Editor’s Note: Food writer Sarah Freeman teamed up with chefs from around the midwest (more or less) to put on a series of pop-up dinners in one week in four different cities, and to chronicle how each of these adventures went, with the help of photographer Nick Murway. In the final installment, the CRUX pop-up finds revitalization in a city coming back from the brink, Detroit. To read the first four installments, scroll down below today’s post.
Part 5, September 18, 2016: Detroit is Mad Real
I roll into the Motor City, appropriately enough, with “Gangster’s Paradise” playing on Spotify. Forgotten factories flank each side of the highway. At first glance the city is everything I thought I would be—a post-apocalyptic wasteland where playgrounds are occupied by weeds rather than children and every other home is boarded up or falling apart. But also here, some of the most creative minds in the culinary and visual arts are slowly reclaiming the once-hopeless city.
Detroit is the final stop of the CRUX tour and the most unfamiliar one to our remaining members: Brandon Batzley, Laura Higgins-Baltzley and Jonathan Brooks, who took one stop off to celebrate his son’s birthday. Kyle Paton is back in Canada—I hope the Canadian flag blanket that I gave him in Chicago made it back with him—and his relentless tirade of jokes, although they may have contributed to my Columbus meltdown, is missed.
My first stop is Grey Ghost where I am greeted with a hug from the ray of sunshine that is John Vermiglio. It had been almost a year since the former Chicago chef returned to his hometown to open a restaurant with his A10 colleague Joe Giacomino. The duo’s restaurant is just over two months old and packed every night. This is great for them—eager customers lining up for scallop thermidor and General Tso’s chicken sausage—less so for us. It means we are shutting down a busy establishment to serve fewer than 100 people and eliminate almost all bar traffic.
They do it for the CRUX cause—bring together talented chefs in a unique environment to serve a meal that no single chef can recreate—as well as to gain some street cred. It’s hard to ignore the new kids when you find out they are friends with some of the most badass kids on the block.
Our reunion is a brief one. I drop off the remaining cases of cider and head out to meet up with Jonathan at Chartreuse Kitchen and Cocktails, a lime green lounge with an obviously herbal motif. After one bite of Michigan shrimp with coconut and popcorn, we’re both convinced of Detroit’s culinary prowess. It is just the appetizer to a night of gluttony that includes heirloom tomato Bloody Marys at The Sugar House, Thai-style Coney dogs off the late-night menu at Katoi and a text message from a certain B-list celebrity inviting me to his hotel room at 2 a.m. Thanks, but not tonight, buddy, I have a dinner to host tomorrow.
Detroit is mad real.
We’re staying at a friend’s house tucked between 8 and 9 Mile Road. The twenty-minute drive to the restaurant means we’re probably not retuning to the house until after dinner. And since this is our last dinner, that also means debauchery will follow.
Per usual, most of Sunday is spent at the restaurant, with Laura breaking, Brandon pureeing grasshoppers…again, and Jonathan forgetting his chicken skin in Indianapolis, which prompts a last-minute run to Whole Food for cabbage since we need another appetizer. I’m on “making sure everyone is fed” duty, for a change, which means oversized sandwiches from Mudgie’s rather than our usual $60 worth of fast food.
There’s a strange sense of relief that comes after conquering the impossible—a combination of satisfaction, utter exhaustion and fear that tomorrow we have to go back to our real lives.
Before service starts, I remind myself of the difficult lessons I learned in Columbus and introduce myself to each of the servers—confirming the service pattern (that one of them still manages to screw up for the entire first seating), explaining which silverware is needed to each course and reviewing how many diners are expected at each seating. Clockwork, this dinner is going to go like clockwork.
And, for the most part, it does, with the exception of the occasional sting every time a group of post-Lion’s game guests approaches the door only to see the “Closed for a private event sign” and John looking at me with sad eyes. The menu in Detroit might be my favorite of the entire tour thanks, in a big part, to John and Joe, whose dry-aged strip steak with beef heart pierogi and ocean trout over sea urchin sauce, respectively, steals the show.
