The 2020 Taste Makers: Meet the Black Culinarians Powering the Detroit Food Scene

They’re running food empires, diversifying culinary landscapes, and servicing marginalized communities

the 2020 taste makers
Top: Joe Spencer, Quiana Broden, Raven Love, Tharmond Ligon Jr. Bottom: Billy Owens, Justice Akuezue, Godwin Ihentuge, Denetia Lyons

Last August, Hour Detroit introduced Taste Makers, a roundup of 10 culinarians moving Detroit’s food industry forward. For this year’s Food Issue, we decided to bring the Taste Makers theme back, committing to producing it as an annual list that celebrates the new and familiar faces who made their mark on the food scene over the past year. Then on Memorial Day, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, igniting outrage and protests around the world. And things changed.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in late February, our everyday lives have been upended — from the way we work to the way we live to the way we love to the way we view the world around us. The pandemic and the ongoing protests demanding racial justice have only served to magnify racial disparities in our society, not merely in the terms of police brutality, but also in relation to health outcomes, wage inequity, workforce discrimination, and a host of other inequities.

According to the Detroit Metro Area Communities Study by the University of Michigan, nearly half of Black Detroiters say they’ve lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, compared to 22 percent of white Detroiters. The same survey shows Black Detroiters have disproportionately been victims of COVID-19 as well and are four times as likely as white residents to know someone who died from the virus.

These staggering stats arrive against a backdrop of longstanding disparities within the city’s food and beverage industry. In a city that’s home to more than 526,000 Black residents — nearly 80 percent of the population — food accessibility has been an ongoing concern. As of 2017, for instance, Washtenaw County had eight major supermarkets, and Macomb County 27, according to the Detroit Food Map Initiative. In contrast, Detroit proper has just three major supermarkets, not one of which is a Kroger, Michigan’s largest grocer. Meanwhile, if national economic trends hold, the city’s Black-owned restaurants will be less likely to weather the COVID-19 crisis than other restaurants, as minority-owned businesses tend to have less internal capital on hand — and, according to a 2015 study on minority and women entrepreneurs by The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, less external capital from banks and other lenders as well.

These times call for change, and in our line of work, change begins with representation. For this year’s Food Issue, we underscore just how much Black lives matter to metro Detroit’s food industry by spotlighting not just 10 Taste Makers, as we did last year, but 50 Black chefs and bartenders, food entrepreneurs and restaurateurs, servers, and farmers who are shaping the way we eat. Almost universally, these professionals touted as their chief strength the fact that they employ fellow people of color, who are often marginalized and overlooked by bigger businesses that garner mainstream attention. And in that alone, they say, they find their value.

Read on to learn more about this year’s honorees and how you can support their businesses. —Lyndsay Green


MEET…

Godwin Ihentuge // Raven Love & Justice Akuezue // Billy Owens // Vera Bailey // Joe Spencer // Quiana Broden & Angela Davis // Denetia Lyons & Cassandra Thomas // Tharmond Ligon Jr. 

PLUS…

The Chefs // The Bartenders, Food Service Workers, & Activists // The Detroit Institutions & Influencers // The Pastry Chefs & Restaurateurs // The Farmers

The Chefs

// Listings reporting by Rachael Thomas, Emily Roth, Lou Buhl, and Tess Ware 

Al Ra El

Sloppy Chops

Chef Al is the proud owner of Sloppy Chops, a steakhouse on Detroit’s west side, and catering company Upscale Cuisine — aptly named, as Chef Al brings upscale food to a casual setting. Though the pandemic forced Sloppy Chops to close its doors just a month after its February grand opening, Chef Al and his staff continued operating as a carry-out establishment and even helped to feed front-line workers at Detroit Medical Center. The restaurant reopened to a fully booked carry-out schedule on Father’s Day.

Visit Chef Al at Sloppy Chops, 13226 W. McNichols Road, Detroit; 313-646-2900; sloppychopsrestaurant.net.

Kiki Louya

Chef and activist

In 2016, Detroit-born chef Kiki Louya, along with Rohani Foulkes, worked with Michigan farmers to make clean food accessible with The Farmer’s Hand, a quaint Corktown market that has since closed its doors. Louya’s contributions to Corktown’s bustling culinary landscape continued. She’d go on to co-found Folk, the brunch staple turned neighborhood grocer, as well as the city’s newcomer oyster bar, Mink. In March, Louya announced her departure from the eateries to pursue new ventures and opportunities to further her advocacy for accessible food.

Learn more about Louya at kikilouya.com.

Lloyd Roberts

Adachi and Zao Jun

Chef Lloyd Roberts brings an international perspective to the Detroit area. The Jamaica-born chef has cooked in major cities, such as New York, Dubai, Moscow, and Budapest, learning French and Asian techniques under the tutelage of iconic culinarians, such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Nobu Matsuhisa. Roberts landed in Michigan in 2018 to helm the Birmingham Japanese restaurant Adachi, and a year later, he opened Zao Jun in Bloomfield Hills, widening his scope of Asian cuisines with Thai, Indonesian, and Chinese-inspired dishes.

Try Roberts’ dishes at Adachi, 325 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-540-5900; adachirestaurant.com; and Zao Jun, 6608 Telegraph Road, Bloomfield Twp; 248-949-9999; zaojunnewasian.com.

Max Hardy

Coop

Chef Max Hardy brings a new level of mastery to island fusion cuisine with Coop, a Caribbean fusion station serving hearty dishes with bold flavors out of the popular Detroit Shipping Co. Outside of his work at Coop, Hardy has co-authored two cookbooks and competed on Food Network’s Chopped, and in 2011, he founded the nonprofit One Chef Can 86 Hunger with the goal of bringing healthy food to urban areas.

