Letter From the Editors: Opportunity from the Ground Up

By Antoinette Bruno | Will Blunt | Greg Oberle


Antoinette Bruno
Will Blunt
Greg Oberle
From the desk of Michigan artist Greg Oberle
From the desk of Michigan artist Greg Oberle

The Rust Belt restaurant scene has been gaining momentum for years, steadily stealing back cooks and artisans from Chicago and the coasts. Back home, and alongside chefs who stuck it out, they’re tastemakers and agents of culinary change. Over the last eight months, the StarChefs team visited more than 130 chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, bartenders, and artisans in Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. In those cities, the restaurant industry has become synonymous with boosting hometown pride, creating jobs, and attracting tourists. It’s also become a central force in community building and social justice, and we’ve highlighted six change makers. 

The Rust Belt’s industrial past left behind stunning architecture and arts institutions mixed in with a fair amount blight (and inexpensive commercial real estate). We ate in restaurants situated in grand old banks, as well as former hot dog joints with papered-over widows. Even the Ace Hotel in Pittsburgh occupies an abandoned YMCA. Just like taking over an abandoned church and turning it into a restaurant, the men and women working in the industry here are doing it from scratch—whether they’re selling artisan bread made in a mobile oven, butchering red waddle pigs to make impeccable sausages, or going after Michigan’s first Wine Spectator Grand Award.

If San Francisco and New York rents are getting you down, the Rust Belt may bouy your spirits. Just be sure to read Chef Marc Djozlija and Restaurateur Dave Kwiakowski’s advice on build-outs and the magic phrase, “tenant allowance” along with Chef George Azar’s (ahem) candid essay, if you’re thinking about moving to the region.

As we’ve dubbed them, the “Rust Belt” cities of Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh have little in the way of a common cuisine. This isn’t the South or the Pacific Northwest, and cooks here aren’t rooted in (nor do they have the baggage of) a regional identity. We ate vegan Eastern European, modern Spanish, and Vietnamese food, along with Italian pine syrup, fried bologna and waffles, and chicken-liver spiked oatmeal. We drank mustard-laced cocktails, natural wines, and a beer named Hubris with 260 IBUs. 

As the StarChefs staff descends on Cleveland for the 2016 Rust Belt Rising Stars awards, we’re excited to bring together industry leaders from three cities and states, once united by steel and Carnegie and industry and now forged together in a new identity through hospitality. 

It’s just the beginning. 

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