Meet the Local Chefs Recognized by the James Beard Foundation

Metro Detroit’s 2023 James Beard-recognized chefs and restaurants represent diverse food and hospitality approaches that reflect the foundation’s efforts for inclusivity and change.
Seldon Standard's kale salad, tossed in caper dressing, is made with sunflower seeds and pecorino cheese. // Photograph by Chuk Nowak

Films have the Oscars. Plays have the Tonys. Music has the Grammys. For the food industry, the James Beard Foundation Awards are the ne plus ultra of accolades. It’s a huge honor to have your name submitted during the open call for entry, let alone to become a semifinalist, nominee, or winner.

The James Beard Awards recognize “exceptional talent and achievement in the culinary arts, hospitality, media, and broader food systems, as well as a demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, sustainability, and a culture in which all can thrive,” the mission statement says.

All categories reflect the foundation’s efforts to change its selection criteria to be more inclusive and more fair to women and people of color. This came about in 2022, after a two-year hiatus, nine months of which was spent on “an internal and external review of policies and procedures, to ensure a more transparent, accessible, and equitable process for future James Beard Awards.”

This review was prompted by criticism that the foundation was not doing enough to fight race and gender imbalances in the restaurant industry.

In this feature, we profile nine chefs, a pastry chef, and a restaurateur who were selected as semifinalists and nominees for this year’s awards. The cuisine served at their establishments includes classic comfort-food cakes, New American small plates, elevated carryout, innovative takes on fine dining using local ingredients in inspired ways, and Japanese, Moroccan, Burundian, Korean, and Mexican fare styled in exciting ways that reflect the vision and flair — and in many cases heritage — of chefs and operators.

“A James Beard nomination — or, better yet, a win — is a way for restaurants to make it clear that they are earning the respect of their peers,” says Matt Sartwell, managing partner of Kitchen Arts & Letters, a New York City bookstore that specializes in food and drink and has been a resource for food professionals, researchers, and home cooks worldwide for 40 years.

“A Beard nod helps a restaurant in many ways,” adds Sartwell, a three-time James Beard Foundation Book Awards judge and a former Book Awards committee chair. “First and foremost is the immediate impact on reservations when local media — and national media in heavily touristed destinations — acknowledge the nomination or the win. More people dining at the restaurant means more people have a chance to discover what makes it stand out. And it can mean a solid increase in their regular diners. Those people are often the lifeblood of a restaurant that lasts.”

–  Robin Watson

For more on the foundation’s policies and procedures, go to

Amado Lopez

Emerging Chef: Semifinalist, Casa Amado Taqueria, Berkley

Casa Amado is known for house-made salsas, hot dogs bedazzled with green chilies and jalapenos, and, of course, tacos. // Photograph by Chuk Nowak

Growing up in a rural, isolated area in Mexico — one he affectionately calls “the boonies” — Amado Lopez remembers marveling at his grandmother’s ability to coax flavor out of whatever ingredients the family had on hand.

“There weren’t a lot of grocery stores around, so everything you grew, you ate,” Lopez says. “I watched my grandmother making vegetables very flavorful.”

Grandma’s lessons paid off: In January, Lopez, the chef-owner behind Berkley’s Casa Amado Taqueria was recognized as a semifinalist for a James Beard Award in the emerging chef category. His nod comes a year after the James Beard Foundation overhauled its program to feature a more diverse pool of judges and mix of talent, among other tweaks.

“I think the changes are amazing,” says Lopez, 41. “It’s great that the American palate is starting to embrace cuisines other than French and Italian. We’re taking away the fancy stuff and showing really good flavors. [The food] might smell or look weird, but it’s very flavorful.”

“I’m super proud of him,” says chef Shawn McClain, whom Lopez worked for in the early aughts, of his award nod. (McClain, a James Beard Award winner, now owns Highlands in Detroit.) “In the restaurant business, we reference the ‘good old days,’ when people were connected to a passion and a time when details and hard work mattered. Amado was always one of those people.”