Visit Hardy at Coop, 474 Peterboro St., Detroit; 313-932-0320; coopdetroit.com.

Mike Ransom

Ima

The award-winning noodle joint headed up by chef Mike Ransom has cemented itself as a Corktown staple for savory bowls of udon, rice, and pho. Ransom’s interpretations of the Japanese and Vietnamese classics have been so well-received that Ima has expanded, opening locations in Midtown Detroit and Madison Heights. Ransom, whose culinary background is in fine dining, says his aim is to create food that is accessible but just as tasty as what diners would experience at an upscale establishment.

Try Ransom’s creations at Ima. Visit imanoodles.com for locations.

Reniel Billups

Flavors of Jamaica

Jamaica native chef Reniel Billups has been in the kitchen for most of her life. She is the founder of Irie Occasions Catering, which has held pop-ups at places like Detroit City Distillery, Lost River, and 8 Degrees Plato. And today, she owns Flavors of Jamaica, a Pontiac-based restaurant serving, well, traditional Jamaican flavors, from ackee and saltfish to oxtails and cabbage. Via Irie Kitchen, her YouTube channel, Billups shares homemade recipes with more than 6,000 subscribers.

Follow Billups on YouTube @iriekitchen, and visit her at Flavors of Jamaica, 406 N. Telegraph Road, Pontiac; 947-999-0169.

Tony Durden

The Gripper Food Truck

Chef Tony Durden, who has cooked for celebs such as Anthony Anderson, Kem, and Ronald Isley, credits his culinary success to his upbringing in a tight-knit family. He says large family gatherings centered on food inspired many of his recipes, such as his macaroni and cheese, which customers often liken to Grandma’s baked mac and cheese. The Gripper Food Truck is a recent venture of Durden’s namesake catering company, serving hearty sandwiches and pasta salads.

Find out where the truck is parked at thegripperfoodtruck.com.

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It Takes a Chief Villager

Godwin Ihentuge is making YumVillage an Afro-Caribbean mecca

// By Lyndsay Green 

Godwin Ihentuge - Black Culinarians detroit food scene
Godwin Ihentuge

He doesn’t quite call himself a chef. Instead, Godwin Ihentuge, founder of YumVillage, refers to himself as Chief Villager at the Afro-Caribbean hot spot that opened in New Center last April. This is an apt title for Ihentuge, who’s creating community through a cuisine well-known in his Nigerian community but new to the up-and-coming Detroit neighborhood.

Out of its Woodward Avenue outpost, YumVillage serves up flavorful Hot Bowls filled with spicy Jollof Rice and hot Jerk Chicken, crispy Ginger Curry Chickpeas topped with sweet-savory suya chicken — dark meat battered in a peanut dry rub and fried crisp — and sides of sweet and spicy plantains and sweet corn cakes. All dishes are representative of the vast range of foods enjoyed across the Afro-Caribbean diaspora. “Everything we do at the restaurant is to spread Afro-Caribbean culture through food,” he says. 

If the heart of YumVillage is Ihentuge’s heritage, it’s his entrepreneurial spirit that powers the business. A Wayne State School of Business alum, Ihentuge started his professional career as a mortgage banker earning a six-figure salary he often took for granted. “It was a beautiful existence — even though I was worked like a dog,” he says. But his penchant for cooking called him to the culinary world. “I have been cooking for myself since I was about 7,” he says, “and I’ve always enjoyed it.” So, he sought to transition his business background into a career in food.

In its first iteration, Ihentuge says, YumVillage was an Airbnb concept for chefs. He partnered with chef Brent Foster, the project’s culinary lead and somewhat of a celebrity chef as a finalist on Rachael Ray’s Great American Cookbook Competition.  “Our plan was to partner chefs with underutilized restaurant spaces. We’d take care of booking, marketing, and promotions. We’d also help facilitate sales in exchange for an incubation fee.”

After Ihentuge participated in various startup incubators and pitch competitions, the concept for YumVillage evolved — first as a series of pop-ups and later as a food truck — but the intent has always been to become more than just a restaurant. Ihentuge says the business will soon transition to the YumVillage Market Pantry, inspired by an ethnic food market that once operated nearby on the corner of Woodward and West Grand Boulevard selling plantains, spices, and many of the foods that Ihentuge’s recipes call for today. “Our intention is to bring that type of marketplace back within our location.”

To support Ihentuge’s ever-expanding village, diners can subscribe to the YumVillage meal plan — prepared Afro-Caribbean meals will be delivered directly to your door — engage with the podcast Refrigerator Diaries, where Ihentuge chats with food industry professionals, or simply have a taste of the diaspora over a Hot Bowl by the Chief Villager himself.

Yum Village, 6500 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-334-6099; yumvillage.com.

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They’re Shaking Things Up

Bartenders Raven Love and Justice Akuezue are paving the way for fellow Black barkeeps

// By Brittany Hutson 

A bartender is an interesting breed, an eclectic hybrid of an artist, a chemist, and a customer’s best friend all wrapped up into one skilled professional. But the archetype of the mixologist — you know, the dapper white male with the handlebar mustache, vintage suspenders, and ornate tattoos on his forearms peeking out from beneath crisp white shirt cuffs — is long overdue for an update.

The disregarded history and contributions of African American bartenders is slowly being rectified, thanks to Black bartenders who are telling their stories and creating a pipeline for more people who look more like them to enter the profession. 