During the second seating, a group of four walks in to inquire about why the restaurant is closed. I walk over to the entrance with the last semblance of my fake smile. I’m all too aware that most of the back-of-house team is standing behind the bar, watching to see if I can seal the deal. “We are in town from DC,” one of them explains. “And really were hoping to dine here.” This is my shot; maybe not to redeem myself for a week’s worth of hiccups, but to give me that small victory I have been craving.
I explain to the foursome that, yes, in fact, the restaurant is closed for a private event, but it might be one of the coolest events they could have stumbles into and that we still have seats open, if they want to join. They pull back a bit at the $85 price point, but after whipping out the menu and explaining that their first drink is on the house, they are sold. Slam dunk, nothing but net, the crowd goes wild!
Finally, after five dinners in four cities, the team seems to have hit its stride, cracking out course after course in record time. As 11 p.m. rolls around—our anticipated end time—the dinning room is clear, the chefs are three-cigarettes-in and I’m passed out on the bar. There’s a strange sense of reluctant relief that comes after conquering the impossible—a combination of satisfaction, utter exhaustion and fear that tomorrow we have to go back to our real lives.
Gallery: CRUX in Detroit
This tour comes at a precarious time for both the Baltzleys and me. They are mentally ready to open a restaurant in Cape Cod, but only financially able to continue running their pop-up, The Buffalo Jump. Meanwhile, I am mentally checked out of my life in Chicago, but hesitant to pack up my things and move to New York City without securing a job. We all know that grown-up decisions wait for us upon our return.
Tonight, though, we drink—shots and beers at Old Miami, a dive bar complete with dilapidated couches, functioning microwave and stone fountain on the patio. Laura, in a black fringe mini dress, because she “wants to be like Sarah,” is ready to party, but at the same time the whiskey hits our system so does week’s worth of cooking and traveling. It’s been a long tour and before any of us can be proud of our accomplishments, we need to sober up and sleep.
The next morning, Jonathan peeks his head into my room, before hitting the road back to Indianapolis. “See you next year,” he says, as I extend my hand for a high five. “Maybe,” I think to myself as a roll over in my Rockmill Brewery t-shirt and go back to sleep. Maybe.
Part 4, September 15, 2016: It’s Going to Get Worse Before it Gets Better
Columbus, Ohio is a total disaster for which I take full responsibility. The stop was highly debated, and compared against other options between Indianapolis and Detroit, such as Cleveland, Cincinnati, Louisville and Nashville (admittedly, some of these make more sense geographically than others). In the end, I choose Columbus for personal reasons instead of practical ones, romantic instead of rational.
In Columbus, we go in blind—serving dinner in a restaurant none of us have stepped foot in, working with people who we only knew through brief phone calls and roundabout emails. The team lacks the sense of trust that is a key ingredient in all of our other stops. This missing piece will lead to our inevitable downfall.
We cross the Ohio border on Wednesday afternoon, with Kyle and I belting out Boys II Men and Goo Goo Dolls during the entire three-hour drive. Things that have gone wrong at this point: four veal breasts that were supposed to be served during the third course were sold from under our noses due to a miscommunication between our chef and butcher; our beer sponsor announced it was hosting a preview for its forthcoming tavern the night after our dinner and charging $20 less for the same amount of food plus pairings; and, per usual, we moved half the amount of tickets we wanted to, forcing us to combine the two seatings and piss off a couple dozen strangers/customers/pitchfork wielding civilians.
I am the first to arrive at The Table—a farm-to-table restaurant boasting mismatched tables, chairs and flatware. I am greeted with a laundry list of grievances by chef/owner Sangeeta Lakhani: not enough ticket sales, not enough press coverage, and too much frustration. My best smile and the well-timed entrance of Laura with baby Faunus in her arms save us from having the dinner canceled right then and there.
After that awkward introduction, which is the equivalent of a Western stare down, we head across the street to visit the location for the cocktail hour: Middle West Distillery. The umbrella company responsible for tasty spirits including OYO Vodka and Whiskey recently completed a multi-million dollar expansion that raised the roof of the distillery five stories to accommodate larger stills, as well as creating a new restaurant called Service Bar. It was the intended home of the CRUX Columbus stop, but construction delays forced us to move the dinner across the street while still featuring the distillery, its products and chef Avishar Barua.