Open since 2021, Casa Amado (translation: “beloved house”) is known for house-made salsas, hot dogs bedazzled with green chilies and jalapenos, and, of course, tacos. While the restaurant’s concept is fast-casual, Lopez’s cooking process is not: The tacos are filled with tender, taste bud-tingling hunks of chicken, pork, beef, and veggies, or what he calls “guisados — stew-y things that take a long time to braise and cook.” says Emilia Juocys, Lopez’s friend and the restaurant’s co-owner, “Amado’s ability to create top-notch food from humble ingredients is outstanding. When you throw in high-end ingredients, it’s next level.”

Lopez’s road from the boonies to the James Beard Awards was twisty. His culinary journey began in Chicago, where he moved as a teen. His high school class took a field trip to Charlie Trotter’s, the acclaimed restaurant run by the eponymous chef, and Lopez was so enthralled that he asked Trotter for a job. He started breaking down boxes and shelving produce, learning “how to spot something if it wasn’t right,” and eventually became a line cook.

Recognizing the young chef’s talent, Trotter told him that he “had to go to culinary school,” recounts Lopez, then in his 20s. “I said, ‘I don’t have money to do it.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about the money. Just buy yourself a good car.’ I bought a 1981 Toyota Corolla, and…Charlie said, ‘Now you’re going to New York.’”

Lopez attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park with the help of a scholarship from Trotter’s Culinary Education Foundation.

Post-graduation, Lopez worked with McClain, then a rising star on Chicago’s culinary scene. By that time, Lopez had his first child, and his wife, Kimberly, urged him to get a corporate gig with health insurance. Instead, he ditched the fine-dining world altogether.

“I needed to work in a place where my dad and grandma would feel comfortable and could eat the food they grew up with,” he says.

Lopez’s quest to recreate the flavors of his childhood led to a six-year stint with Rick Bayless, the Michelin-starred Chicago chef and restaurateur known for his modern take on Mexican cuisine. In 2015, Lopez’s family — which by then included four kids — moved to Rochester Hills, near Kimberly’s hometown. After several years as the executive catering chef for Plum Market, he launched a successful consulting business … and then the pandemic hit.

With the restaurant industry crumbling around him, Lopez decided to pursue his dream of opening a taqueria. He and Juocys, a food-industry veteran, started hosting taco-themed pop-ups at Frame in Hazel Park and Atomic Dawg in Berkley before taking over the latter.

“Friends and family would come give us a hand,” he says of Casa Amado’s early days. “We survived because of them.”

Culinary accolades aside, Lopez says watching diners of all cultures relish his dishes is a thrill. That includes his dad, who’s traveled from Chicago to eat at the restaurant, and his 90-year-old grandmother, who’s “visited” from Mexico via FaceTime.

“They loved it,” he says. “Food is what you connect with, the memories. It brings everybody to the table.”

Written by Nicole Frehsee Mazur

Hajime Sato

Outstanding Chef: Nominee Sozai, Clawson

Photograph by Chuk Nowak

In early June, a customer told Sozai’s Hajime Sato that his James Beard Award nod was the only reason they were giving his Clawson sushi bar a try. Sato was not a fan of this statement.

“If I wasn’t nominated, you’re not even going to come to my restaurant? That’s kind of rude,” Sato says. “People ultimately don’t give a shit. They just eat because it’s fancy; they don’t care about sustainability.”

Sato creates sushi from sustainably sourced seafood — something he’s been fully committed to since 2009, when he first introduced the model at Mashiko, a Seattle restaurant he started in 1994 and sold to employees in 2019 when he moved to Michigan. In the past, he’s also worked with Oceana, a nonprofit that lobbies for ocean conservation.

He stuck to his guns when he opened Sozai in 2021 at the height of COVID-19 restrictions and supply chain issues, a time when many restaurants shuttered — even without the extra challenge of procuring ethically sourced fish.