In late January, local mixologists Raven Love of Willis Show Bar and Brian Edwards of Barter Detroit launched the Double Strained Collective, a blog that amplifies voices of underrepresented food and beverage industry workers. The idea for Double Strained Collective stemmed from Love’s and Edwards’ personal struggles as people of color in the industry and their desire to find, highlight, and connect with fellow Black bartenders.

The blog began with a collection of profiles on 29 Black bartenders in the Detroit area, which Love says offered great exposure for a crop of talents who have historically been under the radar. “Four months post that project, all of these beautiful new friendships have bloomed among us, and people have gotten different opportunities from being featured on the blog,” Love says. “We want people to see that Black bartenders do exist, because, on the most basic level, we’re not included in the conversation and we’ve had to muscle our way in.”

Justice Akuezue had never heard about craft cocktails until he started working at Detroit City Distillery about five years ago as a barback. “I asked my manager about them and he gave me some books to read — a training manual and recipes,” Akuezue recalls. “I pretty much took everything from there and ended up getting promoted to a bartender.” Building up his experience working at other bars around the city, including Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails, led to the role he has today as co-founder and beverage director of The Exchange. He and his partner, chef Davante Burnley, host pop-up dinners and offer catering and meal-prep services. Last summer, they completed a two-month residency with chef Godwin Ihentuge at Yum Village.

Like Love, Akuezue also wants to see more Black representation behind the bar and in leadership positions instead of as support staff.

“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” he says. “We’re creating opportunities for each other to get recognition. Personally, I want to make sure that I introduce more Black people into the fold.”

Willis Show Bar, 4156 Third Ave., Detroit; 313-788-7469; willisshowbar.com.

The Exchange, follow @exchangedetroit on Instagram.

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Bartenders, Food Service Workers, & Activists

Alexis Akridge

Lady of the House

Fresh to the bartending scene, this Detroiter has been learning the intricacies of the craft cocktail world for just over a year. You can taste her creations at Corktown gem Lady of the House and at its downstairs speakeasy, Gent, when the lights go down.

Have a toast with Akridge at Lady of the House, 1426 Bagley St., Detroit; 313-818-0218; ladyofthehousedetroit.com.

Ashley D’Agostino

Selden Standard

Although D’Agostino of Selden Standard is highly skilled in the realm of cocktail creation, it would be a disservice not to mention her abilities as a violist — the multitalented mixologist even played in the Detroit Medical Orchestra. One of her favorite cocktails? A Sazerac, the jazzy New Orleans twist on a cognac cocktail.

Order a Sazerac with D’Agostino at Selden Standard, 3921 Second Ave., Detroit; 313-438-5055; seldenstandard.com.

Brian Oliver Edwards

Barter

Besides being a master of his craft over the past six years, Edwards is also the co-creator of Double Strained Collective, a blog that lifts voices, creates spaces, and provides educational resources for metro Detroit’s Black and brown creative community. He’s also one of the few Black beverage program directors in the Detroit area.

Try one of Edwards’ creations at Barter, 11601 Joseph Campau Ave., Hamtramck; 313-707-0986; barterdetroit.com.

David Cabello

Black and Mobile

A food delivery service for Black-owned restaurants, Black and Mobile began in founder David Cabello’s hometown of Philadelphia in 2017. Earlier this year, the 24-year-old chose Detroit as the startup’s first city for expansion. Black and Mobile services nearly 20 Black-owned restaurants in the Detroit area, including Kuzzo’s Chicken & Waffles and The Jamaican Pot, with more on the way. By bringing the service to Detroit, Cabello says he hopes to help support the success of Black businesses and the African American community at large. 

Visit blackandmobile.com for participating restaurants.

Larry Love

Temple Bar

Catch Love slinging drinks at Cass Corridor’s classic spot, Temple Bar. Known for its role in the Comedy Central sitcom Detroiters, this popular dive bar is more than just a place to play pool in dim lighting; it’s a community.

Visit Love at Temple Bar, 2906 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-832-2822.

Tristan Taylor

Avalon Cafe + Bakery

By day, you can often find Tristan Taylor at Avalon Cafe + Bakery’s Midtown storefront. For more than five years, Taylor has worked as a shift leader at the bakery and as a community activist aiming to bring people together to effect social change. Taylor has been at the forefront of police brutality protests held in downtown Detroit. As Avalon works to provide benefits and living wages for its team, Taylor works independently to educate the surrounding community on racial justice.

Visit Taylor at Avalon Cafe + Bakery, 1049 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-285-8006. For re-opening updates, visit avalonbreads.net

Nailah Ellis-Brown

Ellis Island Tea

Founder of Ellis Island Tea, Nailah Ellis-Brown carries on her family’s legacy through flavorful Jamaican tea blends “steeped in family tradition, brewed and bottled in Detroit.” Ellis-Brown takes inspiration from her great-grandfather, who immigrated from Jamaica in the early 1900s and went on to found one of the largest Black-owned catering businesses in the Bronx. Using her great-grandfather’s secret recipe, Ellis-Brown sells sweetened and unsweetened versions of the all-natural and antioxidant-rich hibiscus tea nationwide.

Learn more about Ellis Island Tea at ellisislandtea.com.

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Pie-High Expectations

With Flamz Pizzeria, entrepreneur Billy Owens is expanding his empire and developing a new crop of food industry pros 

// By Lyndsay Green

Billy Owens - Black culinarians detroit food scene
Billy Owens

It might’ve been intuitive for Billy Owens to launch a restaurant that paid homage to his Southern roots. But when the Mississippi native had the opportunity to open his first establishment in 2011, he went with a cuisine loved by Northerners, Southerners, East, and West Coasters alike — burgers.

