Theresa Rickloff, a regular fixture behind the counter at Beezy’s for the past several years, and the woman behind Riki Tiki Pies, will be leaving in the next few months for Portland, where she’ll be attending culinary school. Following is her official Ypsi/Arbor Exit Interview.
MARK: Can a good pie crust be made without lard?
THERESA: Why yes!
When I first started making pie crust, I was making both lard crusts and butter crusts. I liked working with lard because it was weird, because other people weren’t really doing it, and the crust is easier to handle than a butter crust. A lot of people were really excited to hear that there was an Ypsi pie maker using lard, and I got some buzz that way. However, I wasn’t able to find an affordable and steady-stream of lard that I thought was high-quality and coming from a good place, so I started making more and more butter crusts. It was a matter of ingredient convenience.
Once I got the hang of dealing with butter crust (fortunately I have a low body temperature, and I’m OK with pain and suffering), I actually found I liked them a lot better. I could get the right amount of flaky, I was building beautiful layers, and eventually I was able to sculpt the crust to look like something you might want to look at before you eat it. I now prefer the taste of butter crust to lard. They’re also far more versatile. I can use my basic butter crust for nearly any filling.
I still love lard, though. It’s a delicious and clever use of a product that people used to have around a lot more. And, actually, there are starting to be more and more places to get great leaf lard in the area. If I were continuing on as a pie maker, I would totally be working on making a connection so that I could get back into the lard business.
But shortening? Nobody should have time for that garbage.
THERESA: I grew up on the west side of Ann Arbor. I graduated high school in 2005, and I was convinced that I was going to go to a small conservative Christian college. I decided to go to Calvin College in Grand Rapids – or at least I was convinced I was going to go there until I went to orientation there. I panicked. I hated it. Everyone was weird to me. People were saying things like, “Oh, you’re here for your MRS degree.” Everyone was blonde. I also had a lot of really strong friendships I wanted to keep up with, and I decided I just couldn’t get myself to go up to Grand Rapids.
So I unenrolled, but still felt like I should be going to college that year. (In retrospect, I wish I had just been a badass and travelled for a few years, but when given the chance to look back in life don’t we all wish we’d spent more time travelling?) I knew I wanted to stay in the area, but I wanted to grow up and move out of my parent’s house. Even though I’d grown up in Ann Arbor, I’d spent a lot of time in Ypsi, and most of my friends were living out this way.
And, hey, what local university will let someone in two weeks before their semester starts? I bet you guessed it.
I sort of just sat in the EMU admissions lobby for 15 minutes, gave them my high school transcript, then someone came out with a yellow sticky note with a number on it and said, “This is your student number. Welcome to EMU.”
MARK: I understand that you’re going to school to become a chef. What are you hoping to do, once you graduate?
The dream for my life is to start a commune with my favorite people, live off the grid, grow plants, and kill and eat animals together. Until the apocalypse.
I’ve heard this takes a bit more orchestration and skills than you might think, so I’ve decided I’ll accomplish a few more things with my life before I start my commune. I also need to make money somehow. Not to sound like a twat, but I’ve never really cared about having a lot of money. However, it’d be good to make some.
While I’m in culinary school, and after I graduate, it’ll be the same priority: work in good restaurants. It can be hard to get your foot in the door, and culinary school, plus living in a good culinary area, is a huge help. But it’s really about learning really great things from smart people, and hopefully I’ll be lucky, and stubborn enough, to get into some great opportunities.
They say that everyone in culinary school wants to open their own place, and I’ve certainly been there too, and have had dreams of my own place. A few years ago, I thought that by this time in my life I’d be taking steps to open my own restaurant. Now I know I’m not in a rush for that. I have so much more to learn, and I have a lot of people to meet before that happens. I’d need to find a good business person who thinks food can make us money; I need to find a good chiropractor; I need to be in an area that I think grows and cultivates interesting food; and I need to observe and learn the preparation of so many more foods than I’ve had the opportunity to learn.