It was difficult, and he cops to almost closing the place “easily 100 times.” But if he ended Sozai, there would be one fewer sustainable sushi restaurant, and he worried that would make the model look economically unviable.

“I’d feel like I failed,” he says.

Despite Sato’s hidden turmoil, Sozai quickly became one of the most talked about new eateries in metro Detroit. It was the Detroit Free Press’ 2022 Restaurant of the Year; one of Bon Appetit’s 50 best new restaurants in 2022; and now, in 2023, the sole Michigan nominee in the James Beard outstanding chef category.

Since the restaurant’s inception, a big draw has been omakase (Japanese for “I leave it up to you”) — a dining experience in which Sato or one of his chefs creates a meal tailored to the customer on the spot. Even with his decades as a successful restaurant owner and his numerous accolades, there will always be naysayers.

“My parents [say] this is my ‘temp job’ and I should get a real job like being an engineer or being a lawyer or something,” he says, laughing.

“This used to be my temp job during college, and I just kept going with it. Life takes you to the places that you never really thought you would go. But whatever is in front of you, … you just take on as much as you can.”

– Written by Jack Thomas

Norberto Garita

Best Chef, Great Lakes: Semifinalist, El Barzón Restaurante, Detroit

Photograph by Chuk Nowak

The year 2007 was “very, very tough” Norberto Garita and his wife, Silvia. But it was also a time of new beginnings. Norberto left his job at Il Posto, a popular upscale Italian restaurant in Southfield, to pursue uncharted territory — his own Mexican-Italian concept in Southwest Detroit.

When he told the other cooks about his plan, they scoffed: “You’re not gonna make it out there. Who’s gonna come to Detroit?”

He and Silvia borrowed money to buy and renovate a vacant doctor’s office on Junction Street, just off Michigan Avenue. He named his new restaurant El Barzón Restaurante, a nod to his agricultural roots — a barzón (yoke ring) is a tool that connects an ox to a plow.

When he moved to New York City from Mexico and started restaurant work at age 15, he “didn’t even know how to cook an egg,” he admits. On his family’s farm in Puebla, Mexico, there was a strict division of labor: Men farmed; women cooked.

“They never let us in the kitchen,” he says.

Eventually, his mother and sister finally taught him their mole sauce recipe, which he now uses at El Barzón for the mole Poblano. The mole blends cacao, cinnamon, and dried chilies. From start to finish, it takes about a week of preparation, he says.

For the first year of business, the Garitas lost sleep keeping their restaurant open from 9 a.m. to midnight, often to seat only a few tables daily. On top of that, the Garitas’ eldest son, Bertin, a U.S. Marine, was about to depart for duty (at the beginning of 2007, President Bush initiated “the surge,” committing 20,000 additional troops to Baghdad). The couple closed the restaurant for a week and went to South Carolina to see him off.

“Let’s see what will happen when we come back,” Norberto told Silvia.

Not long after they returned, word got out about the restaurant, which he credits to favorable coverage from local outlets like the Detroit Metro Times and Hour Detroit. Business suddenly went from a trickle to a steady flow.

Affluent customers poured in from the suburbs. Some were followers from Il Posto; some, first-timers enticed by a menu where Pueblan specialties like goat barbacoa (steamed goat) and various mole dishes shared the page with Italian foods like spaghetti carbonara and strozzapreti. Since then, it’s been hard to eat there without a reservation.

Today, Bertin helps his parents run El Barzón and La Noria Wood-Fired Bistro, which the family opened next door in 2018. Noberto and Silvia have five other children, whom Norberto speaks proudly of. One daughter just graduated from Michigan State University; another takes after her father: She’s currently attending culinary school in Puebla.

As for being named a James Beard Award semifinalist for the second time, Norberto says modestly, “To me it’s an honor, because I’m not a great chef. I tell [my staff] every day: ‘Without you, I’m nothing. And without customers, we’re nothing.’ … I try to do the best I can. I do it from my heart.”

