Michael Symon will host the Greening of Detroit Gala on October 4 at his Detroit steakhouse, Roast, which has been a foodie favorite since opening in 2008. Aside from his love for food in the Motor City, Symon is an avid supporter of The Greening, one of the city’s longest standing environmental initiatives that focuses on tree planting and green infrastructure. But his focus remains on his restaurants — Symon plans to open at least three more in metro Detroit under the name B Spot.
Hour Detroit Associate Editor Casey Nesterowich chatted with Symon this week over the phone about his take on the Detroit food scene.
Hour Detroit: You’re a Cleveland native, so what was it about Detroit that inspired you to open Roast in 2008?
Symon: Well a couple things — actually Detroit and Cleveland remind me of a lot of each other. I think the people that live (in Detroit), more than anything else, (have) a ton of city pride and Midwestern warmness to them, so we felt very comfortable doing a project within an environment with customers that we thought we really understood. And then to be a part of the Westin Book Cadillac was very exciting. To take something that was such a historic building in Detroit and be a part of the revitalization was very exciting for us.
Hour Detroit: Did you originally view your restaurant as an entrepreneurial risk, or was it an easy decision to come to metro Detroit?
Symon: Every time we open a business we think it’s a risk, but I think that’s one of the things that always continues to help motivate us, too.
Hour Detroit: With the current economic situation of Detroit, how do you see the future of Roast?
Symon: We are very confident (that) when we invest in a city, we invest in the people of the city, and we are confident the city and people that live in (Detroit) are going to continue to want to see the growth of downtown and support the businesses that have chosen to go down there.
Hour Detroit: From 2008 until now, what changes have you noticed in Detroit?
Symon: From a business standpoint, our business has grown every year since we opened, so I think that says a lot about the city. With what’s going on with Slows, and the coffee shops, and the Greening of Detroit movement, I think Detroit has nowhere else to go but up.
Hour Detroit: What is your favorite appetizer and entrée on the menu at Roast?
Symon: My favorite thing — and we do this at my restaurant in Cleveland, too — is the roasted bone marrow. I think it’s very unique to what we do, and it’s different from a lot of other restaurants. It’s essentially beef butter, and what could be more delicious than that? We always do a rotating pasta, too. Right now it’s the rabbit ragu, which I think is great, and then I think the steaks we do there are the best steaks in the Midwest. We dry them all in-house, and I don’t think you’re going to get a better piece of beef in the Midwest.
Hour Detroit: Do you use local ingredients in your restaurants? If so, can you share where you get your produce?
Symon: Absolutely, it changes from place to place, and farm to farm, depending on the season, but in all of our restaurants across the board are about 60 percent local. Obviously, seafood doesn’t come locally, and the beef we use is raised in Indiana, but we buy it from local purveyors in Detroit, and then we dry it ourselves in-house. We also use Zingerman’s for breads.
Hour Detroit: Can you tell me when and where you plan to open B Spot Burger in Michigan? Rumor has it there will be more than one location. Is that true?
Symon: The first one is going to be in Rochester Hills, and that will be at the end of this year (or) early next year. And then we’re scouring Detroit for other locations as well. We’d like to put three to four in the metro Detroit area.
It’s obviously a much more casual spinoff of what we do (at Roast), but the process is exactly the same. B spot stands for burgers, bratwurst, bologna, beer, and bourbon. So the menu’s comprised of about 10 signature burgers. There’s a small build your own section. We have about 20 beers on tap and 60 on the list. (There’s a) selection of 20-25 bourbons, fried bologna sandwiches, homemade brats, a couple salads and chicken sandwiches, and insane custard-based milkshakes.
I guarantee it will be the best milkshake you’ve ever had in your entire life. And we do them loaded, too, which is fun. We do certain ones for kids, but then there’s other certain concoctions where we put bourbon in for adult milkshakes.
Hour Detroit: Where do you primarily call home now?
Symon: New York and Cleveland. I’m in New York for TV a few days a week, and then my home is in Cleveland, but I drive up to Detroit all the time.
In Cleveland I keep a huge garden. I usually have about 15 varieties of peppers and chilies, anywhere from eight to 12 different varieties of tomatoes, eggplant, lettuces, (and) a lot of cucumbers, because we like to do our own pickling and make pickles. And then I have a small terrace, New York style garden while I’m in the city — not nearly as fruitful, but I can still get my tomatoes, and chilies, and planters of arugula.
Hour Detroit: Roast aside, do you have a favorite place to visit while you’re in town?
Symon: I love Slows. I love those guys, I think they do a great job, and I think they love and embrace the city they’re from. It’s a really cool place. I like Cliff Bell’s a lot, too.
Hour Detroit: You co-host The Chew with a variety of people, including Mario Batali, who has ties to Michigan as well. He’s up in Traverse City a lot. Do you guys bond over that at all?
Symon: I have visited Traverse City. Mario and I have been friends for 15-20 years, and he loves Michigan and spends his summers there. Oddly enough I spend my summers in New York, while he comes back to the Midwest. He loves Traverse City — the cherries especially — but if you’re going to go to Traverse City and you’re going to grab a bite to eat, the best place to go would probably be Mario’s back yard.
Hour Detroit: If you were to ask family and friends what their favorite dish is of yours, what do you think they would say?
Symon: Ricotta gnocchi. Either that, or a big grilled steak with a tomato salad. Those are my two most requested meals.
Hour Detroit: What would your last meal be?
Symon: I’ve actually thought about this because I know a lot of chefs. I would have Jonathan Waxman roast me a chicken. I would have Bobby Flay make me one of his shrimp tamales, and Marc Vetri make me a pasta.
Hour Detroit: Which chef do you think has the most admirable work ethic?
Symon: Paul Kahan, who owns a bunch of restaurants in Chicago, I would say is the hardest working chef I’ve ever met. I’ve cooked with him a lot, and he owns probably about six restaurants in Chicago. He is a tireless worker, he’s never out of his kitchens, he’s an incredible teacher of young cooks, and just a great guy.
Hour Detroit: Do you read any food blogs? Or do you recommend any good cooking resources?
Symon: I don’t read any food blogs, but there are cookbooks that I love. I love The Zouni Café Cookbook by Judy Rogers, I think it’s a great cookbook. For people just starting out to cook and learning how, another great one is How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. I think it’s a great resource book for people just getting into the kitchen.
To learn more about Roast, visit: www.roastdetroit.com
To learn more about the Greening of Detroit, visit: www.greeningofdetroit.com