Double Red Cup IPA
Artisan: Adam Lambert, Ohio City Provisions

Every ounce of meat and fat at Cleveland’s Ohio City Provisions is a deliberate and controlled act of feeding, breeding, and slaughtering. Chef-butcher-farmer Adam Lambert is immersed in all the details that translate directly to the big flavor and snap of his sausages and messy trays of glorious poutine. Lambert doesn’t just butcher and prepare cows, pigs, ducks, and chickens. He also works with business partner Trevor Clatterbuck to cross-breed and raise them on their own land and in concert with a few local farms. They’ve built a sustainable, personal, evolving supply chain that will increase standards and demand for local meat across the region—with Lambert translating the hard work and early mornings in muck boots into a case full of impeccable meat and charcuterie.

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Vladimir Poutine: Beet-braised Lamb, French Fries, and Cheese Curds
  • Polish Boy: Red Wattle and Mangalitsa Sausage, Barbecue Sauce, French Fries, Cole Slaw, and Potato Bun
Sommelier: Dominic Fiore, Bar Marco

Sommelier Dominic Fiore is building a national wine destination in Pittsburgh. Joining the team at beloved Bar Marco, he remixed the restaurant’s vino selection to mirror his passion for natural wines. Having an exclusively natural list is challenge enough in New York or San Francisco, but Fiore built one in a vexing control state, meaning he has to work bottle-by-bottle to bring the wines he loves into Pennsylvania. And they’re flowing at Bar Marco, where he pairs funky California whites and esoteric Pais from Chile’s Bío-Bío Valley with Chef Justin Steele’s Italian cuisine and downstairs tasting menus. Fiore is a natural wine crusader and tastemaker, devoted to pushing palates and luring both wine lovers and winemakers into Western Pennsylvania. 

Pairings that clinched it: 

  • Pais, Pipeño País, Cacique Maravilla, Valle del Bio-Bio, Chile, 2015 paired with Coho Salmon, Fregola, Tomatoes, Parsley, Fennel, and Beurre Blanc 
  • Corvina/Rondinella, Corte Sant'Alda, Ca'Fiui, Valpolicella, Veneto, Italy, 2014 paired Steak au Poivre, Confit Yukon Gold Potatoes, Pickled Ramps, and Tarragon Aïoli

 

Sommelier: Shaun Page, Wolfgang Puck Steak at the MGM Grand Detroit

Detroit native Shaun Page has a rare résumé for a sommelier: he's a former all-state running back and cop. Today, his field is the MGM Grand wine cellar, which he has built up to more than 2,200 selections, and his beat is the dining room floor. Whether guests are ostentatiously celebrating or openly weeping over a poorly placed bet, Page’s job is to make them all feel like winners. A Master of Wine with his eye on the Master Sommelier pin, Page has worked his way from the bottom up, and his pairings are as unexpected as his background. There’s no other somm out there quite like him, and no one better to put working class Detroit on the wine map. 

Pairings that clinched it:

  • Scallop, Roasted Polenta Cake, Local Beet Salad, Lime Zest, Orange Zest, Crispy Dill Fronds, Mint, and Micro Basil paired with Poulsard/Trousseau/Pinot Noir, Côtes du Jura Rouge, Jean Bourdy, Jura, France, 2010
  • Michigan Cherries: Cheesecake, Dark Chocolate-Cherry Gelato, Chocolate Tuille, Dark Chocolate, and Cherry Gelée paired with Kentucky Breakfast Stout: Bourbon Barrel-aged Stout, Founders Brewing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Bartender: Will Hollingsworth, Spotted Owl

Will Hollingsworth is a philosopher-barman-proprietor-obsessive, whose love of drink making is surpassed only by his devotion to the very notion of a bar—as a place where people are drawn to sit, converse, drink, and fulfill a fundamental need for community. Cleveland’s Spotted Owl isn’t just a cocktail den. It’s a temple to the idea of a bar, complete with religious stained glass windows to set the mood. All these ideas and esoterica would be worthless, though, if Hollingsworth didn’t find equal joy in cracking open bottles of Miller High Life and writing innovative, impeccable cocktail menus. He does both with aplomb. With intellectual rigor and zero attitude, Hollingsworth has built an every-man’s bar that’s also a model for elevated drinking in the Midwest. 

Drinks that clinched it: 

  • And Fire Green As Grass: Bombay East, Green Chartreuse, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, and Smith & Cross Jamaican Rum
  • The Peacemaker: Dolin Genepy, Vida del Maguey Mezcal, Toasted Poppy Seed Tincture, and Orange Oil
Bartender: Joe Robinson, Standby

Bartender Joe Robinson earned his chops at Michael Symon’s Roast, and launched Detroit’s first cocktail pop-up Whiskey Rebellion to such success it even caught Robinson off guard. Realizing he was a part of something larger than himself—laying the groundwork for a cocktail culture in Detroit—he became a journeyman bartender, gathering knowledge and technique to bring back to his city. Robinson became a bar owner with Standy and a mentor himself, striving to create opportunities for other bartenders and elevating the city’s entire scene. He honors the classics but also has a centrifuge, plays with nitro, and thinks of his bartop as a stage. With Standby, Robinson has created a destination to which generations of bartenders and drinkers will flock.

Cocktails that clinched it: 

  • Snake in the Grass: Citadelle Gin, Lime, Simple, Celery Bitters, and Nitro-muddled Mustard Greens
  • Angelic Conversation: Campari, Aperol, Ransom Dry Gin, Tangerine Sherbet, Lemon, and Egg White
Restaurateur: Dave Kwiatkowski, Detroit Optimist Society

In 2009, after working in finance in Chicago and then building motorcycles back in Detroit, Dave Kwiatkowski finally realized his dream of opening a cocktail bar: Sugar House in Corktown. It was only the beginning of a much larger vision that would help transform his city. No infrastructure, no foot traffic (not even working traffic lights), no bar-restaurant scene to speak off, Kwiatkowski had to learn on the fly and build something from virtually nothing. He opened Sugar House on his own, sometimes sleeping in the building as it was being rebuilt with his own hands. He partnered with veteran Chef Marc Djozlija to open Wright & Co. downtown, and The Peterboro, Café 78, and Honest John’s all followed. Kwiatkowski is taking blighted spaces in blighted neighborhoods, and one chef, one bartender, one community, one neighborhood at a time, he’s changing them for the better.   

Restaurateur: Jonathon Sawyer, Team Sawyer

Clevelander Jonathon Sawyer is a restless creative and one of the most formidable forces in Midwestern—if not American—dining. As the executive chef of Team Sawyer restaurant group, he obsesses over foraged pine needles, ancient Chinese teas, and masterfully blended vinegars. As the head honcho of the group (including Greenhouse Tavern, Trentina, and Noodle Cat, along with stadium concepts Seesaw Pretzels and Sawyer's Street Frites), he has set himself and his businesses up for success while creating 250-plus jobs in Cleveland. Sawyer has an A-team team of PR, HR, accounting, and more that allows him to do what he loves and does best—ideate, inspire, lead, and even cook. His is a model of chef-driven success built on grand thinking, employee and community investment, and cuisine that’s changing the way a region eats.