“It was not necessarily love at first sight,” Cameron Rolka says with a laugh as he describes his first impression of his now-fiancée, Sarah Welch. At the time, the two chefs worked in the kitchen at Mani Osteria and Bar in Ann Arbor, with Rolka serving as a line cook and Welch a sous chef. “I was his boss and apparently, I was brutal to him — I don’t remember that,” Welch adds.
Gradually, things evolved from a working relationship to a friendship to a romantic relationship, and in June, nine years after the couple started dating, Rolka, executive chef at Mink in Detroit, proposed. “Fundamentally, I never loved the idea of committing to somebody for life because you have no idea who you’re going to be in 20 years, but that was functioning in competition with my want to spend the rest of my life with Cam,” Welch says. Rolka’s original plan for a grand gesture surrounded by friends was ultimately derailed by the pandemic. Instead, he brought the ring — which he spent months customizing with a Chicago jeweler — along for a quick camping trip to Charlevoix, Michigan, and surprised himself with an impromptu proposal in the great outdoors. “The mood was right, the sunset was going — I didn’t know I was going to do it until I did it,” he says.
To celebrate, the two did what they do best — they cooked. A ribeye steak from Marrow, Welch’s Detroit restaurant and butcher shop, sizzled over a fire as they celebrated the moment. “I’m a relatively private person, so it was nice to be able to have that experience with just him,” Welch says. “COVID has made a lot of people realize that they don’t like spending time with their loved ones as much as they thought they did. But for Cam and I, it’s been a respite. We thought, if we can get through a global pandemic and love each other’s company even more, this is probably the right call.”
Rolka and Welch are looking forward to having a fun, leisurely wedding that will allow them to enjoy a full weekend with their friends and family, ideally in August. “We don’t want it to just be one night, because then it feels like we’re planning an event for someone else. We’re really excited about shutting the restaurants down and renting out a summer camp for the weekend and spending quality time with people without the pressure of returning to work,” Welch says. However, they’re managing their expectations, as the evolution of the pandemic can be unpredictable. “If COVID is still a thing by then, we may need to move things to 2022.”
In the meantime, the two say they’ve used some of their newfound downtime to create space for work-life balance — a luxury that they didn’t have much of prior to the pandemic. Quality time in the Rolka-Welch household is spent learning new hobbies or playing games like cribbage into the wee hours of the night. Normal dinners feature hearty proteins with a vegetable side dish. Date nights, though, are for grazing. “When we’re really trying to have a date night at home, we tend to lean toward the snack-y, graze-y kinds of foods,” Rolka says as he begins to describe “snack dinners,” a term they’ve coined for their special meals in. As chefs, they say they’ve become strolling eaters. “In the restaurant business, you learn to eat when you can, so the idea of sitting down to eat a full meal feels like something that isn’t for our kind of people,” Welch says.
Instead, they’ll make a charcuterie board large enough for a full meal, stocked with meats, cheeses, crackers, breads, jams, mustards, and, well, “everything basically,” Welch says. “We always really enjoy it because you can just hang out and eat all night,” Rolka says.
Given that their work has overlapped lately, Rolka adds that the goal for date night is to reconnect on a level outside of work. “Date night is like a safe space,” Welch says. “We both know that we’re setting this time aside to enjoy each other’s company and allocate a special time to be a couple. It’s a time for decompression, for sure, but it’s also just about being friends instead of co-workers and remembering what it’s like to have fun together.”
‘Snack Dinner’ & Chill
Setting the scene for a date night at home
The Main Dish: When they’re not building a usual grazing table stocked with an assortment of tin fish, specialty sauces, artisan cheeses, and fresh fruits, Rolka and Welch look to Asian accoutrements for snacking. “We love going to 168 Asian Mart [in Madison Heights] and picking up a bunch of things from the prepared area,” Rolka says. The couple recommends items, such as frozen dumplings, bao, kimchi, and seaweed salads. “It’s really fun and you can’t mess it up,” Welch says. “All you have to do is steam stuff — that’s the easiest thing to do.”
Beverages: Rather than craft cocktails, Rolka and Welch tend to opt for Basque ciders or dry wines to pair with their dishes. “We also like drinking IPAs as far as beer goes. We like the bitterness and the grapefruit side of it.”
Dessert: “For dessert, we’re pretty no-nonsense,” Rolka says. A simple pint of Ben & Jerry’s does the trick.
’90s Movies: When they’re not playing games or binge-watching sitcoms, Rolka and Welch enjoy watching nostalgic films from the 1990s as they pluck dumplings from their snack table setup. The latest: 10 Things I Hate About You. “They’re low investment and you know exactly what’s going to happen,” Welch says with a laugh.