– Written by Jack Thomas

Michael Ransom

Best Chef, Great Lakes: Semifinalist, Ima Izakaya, Detroit

Photograph by Chuk Nowak

Mike Ransom was a kid who loved techno. In high school, he and four friends threw dance parties in their hometown, East Lansing. They pooled together money to rent spaces, book DJs, and set up sound. Then in 1997, when Ransom was 19, they opened a record store downtown called Spin Cycle Records.

“I wasn’t a very good business owner,” he admits. “It was never a profitable venture, but it was a lot of fun.”

Food and music have always been parallel in Ransom’s mind; he likens dinner service to a musical performance. “You get a buzz from it — the rhythm of it, the cadence of it; it becomes something that you grow to crave,” he says.

Ransom was born near Traverse City. When he was 6, his parents bought a bus and moved the family to The Farm, a hippie cooperative near Summertown, Tennessee, where his mother studied to be a midwife.

Like other Farm residents, Ransom’s parents were vegetarians, and he grew up eating lots of soy (tofu, tempeh, miso), brown rice, dried mushrooms, and seaweed.

In 1999, Ransom moved to Detroit. He continued to pursue a career in music while supporting himself as a line cook. Then, after about a decade of DJing, he noticed something wasn’t right.

“I could barely hear the headphones when I was in a loud room,” he says. “I had to make a decision — either I’m going to keep ruining my ears or I need to focus on something else.”

He started taking his day job more seriously. In 2007, he relocated to Chicago and enrolled at Kendall College, where he studied classic French cuisine — he became enamored with the “rustic French discipline” through cookbooks growing up and, eventually, through working in French kitchens.

After graduating from Kendall, he cooked in Chicago, then San Francisco, where he began work as an executive chef for hospitality groups Joie de Vivre and Kimpton.

In 2016, he returned to Detroit and opened Ima, a noodle bar in Corktown. The menu featured udon, ramen, pho, and rice bowls, with tons of vegetarian offerings — all for relatively modest prices. It was a departure from the ritzy hotel restaurants he’d been managing.

“Detroit’s a working-class city. And I didn’t feel right coming back and opening a restaurant that most people wouldn’t be able to afford to eat [at],” Ransom says, though he adds that he would love to open a French restaurant one day.

Today, Ransom owns three Ima locations (two in Detroit, one in Madison Heights); SuperCrisp (a sandwich shop); and Summertown Fresh Bar (named for the city near The Farm). For aspiring chefs, the third-time James Beard semifinalist has this advice:

“Learn while you’re working for other people and make mistakes with [their] money. [Ensure you’re] never burning bridges and [that you’re] asking the right questions of your chefs and mentors.”

– Written by Jack Thomas

Andy Hollyday

Best Chef, Great Lakes: Nominee, Selden Standard, Detroit

As executive chef at Selden Standard, Hollyday developed a seasonal menu centered on scratch cooking with Michigan produce and inspiration from across the globe. // Photograph by Chuk Nowak

Long before the likes of SheWolf Pastificio & Bar or Mad Nice appeared in the lower Cass Corridor, there was Selden Standard.

In 2012, the Detroit neighborhood was already anchored with mainstays like The Old Miami and Honest John’s, but an abundance of absentee owners punctuated the area with blocks of undeveloped land and vacant structures.

By chance, when the Eastern Market space that Selden Standard co-partners Andy Hollyday (formerly executive chef of Roast) and Evan Hansen were eyeing fell through, they reached out to Susan Mosey, the executive director of Midtown Detroit Inc.

At the time, Mosey was leading Midtown Detroit in redeveloping the long-neglected Redmond Plaza and had identified an adjacent dry-cleaning building as cool and well positioned enough to bring new life to the block if renovated.

