Executive Chef Aaron Cozadd’s mantra for new Midtown restaurant Vigilante Kitchen + Bar is the Japanese idiom Ichi-go Ichi-e: One moment, one encounter.
As his staff work to make their one encounter with diners a quality, memorable experience that’s “a little bit punk rock, a little bit Zen,” Cozadd aims to make his own encounters with staff impactful in a different way — he hopes their employment at Vigilante will be a step toward addiction recovery.
“For as long as I can recall, the restaurant industry has carried a dark negative stigma,” Cozadd said in a press release. “At Vigilante Kitchen and Bar, we’re going to illuminate this issue by offering a supportive program for those struggling with addiction.”
In an Oakland County jail cell in 2012, after a second DUI arrest, Cozadd decided a reform was necessary. The then-executive chef at the Union Woodshop in Clarkston set his sights on innovating the culinary industry.
With the highest reported rate of illicit drug use of any industry, according to the American Addiction Centers, Cozadd figured it was “the realm in which [he] could influence the most change” for himself and others.
A veteran of the industry with personal experience recovering from addiction, Cozadd was no stranger to being a go-to support system for struggling employees. However, he also knew his support could only go so far given the environment.
“I would do my best to offer them the tools that worked for me and guidance, but I quickly realized that the traditional restaurant structure made it difficult for them to employ the tools,” Cozadd told Hour. “I realized that if I wanted to do it the way that I envisioned, I would have to create my own. All I knew is what worked for me.”
Envisioning a culinary space where “transformations could become a reality,” Cozadd partnered with Mission Restaurant Group, a restaurant operations marketing team. Together, they created Vigilante, an eatery that employs industry workers struggling with addiction, providing them with recovery resources while still allowing them to advance their culinary skills.
“I found that the addictive mind, when harnessed and focused on positive things, became more of a superpower than a weakness, which is the origin of the name Vigilante,” Cozadd said to Hour. “In daily interactions with staff, we take into consideration all aspects of their lives rather than just the parts of their life in which they are an employee.”
At Vigilante, Cozadd works to combat addiction in the industry through a variety of practices and resources including onsite recovery meetings, built-in meditation breaks, and access to counseling and health insurance coverage.
Partnering with neighboring establishment Nain Rouge Brewery, Vigilante serves exclusive draft beers, along with 19 other craft cocktails and sakes, a decision Cozadd defends as an important — not counterintuitive — step in recovery.
“A person in recovery who decides to stay in the industry will inevitably need to work around alcohol,” Cozadd said in the press release. “At Vigilante Kitchen + Bar, we focus on building a strong internal environment to which the external environment becomes inconsequential. You can only avoid the wine aisle for so long.”
In addition to their exclusive beers, Vigilante’s menu features what their website describes as “everyday dishes treated unconventionally,” consisting largely of Midwestern eats with an Asian flair.
Inspired by his training with Asia-based chefs at the Culinary Institute of America, Cozadd promises a layered, complex flavor in his dishes, utilizing ingredients found in Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, and Malaysian cuisines.
The menu offers a variety of baos, bowls, salads, and desserts, with designated vegetarian and halal menus, and a zero-proof cocktail selection. Stand-out dishes include the Szechuan hot chicken bao with togarashi mayo; ahi Wellington in a spring roll wrap with a ponzu-dashi glace; Koji braised short rib served with black garlic whipped potatoes; and an open-faced crab Rangoon topped with a lobster cream cheese mornay.
Midwestern-Asian fusion isn’t the restaurant’s only eccentric dining quality. Curated by Detroit-based interior designer Patrick Thompson — and keeping with the motif of transformation — the space formerly housing Smith and Co. received a makeover conceptualized with “[Cozadd’s] vision of bold punk rock, love of graphic novels, and the tenets of Buddhism” in mind, Thompson said in the press release.
The black and white exposed brick walls display colorful framed prints, a painting of a punk rock skeleton — mohawk and all — and Vigilante’s “Ichi-go Ichi-e” mantra, reminding staff and patrons to “check the outside world at the door” and “root [themselves] in this exact moment, a moment that can only happen this way, this time.”
Vigilante Kitchen + Bar opened June 30 at 644 Selden St., Detroit. Hours of operation are Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday 5-11 p.m. and Friday, Saturday 5 p.m.-1 a.m.