Owens got his start in the restaurant industry when he first moved to Detroit in the ’90s, working at mom-and-pop shops around town and venues such as Little Caesars Arena. He went on to open Big Burgzs, a fast-food hot spot, flipping patty melts on rye and hearty steak and cheese pitas with a tall order of meat. Last June, Owens expanded his restaurant portfolio with Flamz, a quick-casual spot serving another all-American classic: pizza.

“I’d been reading about this style of pizza for a couple years and wanted to try it,” Owens says. Rather than the traditional Detroit-style pizza, he opted for thin-crust personal pies baked in a brick oven. “I went to a couple places that made this style of pizza and liked everything about the process, from the speed to how the pizza is created.” At Flamz, guests can order signature pizzas or customize their pies with an assembly-line method Owens calls “Subway-style” — choose your toppings, watch the pie go in the oven, and enjoy your creation within just a few minutes.

Owens operates both businesses in Morningside, the east side Detroit neighborhood he’s called home over the past decade. “Opening these establishments was just me trying to help revive the neighborhood and bring something new to the community,” he says, adding that Flamz is the only Black-owned pizzeria in the area. “It’s important for Black entrepreneurs to own businesses in their own communities. We often give jobs to people from the inner city and put the money we earn back into the community, rather than outsiders making money in these neighborhoods and investing it in other places.”

Along with his three children, Owens aims to employ young, vibrant workers from the community to help them develop professional experience in the food industry.

When asked how diners can support his endeavors, Owens says, “We just want to spread the word that we operate safe environments in family-friendly spaces, and we hire from within the communities that support us.”

Flamz Pizzeria, 16369 E. Warren Ave., Detroit; 313-924-5714. Big Burgzs, 17627 E.
Warren Ave., Detroit; 313-640-3956.

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Still Spreading The Love

Flowers of Vietnam’s resident hugger, Vera Bailey, adapts to the times   

// By Lyndsay Green 

There’s just one thing that might give chef George Azar’s award-winning dishes some stiff competition at Flowers of Vietnam, and that’s Vera Bailey’s hugs.

As maître d’ of the Southwest Detroit Coney Island turned trendy Vietnamese restaurant since 2016, Bailey has captured diners’ hearts with her affectionate greetings as far back as the restaurant’s earliest days as a pop-up eatery. If you’ve ever visited Flowers of Vietnam, then you’ve probably experienced the off-the-menu starter: a hug from Bailey, served fresh at the door and with lots of love. “If I can’t hug someone on their way in, I grab them on the way out,” she says.

Bailey, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, was an educator in the Hartford school system for many years, working part-time jobs in the food industry in her spare time. “Working at restaurants in Connecticut was an easy way to make some extra money,” she says. “But let me tell you something, if I had been employed at a place like Flowers back then, it could have turned into a full-time career.”

A job opportunity with the Detroit public school system for Bailey’s husband relocated their family to Detroit in 1994. Bailey, too, worked in the school system initially, and eventually landed the role at Flowers, a position she adores. She aims to spread that joy to fellow staffers and customers alike. “We’re a united group at Flowers,” she says. “We love our food, we love the customers, we love this city, and we work together to make sure that we show all of that love in what we do.”

In late June, Flowers of Vietnam reopened its dining room and introduced a new patio with outdoor seating arrangements. Social distancing mandates complicate the intimate nature of traditional dinner settings at a place like Flowers, where the cozy space is typically bustling with patrons sipping craft cocktails shoulder to shoulder at the bar and rubbing elbows while getting their fingers saucy in a plate of Azar’s famous caramel wings. But Bailey isn’t worried. “I may not be able to give hugs,” she says, “but I can still give love through an elbow bump, and you’ll still see the love in my eyes.”

Flowers of Vietnam, 4440 Vernor Hwy., Detroit; 313-312-4100; flowersofvietnam.com.

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Institutions & Influencers

Bert Dearing Jr.

Bert’s Marketplace

Since 1987, Bert Dearing Jr. has operated Bert’s Marketplace, an Eastern Market staple serving up food, music, and an education on local Black history. Also known as Bert’s Entertainment Complex, Dearing’s nearly 30,000-square-foot venue includes a restaurant serving barbecue and soul food; live jazz shows, and concerts in the Warehouse Theater and Jazz Room; a museum featuring sections decorated in images of Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and the Detroit Pistons; and two murals drawing inspiration from Dearing’s upbringing in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood.

Visit Bert’s Marketplace, 2727 Russell St., Detroit; 313-567-2030; bertsentertainmentcomplex.com.

Hugh Smith III

Baker’s Keyboard Lounge

Hugh Smith III is the co-owner of the legendary Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, Detroit’s oldest jazz club. The godson of late American jazz pianist Teddy Harris, the Detroit native bought the space with a partner in 2011 at a bankruptcy auction in an effort to continue the venue’s more than 80-year legacy of bringing jazz to the city. Baker’s has boasted performances from jazz legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Baker’s was granted a historic designation in 2016.

Visit Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, 20510 Livernois Ave., Detroit; 313-345-6300; theofficialbakerskeyboardlounge.com.

Larry Mongo

Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy

A hidden gem on Griswold Street, Larry Mongo’s space has been considered an eclectic retreat for nearly 40 years. Though the venue has undergone several name changes — Mongo’s original iteration of the business went by the name of Café Joseph and was later operated by his son Jerome under the name Wax Fruit Rhythm Café in the 1990s — its current format has been a go-to for a stiff drink and a stellar grilled cheese since 2007. Café D’Mongo’s bar has hosted its fill of famous faces, including Quentin Tarantino and Ryan Gosling — a frequent visitor who tapped Mongo for a cameo in the trailer for his directorial debut film, Lost River, in 2015.