While the Second Avenue location was ideal, the building itself had been empty for years and left to sit.

“I remember my mom gasping when we drove by,” Hollyday says. Like a lot of vacant properties in the neighborhood at that time, the building was boarded up and bombed with graffiti. “A lot of people just thought we were crazy,” he recalls. “But Evan and I felt that people would find us if we carried out our vision as we intended.”

Of the early days, Hansen remembers taking a handheld weed whacker around the exterior to dodge blight tickets, ripping out the old floors inside to put in plumbing, and just thinking about what a big project it all was.

When Selden Standard finally opened its doors two years later in 2014, it ushered in a new era of fine dining in the Cass Corridor.

Hansen carved out the restaurant’s beverage program, and Hollyday, as executive chef, developed a seasonal menu centered on scratch cooking with produce from Michigan farms and inspiration from across the globe.

This approach, and a smattering of high-profile press mentions, drew in diners from all over, some of whom had not been to the Cass Corridor in decades.

“To have a restaurant at that level has contributed to the DNA of the neighborhood,” Mosey says. “I think people began to see again that this part of the city could be revitalized.”

Hollyday received his first James Beard Award nod for best Great Lakes chef in 2015. More semifinalist honors followed in 2016, 2018, 2020, and 2023. And while this year’s win went to Tim Flores and Genie Kwon of Chicago’s Kasama, 2023 marked Hollyday’s first time as a finalist.

“I’m very happy for him,” Hansen says. “I’m also happy — very happy — for our team.” Hollyday shares the same sentiment, calling the nomination a reflection on the entire Selden Standard staff. “My name was on that nomination, but I tell the team when we talk about it that it was every bit a reflection of their hard work.”

The team Hollyday credits is the same group he says stuck by the restaurant during the pandemic. What could have been a dark time for Selden Standard was overcome with the intentional atmosphere of warmth Hollyday and Hansen worked to give their staff.

“The most important asset is our team,” Hollyday says, “and without them, we can’t do anything.”

– Written by Cambrey Thomas

April + Michelle Anderson

Outstanding Bakery: Semifinalist, Good Cakes and Bakes, Detroit

Photograph by Chuk Nowak

The gift of an Easy-Bake Oven changed April Anderson’s life when she was about 6 years old. It sparked a lifelong love of baking and the eventual launch of Good Cakes and Bakes, a 2023 semifinalist in the new “outstanding bakery” category of the James Beard Awards.

A mainstay on Detroit’s Avenue of Fashion, Good Cakes and Bakes gives everyone a chance, hiring those recently released from incarceration and community members in need. The bakery is guided by human and environmentally sustainable principles.

Its organic, vegan, gluten-free, and handmade baked goods and soups satisfy diverse needs. Anderson (left) is the head baker, focusing on recipe research and development rather than day-to-day baking. Her wife, Michelle runs the retail and shipping departments.

“Good Cakes and Bakes is more than a bakery,” says Ederique Goudia, co-founder of In the Business of Food, a food-based consulting agency that helps women and people of color build their businesses.

“It is and has been a cornerstone of this city since they opened in 2013. April and Michelle Anderson’s commitment to community is a testament to the love, dedication, and true artistry that exist within Detroit. Good Cakes and Bakes serves as the model for what it means to be a community-first business.”

This is not the first time Good Cakes and Bakes has been honored by the James Beard Foundation. In 2018, April was one of 15 professionals invited to attend the foundation’s Chef Bootcamp for Policy and Change. And in 2021, she received a $15,000 grant from its Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans.

With a Bachelor of Science in business administration from Spelman College and an MBA from the University of Michigan, April prepared herself well for entrepreneurial success. She also studied with The Wilton School of Cake Decorating and attended Macomb Community College for pastry arts.

Educating others is in her future. She and Michelle are planning to build out a nearby wholesale-production and shipping center that will also serve as a venue for classes and demonstrations.

But what makes April’s success all the sweeter is her ability to rise above challenges that would deflate others.