Marble tables, exposed wood rafters and glass-encased copper stills make for one of the most beautiful distilleries I’ve set foot into. Tomorrow, it will be filled with people drinking cocktails featuring booze made a few feet away, as well as passed appetizers that Laura and Brandon’s sous chef Patrick Borucki will run across four lanes of traffic (the distillery’s kitchen is not finished, so all food needs to be cooked at The Table). Today, we’ve prepared as much as we can and are all ready for a nap followed by a round of beer and Mortal Combat at 16-Bit.
“It’s all going to be ok,” he tells me. “But it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
We’ve been on tour for five days, during which we’ve eaten maybe two meals and gotten no more then four hours a sleep a night. That, along with each other’s constant presence, is starting to take a toll. Back at the hotel, I’m visibly distraught, rocking back and fourth and a little pale. I curl up in my bed and ask Kyle to give me a few words of encouragement about tomorrow’s dreaded dinner. “It’s all going to be ok,” he tells me. “But it’s going to get worse before it gets better.” That is a gross understatement.
While dividing the Columbus dinner between two separate locations offers, in my opinion, one of the most unique culinary contrasts of the tour, it means my hands were quite literally tied up with trays of buffalo chicken feet and eggplant funnel cakes at Middle West while dinner is being set up at The Table. By combining the settings, we can fill every seat in The Table’s 55-seat dining room plus the ten-seat bar. However, as I usher the last few stragglers across 5th Street, I walk into a gut-punch. Diners are seated in both the upstairs and downstairs dining rooms. Which means a longer, more complicated service pattern for a team of servers who I wasn’t able to brief and are unfamiliar with the way our dinners are served.
The flawless cocktail hour segues into a shitshow of a dinner. The chefs do a better job swaying both the back-of-house team and guests of their competence than I do in the front. Diners are impressed with Brandon’s crispy sunchokes, Avishar’s thinly sliced veal breast draped over charred broccoli and satisfied by Kyle’s tender coppa with a splash of bloody sauce. Outside of the kitchen, I am essentially fired after the first course for clearing shared plates that are, apparently, supposed to remain on the table for diners to put their dirty silverware between courses.
For the first time, guests are complaining, “What do you mean the chefs aren’t going to come out and present each course?” “Why is the food taking so long?” “What the hell did I pay for?” I want to scream, “Can’t you see we’re doing the best we can in an impossible situation? The fact this dinner is happening at all is a small miracle!” But I don’t. Instead, I stand there, and watch the ship sink.
The downstairs dining room gets their second course before the upstairs, throwing off the pace of the rest of the meal; forks and knives are missing at a handful of tables for every course; and during the dessert—melon with potato and fresh cheese—I trip over a chair and fall into the back of another. Game over. Unable to hide my amateur status, I feel like a fraud and a failure for the first (and last) time in the tour.
Gallery: CRUX in Columbus
The next morning’s hangover is three-fold. Physically, I am not in the best shape. Cotton-mouthed, I roll over and am greeted with the familiar flashing green light on my phone that means someone was on the receiving end of a couple of drunk text messages. There’s the emotional sting of ending the night splayed out on the patio with Laura massaging my scalp—after too many shots of Malort—in the company of people who are supposed to see me as a leader. And, lastly, there’s the moral weight of not only letting down my team, but also the businesses entrusting me with the success of the evening.
So, like a good businesswoman, I cry in the hallway, before instructing the chefs to go on without me. We have an extra day before our final dinner and I need 24 hours to not think about disappointing another restaurant owner, the strain of another night of service, or being part of CRUX (thank you, Maureen Yoshizaki, for your spare bed and support).
I carried a lot of guilt with me after this stop, but am still grateful to Sang and Jen at The Table for giving us a shot. On Sunday, the four-hour drive was plenty of time to reflect while remembering one important thing: I would have another chance. We would have Detroit.
