By Tracie McMillan
The Atlantic • Oct. 28, 2010
The bed of watercress beneath chef Andy Hollyday’s barbecued pork belly? Local. The ruby-hued crabapple jelly made by the Detroit Zymology Guild? That too. And the pectin for the preserves, the sorrel in Brother Nature Produce’s salad, the scarlet beets and crisp dilly beans hand-pickled by Suddenly Sauer. In fact, the food offered by Detroit’s hottest restaurateurs and food vendors at Home Slice, a recent benefit for Detroit’s contemporary art museum, could probably have been found any food-conscious event in the country. But—this being Detroit—there was a unique twist: For the Motor City’s food vanguard, “local” isn’t measured in miles, but in city blocks.
“You can’t beat the freshness factor” of city-grown produce, said Nikki Barbour, owner of Atlas Global Bistro, as she set out a tray of hors d’oeuvres: delicate rounds of crisped pita topped with duck confit and slivers of herbs. Barbour buys microgreens and heirloom tomatoes for her restaurant in the lively Midtown neighborhood from Brother Nature Produce, a one-acre farm in Corktown—the next neighborhood to the west. (Barbour’s staff also grows much of their own produce in a nearby community garden that offers restaurants plots.) “And the pricing is very competitive,” she added.
Just one year old, Brother Nature was founded by Greg Willerer, a former teacher who’d been growing food for market through Grown in Detroit, a cooperative selling excess produce from the city’s 1,200 community garden and urban farm plots. Today, he sells to 10 restaurants, ranging from Andy Hollyday’s Roast in downtown’s Book Cadillac Hotel to the casual Russell Street Deli at Eastern Market, and has had to turn down several more. Next year, Willerer will boost production on his existing plot (just under an acre) through better organization, add three more lots, and be earning more than he did as a teacher.
“The local food movement you see in other cities is very different,” said Willerer, tossing a mix of mizzuna, sorrel, lemon basil, golden purslane, watercress, and arugula with dressing and handing it to a benefit patron. “Here, we’re very well integrated with a lot of chefs; the farmers and restaurants are together. If they’re thinking about doing specials, they talk to us.”
“There’s another advantage to sourcing from city-based farmers,” said Holly White, a co-founder of the Detroit Zymology Guild: “not just meeting, but really getting to know, the growers.”
That may well be because the staffs often overlap. Blair Nosan, the founder of Suddenly Sauer, a fermented pickle business, apprenticed at The Greening of Detroit—the city’s urban agriculture clearinghouse—for a year before launching her business. And casual connections are even more common: Brother Nature can count among its occasional helpers a former valet at Atlas with an expertise in hydroponics and the proprietor of the Woodbridge Pub, who has access to heavy machinery that can be used to move soil and compost.
Of course, not every hip business and food preservationist sources from city farms. Slows, a thriving upscale barbecue joint that opened five years ago across from the ruins of the city’s train station, uses traditional suppliers, since smaller farmers can’t meet demand. But there’s another advantage to sourcing from city-based farmers, said Holly White, a co-founder of the Detroit Zymology Guild: not just meeting, but really getting to know, the growers.
Operating out of an empty apartment behind a Hamtramck art gallery, the guild holds free weekly food preservation workshops and has put up an array of preserves—most using pectin White and her co-founder Christina Gibbs extracted from unripened apples foraged from trees in abandoned lots across the city. But since no city growers cultivate fruit commercially, White and Gibbs buy most of their fruit from regional farmers at the city’s Eastern Market—one of a handful of traditional open-air markets left in the country.
“The more local, the better—and the local economy is very important to us,” said White, stacking jewel-toned preserves. “You form a bond with these farmers, and it’s almost not enough to see them at the market. I want to see them at the bar, too.”