In a 2019 TEDxDetroit video, she sugarcoats nothing, telling of coming out to her conservative, religious family; giving birth while in high school to two sons (the younger of whom was one of her bakers and was murdered in 2016); and being convicted of felony embezzlement.

How does she feel about the changes the foundation made to its rules and regulations in an effort to be more inclusive?

“The awards were always given to the same people — a white man or white woman backed by a white man,” April says. “Before COVID-19, there was a $150 fee for entering. If you didn’t have the money, you wouldn’t even be at the table. Bringing different people to the judging table really opened opportunities for so many.”

– Written by Robin Watson

Omar Anani

Best Chef, Great Lakes: Nominee, Saffron De Twah, Detroit

Photograph by Chuk Nowak

For chef Omar Anani, 2023 is “all about enjoying the journey and not necessarily the destination,” he says. The chef-owner of Saffron De Twah — an east-side Detroit restaurant that serves up 100 percent halal Moroccan fare with a modern twist — was a James Beard Award finalist for the second year in a row.

Of the nomination, he says, “It’s not about me. It’s about the city. It’s about the team. It’s about my parents, who inspired and encouraged me.”

Anani’s family introduced him to the industry at a young age. He started as a dishwasher at the Cleo Café, his parents’ Grand Rapids restaurant, and worked his way up to making pastries and cooking on the line.

“The foundations of how to treat your employees and how to treat your community — it all came from [my parents],” Anani says.

At Saffron De Twah, employees (front and back of house) receive at least $15 hourly plus tips, full health benefits, paid time off, and paid maternity leave. He’s also exploring a worker-owned model for his business.

Additionally, the Saffron Community Kitchen, which Anani launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, has served over 100,000 meals to Detroiters in need since it opened in 2020.

“We got here by doing what we do — that’s what we’re going to continue to do and not really worry about the accolades,” Anani says. “There are a lot more important things we should be worried about: the community work that we do, our team. Those are the main focuses.”

– Written by Jack Thomas

Sarah Welch

Best Chef, Great Lakes: Nominee, Marrow, Detroit

Photograph by Chuk Nowak

Growing up between Ann Arbor and her family’s resort on Jamaica’s South Coast gave Sarah Welch an early immersion into gastronomy. On the island, she saw her peers preparing full meals and experienced them poking fun at her for not doing the same.

“It had an influence on my comfort with food, fire, and cooking,” she says.

Back at the resort, Welch gravitated toward the kitchen, where she helped make coco bread and break down lobsters.

When it came time for college, Welch enrolled in Michigan State University’s hospitality administration program, thinking she would take over the family business, but realized her real passion was food.

After graduating in 2009, she attended New York City’s French Culinary Institute before working as a sous-chef locally at Birmingham’s Forest Grill and Ann Arbor’s Mani Osteria & Bar.

But it was when Welch began cooking in Detroit that her trajectory shifted — taking her from an executive chef position at sister restaurants Parks & Rec Diner and Republic in 2015 to Ping Ho’s Marrow in 2017, where she is the executive chef and an equity partner.

Marrow is known as much for its nose-to-tail butcher shop ethos as it is for its perennially favored mushroom dumplings, which Welch says stick around due to diner demand.

“I think people get so excited about food, so excited about ingredients, and so excited about technique that they forget about the guests sometimes,” Welch says.

It’s the guest experience the Marrow team prioritizes, working to balance creativity with the comfort and familiarity diners crave. For Welch, this was affirmed early on in a Detroit Free Press review from Mark Kurlyandchik, where she recalls him writing that the West Village spot felt like it had been open for years.

The restaurant quickly gained national recognition for its farm-to-table fare served via Ho’s vision of inclusive sustainability that respects its staff by offering equity, partnering with local farmers, and abiding by Michigan seasonality. And, just two years after opening, it received its first James Beard Award recognition in 2019 as a best new restaurant semifinalist.

