The Secret of Success

What can turn an ordinary dish into something Extraordinary? We asked some local experts to share what makes their creations unique

Have you ever wondered what makes your favorite dishes or drinks on menus across metro Detroit taste so good? Maybe you tried to figure it out on your own and replicate it at home, but without success.

We chatted with some of the area’s top chefs, restaurants, and distilleries to get the secret weapons in their arsenal. Here are some of their go-to picks to help you take your dish to the next level.

Photographs by Cybelle Codish // Styling by Erika Patterson // Special Thanks to the Great Lakes Culinary Center

Railroad Gin (Summer Blend)

Secret Ingredient: Michigan White Pine and Blue Spruce

From: Detroit City Distillery

Picture sipping a gin and tonic on a summer day. Now imagine a gin sourced from Michigan farms with botanicals from Eastern Market. That’s Detroit City Distillery’s Railroad Gin. It and their other small-batch liquors start with local grains, says John “J.P.” Jerome, one of the distillery’s founders. He previously worked for Bell’s Brewery, then got a Ph.D. in microbiology and molecular genetics from Michigan State University. While making gin isn’t as complicated as, say, genome sequencing, it’s “a mix of science and art,” he says, adding that botanicals in gin (juniper, coriander, star anise, etc.) aren’t secret. “It’s in the blending.” Detroit City released six small batches on “World Gin Day” June 13. There are barrel-aged gins, a South African tea-infused gin (to honor a bartender’s grandmother), and one with Michigan apples. Jerome is excited about a Michigan white pine and blue spruce version. Those who don’t like gin because it tastes like pine will “really hate this,” he says with a not quite mad-scientist-like laugh. “Summer of Gin” culminates with a $1,000 “Ginsmith Championship” on Aug. 31. — Steve Wilke

2462 Riopelle St., Detroit;; 313-338-3760



Curried Mussels

Secret Ingredient: Parmesan cheese

From: Eve The Restaurant

When Eve Aronoff closed her eponymous restaurant a few years ago, food lovers in Ann Arbor lamented the loss of the upscale eatery in Kerrytown. Combining classic French techniques with big, bold flavors that spanned the globe, she put upscale twists on dishes like Inspired Nachos, which used fried wontons instead of chips. But there’s good news for those who need their fix: Aronoff, who also owns Cuban-inspired joint Frita Batidos, signed a lease to reopen this year. Her culinary secret has big impact, she says. Her trick is to combine good Parmesan cheese with anything spicy, for example the curry cream in the Curried Mussels. “Chilies and good Parmesan is a great combination and adds so much depth of flavor. We put Parmesan in our curry cream, for example, and it might not be traditional but at Eve we had guests from India who regularly traveled a great distance to have it and said it reminded them more of their home cooking than most Indian restaurants because of the complexity of flavor, and I think that was a big reason why.” — Dorothy Hernandez

300 S. Thayer St., Ann Arbor; 734-222-0711



Vietnamese Chicken Sausage

Secret Ingredients: Lemongrass and lime leaf

From: Corridor Sausage

If there’s one product whose secrets you probably don’t want to know, it’s sausage, but in the case of Corridor Sausage Co., things are a little different. All of the proteins used by the artisan sausage maker are hormone- and antibiotic-free, and their unique lineup of fresh and palatable ingredients is enough to warrant a taste. Take, for example, the Vietnamese Chicken Sausage, whose traditional recipe includes wild ginger, Thai chilies, shallots, and cilantro — plus two “secret” ingredients: lemongrass and lime leaf. “The lemongrass is going to add a citrus note that’s really floral and really fragrant,” says Corridor co-owner Will Branch. “It’s welcoming … without the sharp acidity you get in just lemon juice.” The lime leaf adds another note of fresh citrus and, along with the other ingredients, combine to form a fan favorite. “From the first day we started doing this, it’s been our most popular [sausage],” Branch says. — Jeff Waraniak

1801 Division St., Detroit;; 313-401-0048




Secret Ingredient: Anchovies

From: La Rondinella

The anchovy has been a maligned ingredient for being, well, too fishy and kind of funky. But Dave Mancini of Supino Pizzeria in Eastern Market tries to sneak it in everything he can. Whether it’s salad dressing or risotto, most of the recipes for his new restaurant La Rondinella, which will be next door to Supino, include the salty, intensely flavored ingredient. “Anchovies are the Italians’ version of fish sauce; they’ve both got umami,” he says, referring to that “fifth” taste used to describe the meaty, savory quality of food that makes you go “mmm.” He chops anchovy up and adds it to meatballs, too. “There’s a depth of flavor. You don’t taste anchovy per se … and just a little bit goes a long way.” While an anchovy is his secret ingredient to savory dishes, his go-to for sweet things is molasses, which he’ll use in the same way he does anchovies. Adding ingredients like molasses and anchovies to recipes will provide depth, he says. “You can’t put your finger on it. Why does it taste so good? Why is it lip smacking? It’s usually from something (additional) like that.” —Dorothy Hernandez