I don’t like to think I’ll work in the industry forever, though. I want to be doing that commune thing I mentioned earlier. But, if I need to make money somehow, I want it to be doing something I enjoy, and I think I can be quite good at. I like kitchens, and my mind likes kitchens, and my body usually likes the kitchen too. I love multi-tasking. I love figuring out how to get yourself out of the weeds. I love pumping out plate after plate of breakfast for the beautiful Beezy’s customers. I love stirring pots of soup. I love yelling at people, and slamming pans around, and making a lot of noise. I love eating. I love strange foods. I love finding new ways to make things, and how to save money. I love wearing aprons. I love really giving a shit about who you work for, and who you work with.
Despite that, however, I honestly think it’s kind of dumb and harmful for people to eat out at restaurants as often as they do. (I shouldn’t say that though. It’s bad for business.) Especially because there are so many stupid restaurants that are a waste of time and money. I wish more people would learn to cook more things, and that everyone would get pickier about their food quality. I want to see more talented people cooking in better restaurants, and producing better food for customers happy to pay for it. Otherwise, people should really just eat cheaply and healthfully in their homes.
I don’t know what area of the country “cheffin’ it up” is going to take me. Portland is certainly a good area for it. After graduation, I imagine I’ll be really homesick and want to come back here. I love it here. But I’m trying to toughen up a little bit, because it might not be the best option…
THERESA: It’s certainly not impossible without culinary school, err, certainly possible without culinary school.
And this is the part that’s kept me vacillating back and forth the past few years, as I’ve tried to figure out how to continue on in my career. It’s caused me to sit on my hands for a long time. In a lot of ways, culinary school can be a waste of time and money (as can all school). Here’s a link to a great interview with David Chang about some of the problems with culinary school, if you’re interested.
School is valuable for the connections you make, and trade schools are valuable because you can have access to a lot of skills all in one location. You can learn the skills in a shorter amount of time than it would take to accumulate those skills out in the wild. But going to culinary school doesn’t mean you’re going to become a good cook, or even less of a dumb ass than you started off being. Nor does it mean you’re going to get a very good job.
Part of the reason I’m moving across the country to Portland for culinary school is that it’s a great area to be in the industry. People spend a lot of money on food in Portland, and there are a lot of amazing restaurants to work for. There’s also a lot more Asian cuisine, which excites me. There are lots of farmers and food producers to work with too.
Culinary school can make things happen, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to become a rich and successful chef. It’s easy to say that this is a failure on the part of a student’s tenacity, but I think it’s really more so a failure of how schools work these days. They’re interested in being a business instead of perpetuating knowledge and culture.
We’ll see how it goes. Going to school to learn about cooking sounds like a blast to me.
MARK: I’ve heard Alex Young, the chef and managing partner of Zingerman’s Roadhouse, say that, if he were starting out today, he wouldn’t have been able to make it as a chef without having gone to culinary school. According to him, it’s just too competitive.
THERESA: That’s reassuring.
MARK: There are other cities that have good reputations when it comes to food. Were there other factors pulling your toward Portland? As I’m sure you know, Ypsi’s lost a lot of people to Portland over the past several years, and they’re not just going for culinary school. There’s something magnetic about the place.
THERESA: When I decided I should really pursue going to culinary school, I asked myself where I would want to move, before I asked myself what school I would want to go to. I decided Portland, because it’s a good place to be eating, making and thinking about food. Also, I wanted to live in a place where I wouldn’t need to have a car, and that’s very easy to get around by bike.
I visited out there and stayed with a friend. Everyone said I would “fall in love with the place.” I wouldn’t say that I did, though. I really liked it. It’s beautiful. There are mountains, gardens, chickens, weird ferns, attractive men, and smoked meats everywhere… and everyone has a dog… but it didn’t feel like home. It felt like somewhere I’d want to live for a bit, though.
I wish people out there were more sarcastic. The few days I was out there made me really miss our Midwestern pessimism and denigrating sense of humor. I wanted to walk up to people and tell them to jump in front of a moped, because they’re nice enough out there that they just might do it, and I just get so curious. Hopefully I’ll make a lot of friends.
And yeah! People moving to Portland. I don’t really know any of the people who have left, but I heard they did that. I should read their exit interviews, huh?
MARK: What’s a “food perversion”?