The recognitions continued in 2020, with Welch receiving a semifinalist nod for best chef in the Great Lakes category.

Earning a nomination for the first time is an honor she says is less about her and more about the collective effort of Marrow. Ho, who is now guiding the restaurant as it expands its meat-processing operations to Eastern Market with the forthcoming Marrow Detroit Provisions, agrees that Marrow is a collective effort and is proud of Welch.

“As executive chef, I think Sarah really drives the vision for Marrow,” Ho says. “She’s one of those rare chefs who can both cook and also understand the economics of a restaurant.”

When considering how the awards changed after a 2021 audit to be more inclusive, Welch — who was the runner- up in Bravo’s Top Chef season 19 in 2022 — remembers when white men dominated the nominee list and believes the changes now give more chefs the recognition they deserve.

“Detroit has nailed it in a way. There’s a lot of representation,” she says. “Detroit’s nominees are a great cross section of the food available in Detroit.”

– Written by Cambrey Thomas

Hamissi Mamba + Nadia Nijimbere

Best Chef, Great Lakes: Semifinalist, Baobab Fare, Detroit

Photograph by Chuk Nowak

The popular New Center Detroit destination serving East African food is a James Beard Award semifinalist yet again (the restaurant received its first nod at last year’s awards). Baobab Fare started as a pop-up in 2017, offering traditional Burundian dishes and beverages.

“The community has been supporting us since day one,” says co-owner Hamissi Mamba.

The pop-up proved to be a hit, often selling out its inventory in minutes. Soon, Mamba and his wife, Nadia Nijimbere, secured funding for a full-service eatery on Woodward Avenue, which opened in early 2021. Now, they’re designing a second location, planned to be in East English Village and hopefully ready for business next summer, Mamba says.

The couple are refugees who fled Burundi, fearing persecution due to Nijimbere’s human rights activism. Mamba says this much about starting a restaurant: “It’s not easy. But it’s possible.”

The James Beard recognition wasn’t the only win for Baobob Fare this year — Mamba took home the $10,000 prize on an episode of Food Network’s Chopped that aired this past February.

Half his prize money went toward kitchen repairs at Freedom House Detroit, a nonprofit that housed Nijimbere for two years following her arrival in the States. The other half went to Burundi Kids, an organization supporting health and education initiatives in Burundi.

Baobab Fare’s signature dishes include mbuzi, a slow-roasted goat shank, and kuku, pan-fried chicken thigh in mustard sauce with caramelized onions. For dessert, try mandazi, cardamom-spiced donuts, or tamu, passion fruit-infused pudding topped with chia seeds.

Customers can also buy select products on the company’s website, including Ji (passion fruit juice), Pili website, including Ji (passion fruit juice), Pili (hot sauce), and Burundian coffee beans.

– Written by Jack Thomas

Ji Hye Kim

Best Chef Great Lakes: Semifinalist, Miss Kim, Ann Arbor

Photograph by Chuck Nowak

Third-time James Beard Award semifinalist Ji Hye Kim didn’t always want to be a chef — she once dreamed of working for a nonprofit, or a law firm, or managing a political campaign.

At the University of Michigan, she waited tables to help pay for her schooling. When she graduated in 2002, she was low on money and her status as an international student ended, limiting her work options.

She canceled plans to attend law school and took a job as an accountant, processing payments to a New Jersey hospital from patients and insurance companies. The pay was decent, and the company promised to sponsor her green card, she says.

“Up until that point, I felt like I was being chased, … by bills, … by tuition, … by immigration status,” she says. “I had room to think about what it is that I want to do, instead of what it is that I have to do to survive.”

And what she wanted to do, she realized, didn’t involve working in the American health care industry.

“People come in [for a procedure] that their insurance company denies for some esoteric reason, and they’re suddenly in debt for tens of thousands of dollars,” she says. “I’m from Korea, where there’s universal health care. … Private insurance is not great.”

