Asked about Object Orange, a dessert at downtown Detroit’s Besa, our waitress masterfully transitioned from server to storyteller. Rather than the star ingredients — orange and annatto custard and brown butter ice cream — the protagonists were local painters. She spoke of the artists’ mission to correct the city’s blight issue by painting dilapidated homes a can’t-miss shade of bright orange to encourage city workers to demolish homes tarnishing Detroit’s landscape. Hence, Object Orange. Named after the art project of the same title, the dessert, equally sweet and tart, is served atop peanut brittle with shards of sesame meringue toppled on top to represent the concept of crumbling edifices.
In any other dining setting I might furrow my brow at the narrative, but the creative energy at Besa justifies it. Street art projects, like Object Orange, are part of what piqued Executive Chef Kyle Schutte’s interest in uprooting his life from Los Angeles to relocate to Detroit. “When I was growing up outside of Washington, D.C., I watched street art pop up around a very conservative city and soon after, the food scene exploded,” Schutte says. “And then the same thing happened in Atlanta. And the same thing happened in pockets around L.A. I saw these little things organically happening in Detroit and I told my wife, ‘It’s going to happen there.’ ”
Much, if not the entirety of the menu at Besa consists of imaginative interpretations of stories, ideas, and experiences; each dish a testament to Schutte’s artistic background. Art is Schutte’s driving force and the vessel that ushered him into the culinary world. “In high school, I would paint and make videos — it didn’t matter what it was. Even if I was scribbling, there was just always something coming out of my fingertips.” Then, he went on to study psychology in college. “For the first time, I sank myself into my academics and at one point I woke up and said, ‘I feel empty.’ ” A “spur-of-the-moment” trip to Maui inspired Schutte to take his creativity to the kitchen when a bite into a homemade ice cream sandwich opened Schutte’s eyes to the possibilities of food.
“I was transported to the days after little league games, when my dad and I would go for ice cream sandwiches. I realized, becoming a chef could be the perfect marriage of everything I loved about psychology and everything I loved about being creative.”
With roles at the award-winning Tuscarora Mill in Virginia, Atlanta’s One Midtown Kitchen, and his own Revision in L.A., and as winner of the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen, over time, Schutte has earned a reputation as an innovative chef. He’s braised onions with tequila, infused ricotta with smoky tobacco, and puffed a chicharrón churro.
At Besa, he reimagines Cacio e Pepe in the form of macarons. Silky parmesan cream is sandwiched between black pepper cookies whose heat is quelled by the sweetness of the French pastry. Sea scallops rest on a bed of sweet masa polenta studded with braised bacon and are drizzled with a red chili-white chocolate sauce. And the “Vichyssoise” is a mere interpretation of the traditional. Like a splash of paint, a smattering of potato and leek broth decorates the plate, while a warm potato waffle takes center stage dressed in a dollop of leek butter.
Many of Schutte’s transformative dishes are designed by pure rebellion. When Besa’s managing partner Gerti Begaj directed Schutte to incorporate pasta into the menu, admittedly his least-favorite cuisine, Schutte concocted three noodle dishes. Though thoughtfully crafted and made fresh in house, the pasta is almost secondary to the artful presentation and elaborate accompaniments in dishes such as the Ramen Noodle Raviolo. One pocket is stuffed with corn mousse, lobster claw, and a prawn, and draped in a bacon emulsion. (The Cacio e Pepe Macarons were another clever way out of a classic pasta dish.)
This cleverness was the first indication that Schutte was just what Begaj and partner Mario Camaj, owner of Birmingham’s Tallulah Wine Bar & Bistro, were after in an executive chef. That coupled with his hustle and forthcoming business sensibility. For a tasting at 1 p.m., Schutte arrived at 5 a.m. And as he prepared the food, Begaj reviewed Schutte’s price breakdown for the menu. “One thing that caught my eye, was that he left a margin of error. No other chef had admitted there would be waste.”
Begaj and Schutte have that grind and business sav in common. Begaj, born and raised in Albania, cut his teeth as a server’s assistant at Talulah and quickly climbed the ranks. “I wanted to do the work and I wanted to be the best at it,” he says. Begaj’s role is his first position in leadership at a restaurant.
Street art projects … are part of what piqued Executive Chef Kyle Schutte’s interest in uprooting his life in Los Angeles, to relocate to Detroit.
Asked about the name of the restaurant, which hangs above the entry threshold, Begaj explains, “it means ‘our guests before ourselves.’ ” Schutte goes on to elaborate with, true to the nature at Besa, a story. “During the Albanian Civil War, if someone showed up at another person’s doorstep asking for besa, they were asking for help,” he explains. “You would give them food, shelter, clothing, and treat them as your own. When they left, perhaps they’d be your enemy, but while they were in your house, they were your guests. It’s a special sentiment and we try to hold ourselves to that standard every day.”
Going Down in (Modern) History at Besa
If the dishes at Besa are micro masterpieces, then the restaurant’s interior is a contemporary museum of art. Housed in the historic Vinton Building, designed by famed Detroit architect Albert Kahn in the mid-1900s, the restaurant was designed by Neumann/Smith Architecture. The architects and interior designers at the design firm whose offices are based in both Southfield and Detroit, worked diligently to strike the balance between an old and New-World feel. The space is encapsulated by floor-to-ceiling glass windows, which look out to a bustling Woodward Avenue. Contemporary and geometric light fixtures hang, casting warm reflections on white marble counter tops and glossy metallic details.
In an underground lounge area, Besa nods to the building’s history, maintaining original tile flooring and embracing its imperfections. The dimly lit space complete with tufted leather couches and velvet chairs, is an ideal setting for a more intimate dinner experience. A private dining room is lined with rows of wine bottles, some of which Begaj says will have Albanian roots.
The juxtaposition of modern and vintage elements carries into the service at Besa. For drinks, guests are encouraged to sift through a wide array of spirits, beer, and wines from an electronic tablet. However, the waitstaff is happy to give a good old-fashioned explanation of the beverage or meals you’re considering — and a story behind their origin if you wish.
Besa, 600 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-315-3000. Mon.-Sat. L&D; Closed Sun.