Tomorrow: Detroit on the Rebound
Part 3, September 13, 2016, Indianapolis:
INDIANAPOLIS, IT TURNS OUT, IS THE HOMECOMING for our chefs that I wished Chicago had been. We arrive on Monday afternoon, after I throw every blanket, towel and pillowcase into the washing machine, so I don’t have to come home to eau de chef. Dinner comes from our friends at Rook—whole fried ham hock with traditional Filipino fixin’s hits the spot.
Then Laura and I head over to Milktooth—me to drop off a couple cases of cider, her to throw the dried lamb component of her dish into the oven. Jonathan meets us there to breakdown frozen rabbits—extruding their tiny, curled-up carcasses from a box and hacking off limbs to expose the loin. There’s a level of comfort at Milktooth that we didn’t experience at TWO. Jonathan is obviously on his home turf, but all of us have eaten brunch and served dinner here before. During the January CRUX tour, we spent more time in Milktooth than we did at our hotel.
Tuesday morning is an early one for a still under-the-weather Brandon, who needs to make tart dough, and Kyle, who decided to serve a take on Fruity Pebbles made with thousands of 1-cm wide melon balls. The latter set up his station in the center of Milktooth’s open kitchen and, with a mini melon baller in hand, balled for eight hours straight, taking a brief break for lunch of White Castle cheeseburgers and chicken rings. Our bodies are beginning to shut down from lack of nutrition.
Unlike Chicago, the Indy dinners are going to be two full houses, including a sold-out second seating. This present a whole new set of logistical problems. Milktooth is a smaller restaurant—about 50 seats with an additional 10 at the counter—and built for the casual brunch crowd. Our current headcounts mean there needs to be a butt in every seat with no empty spaces, leaving no room to accommodate that guy who follows the urinal rule and leaves a space between himself and his fellow diner.
I have the aid of another adept staff, with which I go over everything from the order upon which plates of food are dropped to the seating chart and dietary restrictions. Again, dinner goes off like clockwork with one group of satisfied customers easing into another. Claudette Wilkins, a San Diego-based chef who cooked during the January tour, even surprises everyone by purchasing her ticket under the name “Bonita Applebum” (A Tribe Called Quest, anyone?) and showing up for the second seating.
Gallery: CRUX in Indianapolis
“That was the single best bite of food she’s had all year,” Claudette says, describing Jonathan’s rabbit loin served over sweet onion and corn pudding. Brandon’s aged pork, served family style alongside a pumpkin and tobacco tart, also earns high marks. The culinary triumphs are my favorite part of CRUX. I love seeing the chefs at their most creative—uninhibited by the expectations and constraints of their regular menus, customers and ingredients. This freedom and comfort leads to culinary creations like hay ice cream dipped in candied red apple glaze that we served on the string-light-covered patio of Milktooth.
Flash forward three hours and we’re still on that patio—chefs, front-of-house staff, a dishwasher and me sipping Modelo and Malort in the moonlight. These are the moments that make CRUX worthwhile, when I forget that tomorrow we step foot into a restaurant we’ve never been in to cook alongside strangers.
Tonight, we’re victors, champions of dinner service, and our reward is another cold beer and watching a drunk chef fall out of a lawn chair. And because I don’t want to get another restaurant shut down by the health department, let’s just say a good percentage of Milktooth employees and CRUX chefs woke up the next morning with tattoos that were not there the night before, including a masturbating bird. It looks like Jonathan will never be too far away from a pair of duck nuts.
Tomorrow: it all falls apart in Columbus
Part 2, September 11, 2016, Chicago:
“JON, YOU GOT THAT DUCK NUTS SHIT ON LOCK?”
This is the type of question ruling my life right now. The answer to Brandon Baltzley’s question is, “no.” Jonathan Brooks’ “duck nuts” guy hadn’t been saving the particular piece of meat that are to be served as an appetizer at the Chicago dinner, so it means a last-minute order through D’Artagnan to secure duck testicles that will be served deep fried alongside Virtue Cider.