Visit Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy at 1439 Griswold St., Detroit.

Erica N.

This African Cooks

An obstetric nurse by day and cook by night, Michigan-based foodie Erica N. develops tasty Whole30, paleo, and gluten-free recipes for her blog, This African Cooks. Erica’s creations are healthy takes on dishes influenced by her experiences living in her native Ghana, the Netherlands, and now Michigan. A scroll through her social media pages and website showcases mouthwatering photos of naturally leavened honey milk bread, a homemade tomato-based stew, barbecue pulled jackfruit quesadillas, and more.

Follow Erica on Instagram @thisafricancooks and thisafricancooks.com.

Lauren Gillon

Millennial Meets Stove

Also known as Elle the Foodie, the Detroit native and entrepreneur created her blog to do just what the title suggests — share easy recipes for millennials to follow as they go about their fast-paced lives. Millennial Meets Stove features starter plates, brunch, and seafood dishes, including vegan cauliflower wings, sweet potato pancakes, and shrimp- and spinach-stuffed salmon. After hours, Gillon hosts The Millennial Winedown, a podcast where she chats with fellow local millennials about life, work, and love — over a glass of wine, naturally.

Cook along with Gillon on Instagram @elle.thefoodie and millennialmeetsstove.com.

ReShawn Wilder

Eyes of a Foodie

What started off as Eyes of a Foodie, a food blog that Wilder launched in 2016 to show off his own gourmet recipes, has since evolved into a catering, merchandise, and consulting service, with one major specialty: cheesecake. The Detroit-based cheesecake connoisseur crafts miniature desserts in an assortment of flavors. From lemon drop to strawberry shortcake cheesecakes, his tasty creations landed him a place on season 10 of Gordon Ramsey’s MasterChef and, most recently, as one of Delish’s 46 Black chefs, influencers, and food bloggers to follow.

Keep up with Wilder on Instagram @eyesofafoodie and at eyesofafoodie.com.

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Variety, the Spice of Life

In product and people, Joe Spencer’s Creole Gumbo is all about diversity

// By Lyndsay Green

Joe Spencer - Black Culinarians detroit food scene
Joe Spencer

To young, Black restaurateurs looking to cultivate businesses with staying power, Joe Spencer says: Make sure you have a solid product. “Just because your mother makes great ribs or great fried chicken doesn’t mean that the world will love it,” he says. “Do some research to make sure that you’ve got a product that will have a broad acceptance among the general public.”

When Spencer acquired Louisiana Creole Gumbo from the restaurant’s founding owner in 1982, he inherited recipes for dishes sought after by a loyal customer base that would span generations.

Secret spice blends, which Spencer keeps close to the vest, season flavorful bowls of soupy red beans and rice; meaty jambalaya chock-full of Cajun beef sausage, chopped chicken, fresh onions, and crisp peppers; and hearty gumbo. In addition to Creole staples, traditional Southern dishes round out the menu: sweet and tangy barbecue chicken, crunchy fried catfish, and cornbread muffins Spencer says customers “die and fight for.”

Over the years, the restaurant has expanded beyond its Eastern Market-adjacent outpost and Spencer ultimately intends to add locations across the state. In 2016, Spencer and his team celebrated the grand opening of the restaurant’s second location on Detroit’s west side, and they expect to open the doors to a new location in Farmington in the fall. “We hope that by the end of 2022, we’ll be at the stages of a regional business, reaching out to Lansing and Ann Arbor and as far as Grand Rapids.”

The value of adding more African American cuisines to Michigan’s landscape, Spencer says, is fundamentally economic. “People can certainly buy pizza and Chinese food and so forth, but here’s another alternative for their palate. There needs to be diversity in the products that people buy. The product we serve gives our city some variety — and that matters.”

He adds that Black restaurateurs matter to the region’s food industry because they often hire individuals of color who are historically overlooked for job opportunities. “We actually help to build our community in a way that others don’t,” he says. “A lot of people that we hire do not have training or advanced schooling — they may not have even finished high school. We bring them on and train them so that they actually have a chance to grow in the restaurant business. And as we grow, we want to take them along with us.”

Louisiana Creole Gumbo, 2051 Gratiot Ave., Detroit; 313-567-1200. 13505 W. Seven Mile Road, Detroit; 313-397-4052; detroitgumbo.com.

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Pastry Chefs & Restaurateurs

April Anderson

Good Cakes and Bakes

After starting a successful home-based baking business and completing her pastry arts degree, April Anderson founded Good Cakes and Bakes with her wife, Michelle, in 2013. Since then, the lifelong Detroiter has created quality, organic baked goods for celebrities — her creations have garnered the attention of Oprah and former President Bill Clinton — and neighbors alike. From signature Gooey Butter Cakes to vegan-friendly pound cakes, cinnamon rolls, and muffins, there’s something at the Detroit bakery for just about everyone.

Enjoy Anderson’s sweet treats at Good Cakes and Bakes, 19363 Livernois Ave., Detroit; 313-468-9915; goodcakesandbakes.com.

Ashley Dulce

The Dulce Experience

For those searching for unconventional cakes, The Dulce Experience, a cake design studio founded and owned by metro Detroit baker Ashley Dulce, helps clients translate their wildest dreams into edible art for special occasions. Dulce takes unique cake flavors — brown sugar, limoncello, and lavender, to name a few — to the next level with an avant-garde flair. From three-tier cakes featuring fresh succulent toppers to monochromatic designs punctuated with geometric wafer paper, Dulce’s artisanal creations bring on the drama.