At the end of her contract with the hospital in 2007, Kim moved back to Ann Arbor and took a job at Zingerman’s Delicatessen. This year marks her 15th with the company — her restaurant, Miss Kim, which opened in 2016, is part of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses.

The Kerrytown eatery marries Korean staples like bibimbap, tteokbokki, and kimchi with fresh Michigan ingredients.

Full-time staff at her restaurant receive health benefits, something she says all employers should provide, “bottom line.” She’s also spoken out publicly about her support of a $15 minimum wage.

She’s vocal on these issues, she says, “because I’ve lived these things as a worker myself. I used to be a line cook. … I used to be the server that sat in a dining room because I was the one asked to stay on a snowy day and nobody comes in. … When I speak up, I don’t really feel like I’m speaking up for other people. I’m speaking for my own experience.”

– Written by Jack Thomas

Sandy Levine

Outstanding Restaurateur: Semifinalist, Freya, Chartreuse, and The Oakland, Detroit

Levine poses with Freya chef Phoebe Zimmerman. // Photograph by Chuk Nowak

When Sandy Levine was 11 years old, he asked his stepmom — who co-owned the Stage Deli in West Bloomfield — to buy him a pricey Hard Rock Cafe jacket he wanted. Instead, she suggested that he earn the money himself by washing dishes at the deli on Saturday nights. He earned enough to buy the jacket and a bigger payoff.

“I really fell in love with restaurant culture,” Levine says. “People took me under their wing and showed me how restaurants work.”

Even while pursuing a psychology degree at Kalamazoo College, he waited tables at various restaurants, including Champps Americana in Troy, where he eventually met his wife. These early experiences shaped his approach to hospitality.

One particular influence on Levine’s career was his time working at Davio’s, a northern Italian steakhouse in Philadelphia. “The general manager, Ettore Ceraso, was, hands down, the best hospitality person I’ve ever worked for.”

In 2006, the award-winning modernist restaurant Alinea in Chicago helped him create an extraordinary experience for proposing to his wife. It made him realize he wanted to create something of his own that would fulfill the same role for other people.

He did. This year, Levine, 46, was named a semifinalist in the James Beard Foundation’s outstanding restaurateur category for three of his restaurants: Freya (2021), with modernized and welcoming fine dining; Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails (2015), a farm-to-table restaurant with bright, fresh, and vibrant food and service; and The Oakland (2011), a friendly neighborhood craft cocktail lounge.

Levine earned his semifinalist nod by demonstrating the criteria for this category: excellence in cuisine, creativity in entrepreneurship, integrity in restaurant operations, and efforts to create a sustainable work culture while contributing positively to the broader community.

“Historically, restaurants are very tough places to work in, often with some rough personalities,” Levine says. “I have a reputation for being a good boss, which, again, I attribute to the time I spent with Ettore, as well as the fact that I’ve spent time in almost all restaurant stations.”

Levine is passionate about training front-of-the-house staff.

“I keep coming back to this: Care more. Care more about the staff. And, if you care more than the guests expect you to, you’ll always come in above their standards.”

Doug Hewitt, Levine’s business partner and the chef at Freya, Dragonfly (2021), and Chartreuse, applauds the approach. “What makes Sandy so deserving is his care for the people in his seats and the people who work under his umbrella.”

Freya’s general manager, Thor Jones, agrees. “I consider Sandy a friend, a mentor, and one of my biggest inspirations in our profession. He genuinely cares about people.”

What’s next for the Ferndale resident?

“Our focus is on strengthening our foundation and providing the best experiences for our guests and staff,” Levine says. “I’ve already completed most of my long-term goals for personal achievement. I want to help facilitate as many careers in hospitality and restaurants and make as much of a positive impact as possible.”

By the way, he still has that Hard Rock jacket, and he still washes dishes at home.

– Written by Robin Watson

This story is from the August 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.