Back in my coffee shop days, when I was around 20, I wrote a blog post inspired by the cupcakes we sold at the shop. They were these crazy piles of frosting. People’s eyes would light up when they saw them, then they’d shudder in disgust at themselves, and try to move on with their lives. It was like they saw a pair of boobs they liked, and then weren’t sure they were young enough for those boobs, and began a cycle of self-doubt.
In the States, food has so many more functions than to just “stop us from dying.” And people are getting so weird about it. Me too. I want to see how far I can push a food sometimes. The thing that brings me such supreme delight is figuring out what flavors I can squeak into a pie together, and then convincing people to eat it. It feels naughty after a while, because it feels like we’re abusing food. Maybe we are?
Either way, I’m a huge food pervert. I like touching food to see how it jiggles. Just saying.
MARK: One of the things I like about Beezy’s is that it’s kind of served as an incubator for local food-based businesses. Your venture, Riki Tiki Pies, and Stefanie Stauffer‘s Nightshade Army Industries, both got your start in Bee’s kitchen. How important was Beezy’s in your evolution as an aspiring chef and food entrepreneur?
THERESA: It would only be a slight exaggeration if I were to say that Beezy’s gave me everything. I gave Beezy’s a lot of myself, and Riki Tiki Pies was my baby, but Bee has been my boss, mentor, “boss-mom,” and the person allowing Riki Tiki pies to have a home base and constant support. Giving people a space for business and connections is one of the many great things that Beezy’s has done for Ypsi.
I don’t think there are too many Bee Rolls in the world. She is dedicated to having a big heart for her community, even when her life is really tough. Owning a restaurant is almost impossible – and not only is she doing that, she’s having other people find ways to circulate money through the area when the business is closed for operation.
Oh yeah, and she lets 826 Michigan tutor children at Beezy’s in the evening! I’ll be there making pie at night with adorable kids running around. It’s a fun time.
Gushing about Bee aside, I didn’t even know I wanted to cook professionally until I started working at Beezy’s. And it wasn’t really until Bee got pregnant and trained me to do her job that I realized I was good at it. It’s really hard work, and it was really hard to learn, but it showed me that I’m made of the right kind of stuff.
It also taught me how to make some damn good scrambled eggs.
MARK: Will Riki Tiki still exist in Portland? If so, you should know that you’ll have some serious competition… At least I recall stuffing some really good, savory salami handpies into my food hole during my last visit.
THERESA: Screw those handery slam pies!
And, no. I’m not planning on bringing Riki Tiki out there with me. Riki Tiki Pies is something I’d come back to, but I think, out in Portland, I want to be learning as much new stuff as possible.
MARK: According to Facebook, you’re “hiding a secret anger, and a lust for blood.” I’m curious as to what that means.
THERESA: Ahhh, I mostly just thought that was a funny thing to say. Though I do love watching people get sliced up in old kung fu movies, so there might be something creepy and violent going on there.
I’ve always been seen as a happy, dopey ball of funsies. As I’ve grown up, I’ve found that I actually have quite a lot of anger about a lot of things, just like any normal human. I’m still learning on how to deal with anger in a healthy, awesome way instead of burying it inside.
I posted that because I was having a bullshit day at Beezys, and Facebook always listens when all you want to do is set someone’s house on fire.
MARK: I’ve also heard you use the phrase, “I’m good at pistol whipping.” Did you share that on your culinary school application?
THERESA: I’d be like, “Which show is Gordon Ramsay on?” and “Do I have to care?”
MARK: Did you enjoy your time in Ypsilanti?
THERESA: You bet your butt I did. Leaving here is going to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I’ve changed a lot in this town, and it’s responsible for a lot of what I am now. I love the streets, the dumb parking lots, the buildings, the river. I love interacting with the same terrain every day and seeing it change. It’s hard when people go, but these days it makes sense to move on. It doesn’t change how important this place has been to me, and all the other people who have moved on. Whether or not they’ll admit it…
MARK: What will you miss about Ypsi… Give me the top five in order, ending with the thing that you’ll miss most.
5. Riverside Park, including Frog Island and the tridge (I think that can count as one, right?)
4. Being drunk at the Tap Room and ordering their bar food
3. Porch hangouts
2. Knowing someone everywhere I go
1. Cooking at Beezy’s with my fellow staff. They are some of the finest people I’ve had the honor to spend time and make food with.