Book a tasting with Dulce at thedulceexperience.com.

Ben Hall

Founder of Little Pot Soup

A Detroit-based chef, Hall was the owner of Eastern Market’s now-closed Russell Street Deli for more than a decade. Today, he’s a senior research fellow at Bennington College in Vermont, focusing on the ethics of capital in the restaurant industry, and the chef and founder of Little Pot Soup, a wholesaler producing vegan, soy-free, and gluten-free soups for children in Detroit Public Schools at no cost. Little Pot has also expanded to schools in Houston.

Find Hall’s Little Pot Soup in Whole Foods; wholefoodsmarket.com for local retailers.

Calvin Tillman

Van Dyke Coney Island

This Coney Island on Detroit’s east side, owned by Calvin Tillman, serves all of the traditional favorites, such as Detroit Coney dogs topped with chili, mustard, and onions; classic Reubens; and creamy cheesecake. Stop in for breakfast, brunch, lunch, or dinner — Tillman’s conveniently located neighborhood staple, opened in 2018, is open until 11 p.m. daily.

Visit Tillman at Van Dyke Coney Island, 9235 Van Dyke Ave., Detroit; 313-458-8502; van-dyke-coney-island.business.site.

Crystal Smith

You Had Me at Cake 313

Since becoming a Food Network Chopped champion in 2017, Crystal Smith has placed all of her energy in building You Had Me at Cake 313, a baking company she runs out of her home kitchen. With creations ranging from intricate wedding and birthday cakes to whimsical brunch dishes, such as Fruity Pebble French Toast, Smith’s imaginative offerings are endless. She credits her passion for baking to her aunt and great-grandmother, the resident pastry chefs at family gatherings when she was growing up.

Follow Smith on Instagram @youhadmeatcake313.

David, Jonathan, and Bishop Andrew Merritt and Sabrina Swain

Narrow Way Café & Shop

In April 2016, this entrepreneurial family transformed their church bookstore at the Straight Gate International Church into a café and shop to meet the needs of their congregation, both spiritually and socially. Now, they are focused on the Detroit community as a whole, by serving coffee and baked goods in a welcoming environment.

Stop in to meet the family at Narrow Way Café & Shop, 19331 Livernois Ave., Detroit; 313-397-7727; thenarrowwaycafe.com.

DeShawn Reed

D’s Coney Island

After serving a prison sentence of more than eight years on a wrongful murder conviction, Reed bought D’s Coney Island in Southwest Detroit. If you’re looking for late-night Coney classics, D’s is a solid option.

Support Reed’s inspiring business venture by visiting D’s Coney Island, 2626 Schaefer Hwy., Detroit; 313-551-5019.

Garnet Terri Gullet

Terri’s Cakes Detroit

With Terri’s Cakes Detroit, founder Garnet Terri Gullet creates classic cakes and an assortment of sweet treats. Carrying on a family tradition, Gullet honors her mother and grandfather, who inspired her baking career. When she isn’t baking, Gullet partners with Detroit schoolteacher Dikea Taylor-Santiago to produce Math Mondays, a series of videos on the bakery’s YouTube channel (Terri’s Cakes Detroit) in which the duo offers mathematics lessons for elementary-level kids through fun, interactive baking recipes.

To order one of Gullet’s creations, visit terriscakesdetroit.com.

Kirsten Ussery and chef Erika Boyd

Detroit Vegan Soul

After discovering that a vegan diet could help them avoid the health conditions that were prevalent in their families — diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer — Ussery and her wife, Boyd, created Detroit Vegan Soul. With locations in West Village and on Detroit’s west side, the popular restaurant offers unique takes on soul food classics, including catfish tofu, seitan pepper steak, and a barbecue tofu sandwich.

Have a bite at Detroit Vegan Soul; detroitvegansoul.com for locations.

Ron Bartell

Kuzzo’s Chicken & Waffles

Once a cornerback for the St. Louis Rams, this Detroit native retired after eight years in the NFL to become a restaurateur, launching himself into a business of his own called Kuzzo’s Chicken & Waffles. Kuzzo’s serves Southern comfort food including shrimp and grits, fried chicken, and peach cobbler.

Dine in (or take out) at Kuzzo’s Chicken & Waffles, 19345 Livernois Ave., Detroit; 313-340-2707; kuzzoschickenandwaffles.com.

Stephanie Byrd

The Block

After earning a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Howard University and a master’s in communication at Johns Hopkins University, this Detroit native decided to return home in 2013 to help her father expand the family business, Flood’s Bar & Grille. In 2015, she launched the contemporary Midtown restaurant and bar, The Block, serving American staples such as burgers, mac and cheese, and wings.

Try dining at The Block, 3919 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-0892; theblockdet.com.

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Their Audiences Eat Them Up

Influencers Angela Davis and Quiana Broden are stirring things up 

// By Liana Aghajanian

Quiana Broden - Black Culinarians detroit food scene
Quiana Broden

While the mainstream food world often struggles with the inclusion of diverse voices and perspectives, a new crop of writers, chefs, and bloggers is challenging those norms in significant ways and gaining well-deserved recognition in the process. With the help of social media, food influencers have racked up large and loyal followings over the past few years as they’ve shared their love of the kitchen with a digital audience hungry to consume their recipes.

