Local Pop-Up Chefs Form Multicultural Alliance

How a group chefs are expanding Detroit’s ethnic dining scene

It’s closing day at St. Cece’s Pub. The bar is packed with the after-work crowd, who are eagerly poring over the last pop-up offerings to hit the bar’s popular weekly rotation: a fiery serving of Liberian-style roast beef, topped with diced plantains and a habanero paste. Lebanese hummus with ground meat and pita chips. Palm butter stew with farm-raised hen and tender beef, and an exotic blend of Liberian spices. They’re all coming from the menu of Kitchen Ramarj, a Liberian-Mediterranean pop-up created by aspiring chef Ameneh Marhaba.

Diners nibble away, taking note of the perfectly seasoned proteins and lingering heat, and comparing it to offerings by other local pop-up pros, such as the Warung Keke pop-up by chef Keke Rompas, or Gordana Ristic’s traditional Serbian cuisine.

These are just a few of a growing number of chefs who’ve drawn from their cultural backgrounds to create food that is mostly unfamiliar to the Detroit palate. Without having to seek out big investors to open their own eateries, they’re collaborating with restaurants and bars to test their concepts.

Helping to empower this momentum is the Detroit Pop-up Alliance, a group of chefs of all backgrounds created, in part, by Nick George, aka Dr. Sushi. George says he’s talked to about 35-40 chefs who are looking to get involved with pop-ups, and the group started meeting at St. Cece’s in the fall, hoping to coordinate with each other so they could find new pop-up-friendly venues once the Corktown bar known for hosting their efforts closed its doors. But even before the venue closed, George was looking for people to organize with.

“It’s been really helpful when I started doing my first pop-ups,” says Marhaba, 22, who first connected with George and Rompas during a Warung Keke event over the summer. She wanted to pick George’s brain on how to run a successful event, and George offered to help in any way he could.

George is a bit of a fixture in the pop-up scene for his variety of sustainable sushi offerings. Over the years, he’s come across a number of chefs like Marhaba who’ve been interested in learning more about the business, but may lack formal experience or connections in the restaurant industry.

“I figured I have some knowledge and experience under my belt that I can share with others and I can continue to learn from,” George says. “It’s got to this point where there’s a pop-up nearly every night of the week, so getting people on the same page couldn’t hurt.”

Since then, the group has organized to work out of other venues like Le Petit Zinc, Brooklyn Street Local, and Nancy Whiskey to promote each other’s events, and to help each other when they need an extra set of hands in the kitchen.

What’s more, the coalition has been able to offer a bit of variety in a dining scene that still seems fixated with farm-to-table small plates, craft cocktails, and sushi.

For Marhaba, who moved to Detroit when she was 15, it’s been a way to connect with her upbringing in both Liberia and Lebanon.

“There are no Liberian restaurants here anywhere, it kills me,” says Marhaba. “When I came here, I was looking, and there was absolutely nothing.”

Liberian food is strongly influenced by colonization from the United States, with traditional West African foods woven into the mix. That means lots of rice, plantains, and other starches, along with slow-stewed meats that are heavily seasoned with spices and chilies like the habanero. In contrast, the Middle Eastern cuisine of Lebanon is subtler, with plenty of herbs, olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice. Marhaba has learned to play with that disparity in her cooking, utilizing whatever ingredients she thinks will complement each other, whether the dish is Liberian, Lebanese, or a little bit of both.

“I always sat in the kitchen with my mom, who’s Liberian,” Marhaba says. “So she might make a Liberian dish, but with a Mediterranean twist.”

Now, with the help of the new pop-up alliance, Marhaba can introduce more Detroiters to her family recipes.