That is Friday. Also known as the last day my life is my own, before being bombarded with chefs. Jonathan Brooks of Indianapolis’ Milktooth is the first to arrive on Saturday, with a cooler full of fish and a bottle of applejack. Time of first beer consumed: 3 p.m.
The Baltzleys follow shortly after with five-month-old baby Faunus and Brandon’s mom Amber in tow. We meet them at Sportsman’s Club for beers numbers two, three and four. Our token Canadian, Kyle Paton of The Black Lodge in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, doesn’t arrive until the next morning, by then we’d probably consumed an entire case of Miller High Life and half-dozen Loyalist burgers for dinner and picked up hot dogs for breakfast. The next seven days are going to be marathon of gluttony and excess that my petite frame may or may not be able to handle.
By Sunday, we had sold about 40 tickets to the dinner, less than half of our goal. It’s an embarrassing number for me, given that, out of the CRUX crew, Chicago is my city. It’s an upsetting number for the restaurant, TWO, that agreed to shut down for the night given that we will pack the place. (TWO chef Kevin Cuddihee is collaborating on tonight’s dinner as well.) It’s a somewhat calming number for the chefs, because it means we can combine the two seatings into one.
Thanks to the previous night’s revelries—and the fact that TWO is open for brunch service—prep starts late on Sunday, around 1 p.m., with Brandon boiling corn on my kitchen stove, Laura braising lamb shoulder at the restaurant and Kevin slicing pork cheek that he had cured in mushroom powder. This menu is the easiest for the chefs to execute, given that they have not yet been beaten down by a week of touring, and were able to prepare much of their dishes in their home kitchens and transport them to Chicago. Jonathan’s turmeric-poached sablefish is all but cooked upon arrival.
The next seven days are going to be marathon of gluttony and excess that my petite frame may or may not be able to handle.
All that is left to worry about is service; a terrifying thought given the confused chaos that was our last CRUX dinner. This time is different; we rely on TWO’s service staff under the combined guidance of their usual general manager and myself. I imagine this pre-service, however, is not quite what the three servers are used to, with five chefs explaining their dishes, one of which involves an impromptu grasshopper tasting to demonstrate the flavor profile of Brandon’s fermented grasshopper and corn combination.
Gallery: CRUX in Chicago
The cocktail hour and dinner go off without a hitch. I wish there is more of this story to tell, but the evening is uneventful in the most wonderful way. Courses come and go with ease, guests coo over the usual flavor combinations and fanciful platings, booze flows with the consistency of a Greek symposium. During dessert—frozen fennel-flavored cream with blackberries—I take my place in the front of the dining room to dole out thank yous and the dining room erupts with applause. I wish I could superglue the smile that spreads across my face, because I am going to need it during the next week.
In lieu of a second seating, guests and friends are invited to stay after dinner to eat more food (although none of them are physically able to) and continue drinking. Inspired by that morning’s enchased meat breakfast, the chefs assemble a tribute to The Windy City complete with ketch-braised wieners, skyscrapers of toasted Wonder Bread rounds, the leftover duck testicles and king crab egg salad. The hot dog-filled after-party is a bust and, for once, I can blame a semi-delusional-from-fever Brandon for telling everyone it started at 10 p.m. instead of 9 p.m. Those of us still standing head to The Aviary for a nightcap before scattering our drunken bodies all over every soft surface of my apartment.
Tomorrow: next stop, Indianapolis
Part 1, September 6, 2016: What Have We Done?
If there’s one stereotype I’ve endured more than any other as a food writer, it’s the one about us being entitled, jaded snobs who couldn’t survive ten minutes on the line. This, for the most part, is true. However, when my writing career got put on hiatus, I was faced with the fortuitous opportunity to prove some of the haters wrong. To remind myself why I dedicated my life to being a voice for the restaurant and bar industry, and to reaffirm my mantra that the reason I work so hard is because the people I write about work ten times harder—and to get my manicured hands dirty for once.