But while the world of influencers often appears to be concentrated on the coasts, two Black voices leading the charge in the food world are right here in Detroit. Self-taught cook Angela Davis, whose blog, The Kitchenista Diaries, has earned her hundreds of thousands of fans, partnerships with brands including KitchenAid and Starbucks, and a career as a personal chef, is one of the most popular online food personalities. She solidifies her presence with mouth-watering photos of signature dishes — picture baked mac and cheese and buttermilk biscuits — that are widely shared across social media platforms.

Like Davis, Quiana Broden (pictured) is a self-taught chef. She learned to make clean dishes after a diagnosis with the autoimmune disease sarcoidosis forced her to re-evaluate how she could use food to heal herself. That’s how Cooking With Que, her blog where “vegans and meat eaters co-exist,” was born.

Broden’s emphasis on “eating to live” by concentrating on vegan versions of her favorite meals quickly earned her a fan base that has grown exponentially. She’s taught classes for the American Heart Association and arranged healthy-eating workshops for corporations. Her efforts have contributed to a greater awareness of plant-based eating in the Detroit area while increasing Black representation in the world of veganism, where people of color often remain underrepresented.

“I call myself a disruptor,” she says. “I’m all about disrupting everything we were taught.”

Her blog led to opening The Kitchen, a demonstration kitchen and culinary collaborative space where she serves dishes such as a breaded cauliflower steak called Pop Eyes & Tastebuds Cauliflower Sandwich, as well as a vegan lemon pound cake.

“I knew The Kitchen was going to be a hub for all things culinary,” she says. “If you wanted to cook healthy food, try healthy food, or shop for fresh produce — it was always focused on the mission of teaching people how to eat to live.”

The Kitchen by Cooking with Que, 6529 Woodward Ave., Ste. A, Detroit; 313-462-4184; cookingwithque.com

The Kitchenista Diaries, @thekitchenista on Instagram; thekitchenistadiaries.com

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Sweet Successes

Bakers Cassandra Thomas and Denetia Lyons on sweet pasts and bright futures for Detroit’s pastry industry 

// By Brittany Hutson

Denetia Lyons - Black Culinarians detroit food scene
Denetia Lyons

Beyond culinary schools and on-the-job training, at-home baking lessons passed down from parents and grandparents have led a new generation of bakers to open their own pastry shops, carrying on beloved family recipes.

For 33 years, Sweet Potato Sensations has carved a niche in the baking world, crafting sweet treats made of sweet potatoes — we’re talking cookies, cakes, ice cream, and waffles. “Our plan was to make everything we could think of out of sweet potatoes, continuing the legacy of Dr. George Washington Carver,” says Sweet Potato Sensations founder Cassandra Thomas. She’s referring to the African American agricultural scientist who invented ways to encourage crop rotation, using sweet potatoes as a main source. 

Thomas started the business with sweet potato cookies, a recipe she’d developed just for her husband, Jeffery, and in 1987, the duo began selling the cookies at a Detroit yard sale. When customers requested sweet potato pie, Cassandra interviewed family to develop a recipe. “I had to translate the recipe because cooks of that generation did not use recipes,” she recalls.

The family business opened its first storefront next to the Redford Theatre in 1993. Today, Sweet Potato Sensations sits across the street from its original location in a renovated space on Lahser Avenue.

Black-owned bakeries have become anchors in neighborhoods outside of downtown Detroit, offering their spaces for gatherings and hiring from within their communities. Still, Black food entrepreneurs face an ongoing obstacle of gaining access to capital to open spaces in the city’s buzzed-about neighborhoods. “There are quite a few bakeries downtown, but those that are Black-owned or owned by a city native are few and far between,” says chef Denetia Lyons (pictured), founder and owner of Petite Sweets Detroit, a dessert company specializing in wedding cakes and pastries.

When she opens her new space in Woodbridge in the winter, Lyons hopes to develop a bond with fellow Black storefront entrepreneurs in the city. “We’ll be located near Lucki’s Cheesecake, which is a Black-owned bakery, and they’ll be part of our community,” she says.

Lyons, who sits on the advisory board for Detroit Public School’s culinary arts program, wants to use her position as a business owner to fill the pipeline with more African American professionals. “It’s really important to get funding into our vocational programs to bridge the gap between young Black people who are interested in culinary arts and what the face of culinary arts looks like in the city.”

Sweet Potato Sensations, 17337 Lahser Road, Detroit; 313-532-7996; sweetpotatosensations.com

Petite Sweets Detroit; 248-797-5782; petitesweetsdetroit.com

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Farmers

Akello Karamoko

Keep Growing Detroit

Keep Growing Detroit has served gardeners and farmers in Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park since 2013, with a mission to provide crops grown by metro Detroiters to metro Detroit residents. Exposed to organic agriculture at a young age, farmer Akello Karamoko’s goal is to inspire young people to learn more about urban farming. Karamoko has participated in several programs educating youth on farming and the food system, including Keep Growing Detroit’s Urban Agriculture Youth Apprenticeship, Michigan State University’s Organic Farmer Training Program, and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network’s Food Warriors program.

Visit Karamoko at Keep Growing Detroit, 1445 Adelaide St., Detroit; 313-656-4769;
detroitagriculture.net.

Atieno Nyar Kasagam

Detroit African Women’s Coalition for Liberated Land

Native to Nairobi, Kenya, Atieno Nyar Kasagam discovered her interests in community gardening and farming while attending Michigan State University as a student of public policy. Kasagam went on to found the Detroit African Women’s Coalition for Liberated Land, a partnership in which women of color in Detroit pooled funds to transform vacant land into community gardens. Kasagam’s award-winning short film Sidelots, released in 2018, chronicles her and her husband’s journey to urban farming and acquiring a lot near their Southeast Detroit home.