2453 Russell St., Detroit



Raw Oyster Shooter

Secret Ingredient: Grape-Flavored Pop Rocks

From: The Dinner Club Pop-Up

Matthew Baldridge likes to inject extra flavor — and fun — into his Dinner Club menus. Hour Detroit’s “Best of Detroit” Pop-up Dining Experience winner has done Spam-themed dinners (even dessert). He also introduces Michigan elements — a splash of Faygo Lemon-Lime soda in a crab dish or Better Made pork rinds to add crunch to rabbit loin. One dish involves “gasified” Pop Rocks candy. “Some people see ‘raw oyster’ and are a little freaked out,” he says. “I wanted to add something whimsical — related to getting back to childhood and trying something different. It’s fun: Rocks are popping when it comes to the table and it adds nice texture.” The oyster is finished with pickled grape, dried yuzu, champagne vinaigrette, micro herbs, and then the grape Pop Rocks (the flavor profile works with the pickled grapes; when using apple kimchi, he substitutes sour apple Pop Rocks). Baldridge scours the aisles of Docs Sweets in Clawson (a “Best of Detroit” winner) for other treats. Think cinnamon-flavored Altoids syrup on clams or crushed Lemonheads in a dessert, and you get the picture. — Steve Wilke 4coursesdinnerclub



Vegan Reuben

Secret Ingredient: Young Thai Coconut Meat

From: Try It Raw

Michael Severance is vegan. His wife, Natalia, is not. Constantly on the search for recipes that appeal to all types of eaters, once he discovered a vegan Reuben was even possible, there was no going back to life without it. Every Friday the sandwich sells out at Try it Raw restaurant in downtown Birmingham. “People are obsessed with it,” he says. The complicated recipe isn’t found in many other vegan restaurants. “One bite can have 20 different ingredients in it,” he says. So how exactly is the “meat” of this sandwich made? Coconut meat is scooped out of young Thai coconuts and marinated overnight in liquid smoke, tamari sauce, and olive oil. Then, it’s dried out. The “meat” is served on Severance’s homemade bread with sauerkraut from The Brinery in Ann Arbor, and Thousand Island dressing made of homemade pickles, cashews, sundried tomatoes, onions, lemon, and vinegar. All the unexpected flavors give the sandwich an enticing “bite me again” flavor reminiscent of a real Reuben sandwich. And although meat lovers might not be tricked in a blind taste test, this sandwich is a winner. — Casey Nesterowich

213 E. Maple Rd., Birmingham; 248-593-6991



Ice Cream

Secret Ingredient: Liquid nitrogen

From: Nice Modern Creamery

Nice Modern Creamery’s secret ingredient isn’t exactly a secret; it’s more of a specialty. So special that no other creamery in Michigan uses it. A -320 degree ingredient, liquid nitrogen instantly freezes Nice’s homemade cream base in a showy cloud of vapor, minimizing the size of the ice crystals and creating a smooth and creamy texture. The idea came to owner Dan Bora while traveling on business. Flavors include homemade salted caramel and Nutella and banana as well as biweekly specials such as the Biscoff Voyage, which combines the European cookie with coffee-flavored ice cream, harpooned by a syringe of Nutella sauce. Given its location inside Bora’s Biggby Coffee franchise in Madison Heights (with its own entrance and picnic tables out back), coffee figures prominently in  the product, including  an affogato made with Madagascar vanilla bean ice cream topped with a fresh shot of espresso. Nice incorporates local and organic ingredients whenever possible and makes the frozen treats to order. The niceties expand beyond ice cream. (Or “nice cream?”) Bora, a founder of the Charity Cup, combined his love of food and philanthropy when he started the CupforCup campaign, which donates a cup of water to impoverished nations through the Hope Water Project for each cup of ice cream sold. Their slogan speaks to their nice nature: “We believe dessert can change the world.” —Lexi Trimpe

31055 John R Rd., Madison Heights;; 248-588-1180



Vegan Burrito

Secret Ingredient: Nut ‘meat’

From: Cacao Tree

Craving good Mexican food but on a diet? Before you give up that near impossible search, check out a burrito from Cacao Tree, located next to the train tracks in Royal Oak, right off Fourth Street. “We’ve had people pick up this dish and bring it to family who’s never tried vegan food before, and they’re unable to tell the difference,” manager Meghan Gauvreau says. Most people are blown away by how similar the flavors are to traditional Mexican food. The “meat” is made with ground walnuts, almonds, and sunflower seeds all processed into a toothsome crumble with cumin, coriander, chili powder, pink salt, tomato, cilantro, lime juice, and sweet peppers. You get your choice of wrap: sprouted grain, brown rice, or organic collard leaf (which would make the dish entirely raw), and then the burrito is layered with the “meat,” cashew sour cream, pico de gallo salsa, guacamole, and shredded lettuce. “It’s a really recognizable, fresh dish that’s approachable and a good introduction to vegan food,” Gauvreau says. Take her word for it. — Casey Nesterowich

204 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-336-9043