Brandon Baltzley was one of my first interviewees as a professional food writer. I had written three whole articles for RedEye, when Lisa Arnett asked me to round up the city’s best underground dining concepts. She suggested I contact Brandon, who I knew nothing about other than that he had recently reemerged from rehab to found a pop-up called CRUX. I called him from the bedroom of my Rogers Park apartment. The rawness of the conversation made my 22-year-old face cringe. He cursed so many times that I had a difficult time finding usable quotes. But the honesty in his words solidified my career as a food writer.
“There has to be more than just the food; it’s about theatrics and experience,” Brandon said during that August 2011 interview. “It has to be something different, not just something to do.” Here we are, five years later. Those words remain true, except I am the one slinging the Kool-Aid as co-host of the latest iteration of CRUX. During which I hope I can rediscover my passion for tasting unfamiliar flavors, sipping a balanced cocktail and being part of the well choreographed dance known as dinner service, while passing along his unwavering commitment to pushing culinary boundaries to diners.
These dinners could be disasters both professionally and financially. If so, I’ll learn the hard way that some people are better off observing the restaurant industry rather than being part of it.
CRUX’s return to Chicago was a decision first made out of utility. The parents of Brandon’s wife and co-chef Laura Higgins-Batlzey were coming to town to visit her sister. Brandon and Laura figured they could tag along and do some cooking in their former hometown. I had helped facilitate January’s CRUX pop-up via my side hustle SAUCED, so Brandon reached out to me as well as Jonathan Brooks at Indianapolis’ Milktooth about a CRUX encore. Before I knew it, an easy one-night pop-up turned into a four-night, four-city tour that would take us from Chicago to Indianapolis, Columbus and Detroit. I really need to learn how to say, “no.”
I’ve written about nearly every Chicago restaurant opening from Acadia to Alinea (the second time). One would think that means I know a thing or two about where to source a gallon of pig blood or what to do when the dishwasher is backed up and you don’t have enough plates for the fish course. And, maybe, give me a little pause before volunteering as captain of the flaming, sinking ship in shark-infested waters that is running a restaurant. Wrong on all counts.
If I learned anything from the previous CRUX, it was don’t build a kitchen in an art gallery. Other than that, pop-up restaurants depend a lot on crossing fingers and the generosity of friends. How I got four chefs in four cities to turn over their eating establishments to a bunch of idiots—myself included—with semi-reputable names and half-baked plans astonishes me.
My elevator pitch went something like this: Hey, Brandon Baltzley is coming to town and I need somewhere for him and a couple other chefs to ferment grasshoppers and cook duck testicles for a night, so can I borrow your restaurant?
A lot of people said no, as they should. Despite Brandon making countless life changes since his days of drug addiction and cursing out chefs in the comments section of Eater, that reputation is a difficult one to shake. Obviously, four people said yes: Kevin Cuddihee at TWO, Jonathan Brooks at Milktooth, Sangeeta Lakhani at The Table and John Vermiglio at Grey Ghost.
Sunday night, this elaborate charade begins. The menus have been finalized and they contain some of the most creative dishes I’ve seen in a long time—smoked corn with fermented grasshoppers in Chicago, sour carrots in white fish broth in Indianapolis, coppa with pig blood in Columbus and pig face corn dogs in Detroit.
It’s up to me to make sure that nearly a dozen chefs’ visions are executed with minimal catastrophes. I might fail. These dinners could be disasters both professionally and financially. If so, I’ll learn the hard way that some people are better off observing the restaurant industry rather than being part of it. The next two weeks will decide and I invite you—either by joining us at CRUX or following along on Fooditor—to witness the experiment.
To be continued…
Sarah Freeman is a Chicago-based food and drink writer passionate about strong coffee and cocktails. With a notebook in one hand and camera in the other, she has spent the past five years chronicling the city’s restaurant scene as an editor for Zagat and Eater. Her work has also appeared in Munchies, Men’s Book, CS, Michigan Avenue Magazine, TimeOut Chicago, Sun-Times Splash and Chicagoist. When not eating, drinking and writing, she runs SAUCED, a roving night market dedicated to up-and-coming chefs, artists and artisans.
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