Visit Atieno’s YouTube channel, Atieno for Mayor of Detroit, 2021, to watch the film Sidelots.

Billy and Jerry Hebron

Oakland Avenue Urban Farm

Housed in Detroit’s North End neighborhood is Billy and Jerry Hebrons’ Oakland Avenue Urban Farm. Founded after the 2008 recession, the nonprofit began as a way to provide fresh foods and a sense of hope for North End residents. The six-acre “Agri-Cultural” farm includes apple orchards, a community house and store, a farmers market, and a performance stage. Since the pandemic, Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, in partnership with the Northend Christian Community Development Corporation, has distributed more than 250 hot meals to families weekly, with nonperishable food items, masks, and sanitizers.

Say, “hello” to Billy and Jerry at 9227 Goodwin St., Detroit; 313-649-7756; oaklandurbanfarm.org.

Erin Cole

Nurturing Our Seeds

When Erin Cole and her husband founded the neighborhood farm Nurturing Our Seeds in 2010, the goal was to provide healthy foods for their family and neighbors on Detroit’s east side. Today, the farm is operated on nine vacant lots throughout that neighborhood, providing fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs for the community. The farm also hosts meditation, yoga, and dance activities.

Learn more about Cole’s Nurturing Our Seeds by visiting 7733 Helen St., Detroit; 313-461-4432; nurturingourseeds.com.

Keith and Diane Hoye

Ohana Gardens

Ohana Gardens is the product of Highland Park couple Keith and Diane Hoye. Following the death of Diane’s mother in 2007, the couple recognized the direct correlation between diet and health, and just how much the body can thrive when nourished with fresh, unprocessed foods. The Hoyes’ farm grows everything from heirloom tomatoes to tea herbs, from onions and squash to sweet potatoes and kale. The Hoyes have also hosted community meals, meditation sessions, and even astrological gardening.

Visit Keith and Diane at 18 Church St., Highland Park; 313-477-1373; ohanagardensdetroit.com.

Malik Yakini

Detroit Black Community Food Security Network

Activist and educator Malik Yakini’s life’s work revolves around the impact of racism on the food system in Detroit and beyond. As founder and executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, an organization addressing food insecurity in the local Black community, Yakini operates the seven-acre D-Town Farm, located in Detroit’s Rouge Park. Additionally, Yakini spearheaded efforts to establish the Detroit Food Policy Council and has spoken globally on Detroit’s history of food inaccessibility and ways to create a fairer, more sustainable food system.

Learn more about Yakini’s work at the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network at 11000 W. McNichols Ave., Ste. 103, Detroit; 313-345-3663; dbcfsn.org.

Mark Covington

Georgia Street Community Collective

While cleaning trash from abandoned lots near his grandmother’s Detroit home, Mark Covington was inspired to transform the space into a community garden. Known today as Georgia Street Community Collective, the nonprofit garden has grown into 22 parcels of land and is home to an animal farm, fruit orchard, and a community center with a library and computer lab. The collective hosts community events, such as a backpack and school supply giveaway, bake sales, and holiday dinners.

Visit Covington at Georgia Street Community Collective at 8902 Vinton Ave., Detroit; 313-458-7052; georgiastreetcc.com.

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The City’s His Fertile Ground

Urban farmer Tharmond Ligon Jr. is sowing seeds of change for future generations

// By Liana Aghajanian

Tharmond Ligon Jr. - black culinarians detroit food scene
Tharmond Ligon Jr.

Whether on high-rise rooftops, in vacant lots, or on designated garden plots, urban farming has dramatically changed neighborhoods across the U.S., where communities have continued to grow vegetables, keep livestock, and cultivate gardens to bring fresh food back to city neighborhoods.

No city has been at the forefront of the urban farming movement quite like Detroit, a place with at least 1,400 community gardens and farms and where food — and access to it — is inseparable from structural and social justice issues. The city, whose population exceeded 2 million at its height in the 1950s, has seen that number drop dramatically to around 670,000 today. This has led to a dearth in grocery stores and a lack of access to fresh food services, a phenomenon often called “food apartheid,” which disproportionately affects minorities and communities of color.

To fill that gap, Black activists and residents have fueled Detroit’s urban gardening movement. There’s the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which operates seven acres of land known as the D-Town Farm, and Brother Nature Produce, co-founded by horticulturalist Olivia Hubert and her husband, Greg Willerer, who grow salad greens sold at local markets and Detroit-area restaurants.

One nonprofit dedicated to making use of Detroit’s vacant land by developing green spaces for the city’s communities is Rescue MI Nature Now Inc., which buys parcels of land and creates community gardens, wildlife conservation-focused habitats, and urban beekeeping environments to improve local access to fresh produce and honey.

The nonprofit was founded by Detroiter Tharmond Ligon Jr., whose interest in sustainability began when he was a young child after a neighbor invited him to help with his garden. The passion he felt for outdoor environments never waned. “I really enjoy being in the garden,” Ligon says. “Even if I’m not doing anything, the clarity and peace that comes from it is rewarding.”

Rescue MI Nature Now has grown to incorporate a unique educational component in its program, where financial concepts, such as compounding interest — for example, how one tomato seed can produce 60 pounds of tomatoes — are woven into urban farming lessons. Ligon says such lessons help to prepare younger members for self-sufficiency both in and out of the garden.

“This is how we can sustain our generations to come — teach them how to be young farmers, teach them what to do with the money that they would otherwise use to buy groceries,” he says.

Rescue MI Nature Now Inc., 19984 Derby St., Highland Park; 313-312-6691; rescuenaturenow.org.

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