Artisanal, bespoke and made-to-order are words that describe Detroit’s burgeoning restaurant and food scene. It’s a dramatic turn for a city that made its name – and fortunes – on large industrial systems and uniformity. When Henry Ford introduced the automobile assembly line he created a revolutionary way to build the city’s most important export. Decades later, Berry Gordy borrowed the assembly line idea to create the countless Motown hits that helped define American popular music.
Much of Detroit’s new food economy is being driven by immigrants. Earlier waves of migrants came to the city – from Italy, Poland and the American South – to work on auto assembly lines. Today’s immigrants are breaking the mold, creating new flavors and dining opportunities that have become emblems of Detroit’s emergence as a truly global city. Cooks and chefs from Central America, the Middle East, South Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa are introducing Detroiters to foods from their home countries. They are also creating new exciting combinations, like pizza that substitutes Mexican mole for tomato sauce, or North African pastries that incorporate fruits and flavors associated with Asian cuisine.
The four chefs featured here – from Senegal, Mexico, Laos, and Algeria – each own food businesses in Detroit. Through food they are representing themselves and their culture to their neighbors and customers, What emerges from their work is a fresh, exciting, and truly borderless food.
Amade Gueye – Chef and Co-owner of Maty’s African Cuisine in Old Redford, Detroit
Maty’s African Restaurant is named after Chef Amade Gueye’s wife and inspiration. “I learned to cook from my wife,” Amade explains. “When I moved here, my wife was cooking at the house and everybody would come to the house and eat…we saw there was no Senegalese restaurant in Detroit, and that’s how we opened [Maty’s].”
A steady stream of Senegalese men drop in, speaking French or their local dialect, Wolof, to Amade and his mother-in-law who cooks with him in the back. Most of their customers are not Senegalese, or even African. “Seventy percent of my customers are American,” Amade explains. “Everybody come in here to eat.”
Amade says his most popular dishes are whole chicken and red snapper, both accompanied by a caramelized onion and mustard yassa sauce, as well as fried plantains, jollof rice, or couscous. Both the chicken and fish are quickly deep fried, bathed in a “special sauce” and finished on the grill. The sauce is so coveted that customers take it to-go to marinate their own meats at home.
Genevieve Vang – Chef and Co-owner of Bangkok 96 Street Food in Midtown, Detroit and Bangkok 96 in Dearborn Heights
In late 2018 Chef Genevieve Vang opened Bangkok 96 Street Food, her second Thai restaurant in Metro Detroit. At this new location she constantly experiments with new flavors and ingredients. She is working on a crispy cold-smoked duck breast served with Asian sweet potatoes, a dish that mixes American barbecue techniques with Asian ingredients. “Being a chef isn’t just about making something that tastes very good,” she explains. “You have to find the element to put in there to show that you’re different.”
Chef Vang isn’t from Thailand—she was actually born in Laos to a Hmong family who worked closely with the United States government during the Vietnam War. When the communist regime, the Khmer Rouge, invaded Laos in 1975, her family and thousands of other Hmong people fled to Thailand. This was not the first time she was exposed to Thai flavors. “When my dad still worked for the [Laotian] government, we would travel to Thailand”, she says. “I always ate Thai food when I was younger.”
Genevieve also loves Laotian food, but, “Thai food is sweet…Lao food is a lot of fermentation, like shrimp paste, [and] fish paste,” she says. She is a self-taught chef, having observed Thai women cooking for their families, the Thai family who employed her to watch their children, and later her brother who became a cook in the United States.
This year, Genevieve was a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Great Lakes. She believes her identity as a Hmong, Asian-American, woman of color is critical to her work. She says the challenges of her identity have made her a better person and chef. “I wish all the Hmong women my age wake up and do something they like.”
Norberto Garita – Owner and Chef of El Barzon Restaurante and La Noria Bistro in Southwest Detroit
Norberto Garita is known in Detroit for two types of cuisine – the unique combinations of traditional Mexican dishes he ate growing up in Puebla and Italian classics he learned to make in restaurants in New York and Metro Detroit. “Sometimes we cook pasta, the next day we cook mole, we kind of combine them.” he says.
Norberto immigrated from Mexico to New York when he was sixteen years old, “When I came to the United States, I didn’t even know how to cook an egg,” he says. “My mom and my sister didn’t let [men] go to the kitchen, just to the farm.”
It’s the importance of deeply rooted tradition and fresh ingredients that draws Norberto to Italian cuisine. “I like the pastas, the cheese, and the fresh ingredients,” he says. But his favorite food is Mexican, “I really love mole and barbacoa, those are my two favorite dishes…the mole sauce can go with anything, it can go with with fish, [or] with meat.” To perfect the flavor of the barbacoa he serves, Norberto experiments with cooking the goat meat in a wood-fired pizza oven. Traditionally, barbacoa is slowly cooked underground in a shallow pit of hot coals and smokey wood, then covered with a layer of soil.
As he explains this process, one of his cooks slides out a freshly made La Poblana pizza from the wood-fired oven. Here, the tomato sauce is replaced with mole, and then topped with mozzarella and shredded chicken—a tribute to Chef Garita’s Pueblan roots and his deep love of Italian cuisine.
Warda Bouguettaya —Owner and Chef of Warda Pâtisserie in Eastern Market, Detroit
Pastry chef Warda Bouguettaya attributes her love for food to her home in Oran, Algeria. “My mom is a great baker, she’s always been passionate about baking and cooking,” she remembers. “I got her passion through being in the kitchen with her, and eating everything.”
Despite living so far away from Algeria, the only ingredient from home Warda cannot find in Detroit is geranium flower water, which is only made in Tunisia. “I am lucky to have the Middle Eastern community that carries a lot of the ingredients I use back home,” she says. “[But] I cannot find [geranium water] here at all…I kind of smuggle it back when I go…it’s just water!”
North African pastries are different from the Lebanese or Iraqi desserts we are used to eating in Metro Detroit. “We don’t use that much filo dough,” she explains. While the regions use similar ingredients and flavors, Warda says they approach them differently, “we do have baklava, but we make our own dough.” Her favorite traditional North African pastry is griwesh, “It’s a pastry shaped into a knot, then you fry it, and dip it in honey and sesame seeds. When done beautifully, it is so good. It is so light and crunchy, and you cannot tell that it is fried at all,” she says.
Warda has been in Metro Detroit since 2004, with a three-year period in Shanghai where she attended French culinary school and fell in love with the art of pastry. She is known for her sweet pastries, but she also makes homemade savory pastries like torta, a square piece of inch-high spinach filling incorporated with Kalamata olives and Greek feta cheese.
She often incorporates tropical fruits, like passion fruit and mango, that she came across while living in China. “We were lucky to travel around Southeast Asia, and that exposed me to so many flavor profiles that I was not familiar with at all.” On the day we visited, Warda was rolling out some brioche buns that she would fill with either vanilla or passion fruit custard, but she couldn’t decide.
Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, The Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The J.M. Kaplan Fund, an anonymous donor and readers like you.
Food, Borders and Belonging explores food in Detroit from the perspective of immigrants and African-Americans. Inspired by the Feet in 2 Worlds Food Journalism Fellowship at WDET, this series of stories looks at the role food plays in the transformation of city neighborhoods and in defining identities.