THERESA: Le Cordon Bleu.
MARK: Given what you know of the Ypsi food scene, what kind of food-related business do you think would do well here right now?
THERESA: I can’t answer this question without this prologue: Ypsi is an interesting place to start a business, and a lot of people have failed. I think the reason a lot of people fail is that they haven’t involved themselves in a culture of Ypsi from the start. And I say “a culture” of Ypsi, because there are many. People first moving here, strolling through here, often don’t see that, even if they’re from Ann Arbor. They lump it all together into some kind of hipster slum, or poor people slum, and their minds, bodies, and wallets move on.
What else is great about Ypsi, especially what I know of the downtown area, is once you’re involved in a particular culture or group, there’s mobility between groups. It’s not that we’re free from segregation here, but we’re a lot more multicultural than other areas, especially in Southeastern Michigan. We’re willing to try other people’s food, as long as it seems interesting, affordable, and the people running the place don’t seem like jerks. A lot of us don’t have very much money, but we want to have a nice time, and we don’t have as many snob hang-ups as a lot of other towns. (This is my opinion on living in Washtenaw County my whole life. I understand many people might disagree with me.)
I think there is so much room for many types of restaurants in Ypsi, and even room for more bars. I think we’re still at the point in Ypsi where business begets business, and people looking to open up places will only be helped by getting close with other business owners and operators. What I look for and hope to see is 1) experienced people with a specific vision (not, “I’m going to open up a pizza place! We’ll serve gourmet pizzas!” What the hell does “gourmet” even mean?), and 2) people who have been, and are, networking in the area.
Most things I’ve heard about the food cart park opening up in Ypsi Township has made me excited about it. I think that will get a lot of locals with years of vision realizing that they can make their first step toward their vision making money. A lot of cooks live in Ypsi, but cook in Ann Arbor. They’re talented, anxious to do their own thing, and just looking for an avenue that makes sense for their life – and I think a viable food cart industry will get a lot of people walking through that door.
I think we also badly need more dinner places that serve booze, are open late, and have small menus they can manage. The failure, or hurdle to success, of a lot of dinner places in Ypsi (and everywhere) is they try to do everything, their menus become huge, and the quality of food becomes unmanageable. I’d love to come back to Ypsi and see a restaurant with entree ticket prices between $15-$25, made by a chef who is invested in a very particular cuisine. There would be appetizers that pair wonderfully with booze, allowing people to drop around $20 for pre-dinner or pre-show hang outs, and the restaurant to have a way to make easy money. Then the dinner menu would have two to three dishes that are stars, they’re well-known for, and the cooks never fuck up. The rest of the menu could be rotating and exploring of the chef’s vision and culinary expertise, and also allow room for up and coming sous-chef’s to play around. I don’t think they’d need to be open for lunch, but I’d want them to be open late.
I think a lot of prospective restaurant owners get scared that people in Ypsi don’t want, or can’t afford, a “fine-dining” place (I’m using scare quotes because people assume fine-dining means French, and that shouldn’t be implied). In my perhaps wrong opinion, fine-dining would do great here (as long as they still have a vision, and are networking in the area). With the proliferation of 9-5 foodies scouring Yelp for weekend destinations, you don’t need your weekend money to come from Ypsi people (who might be all working, and if not, looking for a fun way to spend extra cash). Weekend money carries a restaurant through the week, and during the week you cater to your bread & butter Ypsi customers, who make up the heart of the place.
And in order to be more specific regarding what I want to see open up here: I’ve also always wanted a walk-up fish & chips place in Ypsi. Just fish & chips, maybe beer & ginger ale, and they’d be open til 4:00 in the morning, so I could wander home from the bar and get a snack before I nap for the night.
Oh yeah, we also need more venues. Please open up more venues. If I come back, I’ll make the bar food if you need it, just fucking open up places for music.
MARK: Any parting words for the people of Ypsi?
THERESA: Make friends with your neighbors, and keep the Water Tower happy.
[note: Credit for the first photo goes to Christine Laughren. The second two are the work of Joe Rybarczyk.]
If you’d like to find out more about why it is that people leave this place we call home, check our our Ypsi/Arbor Exit Interview archive.