By making a global trend their own, Detroit’s food lovers reimagined a night out on the town.
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The dinner happened on a sunny, rainy evening on the last day of May. It was the kind of weather that could have produced a rainbow — and did — across the shimmery haze of the Detroit sky as guests waited for dessert. With the beautiful view on a not-so-beautiful part of East Grand Boulevard, they lingered around the double doors of the Jam Handy.
Its namesake, Henry Jamison “Jam” Handy, had made thousands of training films here for both the military and GM in the early 20th century. The building may have also hosted political rallies in a subsequent life before landing on the Wayne County auction block. A stained, tattered poster of the late Mayor Coleman A. Young still hangs inside the entrance with the tagline “The man who moves Detroit.”
Part rescued building, part industrial event space, and part historical relic, the Jam Handy was also part restaurant for one night when vegan chef Corinne Rice made it her last stop in a yearlong journey of inviting people to “tour” Detroit’s obscure spaces by way of food.
She laid out the five-course meal in the huge warehouse-like setting. The well-worn wood floors creaked under her feet. On two long tables, 53 people dined on the all-raw, all-vegan meal. Soon the doors would become a frame for the unexpected rainbow.
Two days later, Rice moved to Los Angeles, perfectly embodying her philosophy behind the culture of “pop-up” dining. She had wanted to create a “memorable” and “social” moment that could never be re-created, “as if it were a dream.”
“Pop-up” dining has probably been around for decades, if the classic private dinner party is any indication. It’s only in the past several years, though, that commercial food pop-ups have gone mainstream around the world.
From a pragmatic standpoint, it’s a way for chefs like Rice to share their food without the cost of running an actual restaurant. But for Rice and other local chefs (some of whom are among Detroit’s most successful food entrepreneurs), their affection for the practice is clearly personal. It can seem gimmicky to the uninitiated (repeating the phrase “pop-up” while reporting this story started to annoy even me). And yet, within the evolving imagination for Detroit, there is the conviction among those who love to cook that creative food endeavors have the power to influence hearts and minds.
“I was living in Royal Oak, left for four years, and then moved back to Hazel Park. Detroit wasn’t a place I really wanted to go,” says Rice, whose yearlong pop-up was known as “Chartreuse.” “But then my friends kept telling me how great it was, and I started going there more and they were right. I wanted people who didn’t know about Detroit to see it the way I did.”