Oct 23 2010
He’s up at 6 a.m., tending to the tomato crop by 6:30, coaching a work crew about fences for new livestock at 7, beginning the eight-mile drive to his restaurant an hour later.
No day is typical for chef Alex Young, but this is his life when we meet on a late-summer Saturday morning. He has forgotten about our interview, for good reason: too much going on.
The managing partner of Zingerman’s Roadhouse has been finalist for a James Beard Award (best chef, Great Lakes) for four consecutive years. He began gardening in 2004, and now his plot is a farm with 130-some varieties of at least two dozen vegetables, plus an assortment of high-protein tenants with hooves.
This day’s culinary ballet – at the restaurant – includes four offsite events for crowds of 170, 140, 60 and 50 people. If all goes well (and someone already has called in sick) Alex will head home by 10 p.m., only to arise at 5 the next morning, to help transport the four steers, nine sheep and eight pigs that he bought during the livestock auction at a community fair.
“That’s when they need to go,” he explains, with a shrug, then an “I-know-that-sounds-crazy” smile.
The work of growing (or raising) what others will eat is worth the extra time and effort because of the satisfaction the chef feels when cooking with ingredients from the farm – and hearing his customers’ appreciation.
“Learning about food and trying to make things taste better is an ongoing process for me,” he explains, “and Mother Nature is always throwing us twists.”
The Roadhouse is one leg of the Zingerman food empire that began in 1982 with a downtown Ann Arbor deli that sold specialty products. Now it also includes a bakehouse, creamery, coffee roaster, confectionary, culinary tour company and vast food mail-order business.
“We are one company, but each part operates independently,” Alex says. Sort of.
Zingerman’s cheeses and bakery show up at the restaurant and deli. Cooking and cheese making classes complement food sales. Food waste ends up as farm compost, whey from cheese production feeds the pigs, and some of Alex’s restaurant employees also work on the farm.
All facets of Zingerman’s make the use of local ingredients a priority.
So does Alex’s work life feel complete? “Yes, but I don’t know where it will go from here,” he says.
Truth be told, he’s not sure what menu changes each day will bring, because of the intense emphasis on food grown close to home – if not on his own farm, then elsewhere. “Everything is changing constantly,” the chef says. “That might mean vegetable choices, or the (sustainably harvested) seafood that’s available. We review every menu, on every work shift, and adjust as we need.”
More meat cuts are a point of versatility. “What used to be considered poor people’s food – hanger steak, short ribs, brisket – now make their way onto a lot of restaurant menus,” including the Roadhouse.
Customers sit in their cars a half-hour before opening time, to avoid waiting an hour for a table. The impatient approach the Roadshow, a shiny trailer with a to-go menu for people too harried to get out of their car.
“Really good American food” is how the Roadhouse is described. So it’s mac and cheese, burgers and fries, chili and corn dogs, ribs and steaks – but likely not how you’re used to tasting them.
Sweet potato fries are twice-cooked and served with a spicy mayo. The reuben is dressed with Swiss cheese, Russian dressing and “hot slaw.” That’s not to be confused with the pork barbecue, which comes with “mustard cole slaw.”
Past dusk on a Friday night, I elbow my way inside, snagging a single seat at the seven-chair counter. It offers a great view of chefs and dessert artists at work, plus the laps taken by busy servers. Conversation comes easily between strangers because whatever leaves the heating lamps looks amazing, and staffers make pleasantries a priority.
The latter is no accident, Alex says. “We have a set of guiding principles,” he says, of the Zingerman’s conglomerate. “This is a great place to work. We fall short every day but keep trying, and employees are our most important asset.”
Much of the same talk nails down the company’s philosophy: “We share the Zingerman’s experience: selling food that makes you happy, giving service that makes you smile, in passionate pursuit of our mission, showing love and care in all our actions to enrich as many lives as we possibly can.”
For more about Zingerman’s Roadhouse, 2501 Jackson Ave., Ann Arobr, which is a quick shot off of I-94: www.zingermansroadhouse.com, 734-663-3663.
What else is remarkable in Ann Arbor, especially if you’re visiting for the Nov. 20 Badger football game against Michigan?
Fans of resale shops might want to check out the Ann Arbor Kiwanis Club Thift Sale at Washington and First Street, a weekly Saturday morning tradition since 1927. Hours are 9 a.m. to noon; you’ll need patience while wading, but I left with 50-cent designer blouses in excellent shape.
“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.