Chef Alex Young of the Roadhouse on his work at Cornman farms and the importance of preserving foodways

In celebration of Zingerman’s making the front page of the New York Times business section this weekend, I thought that I’d post this recent interview I did with Zingerman’s Roadhouse managing partner, and James Beard Award-winning chef, Alex Young. Alex, as you may know, when he’s not serving up “really good American food” at the Roadhouse, can usually be found on the grounds of Cornman Farms, a 42-acre property in Dexter, where he and his crew grow 70 varieties of vegetables, care for over 150 animals, and work to further push the local boundaries of the “farm to table” movement.

cornamnfarms

MARK: I’m sure much of this is wrong, so feel free to interject, but, thanks to an hour or so spent on the internet, here’s what I think I know about you… You were born in London, England and moved to Albuquerque at the age of two with your parents, who, shortly thereafter, relocated your family to Northern California, where you lived until the age of 17, at which point you decided to move to New York… Have I got that right so far?

ALEX: Yes.

MARK: And what drew you to New York? Was there something specific, or was it just general sense that interesting things were happening there?

cornfarmhouseALEX: My father had moved there, so it was an option.

MARK: When did you first know that you wanted to get into the restaurant business? Did that desire predate your move to New York at 17, or did that only happen once you moved there and began working in the industry?

ALEX: I always really enjoyed making food, and the rewards of serving great food to family and friends. The desire to become a chef I really fell into, though. I’d landed a job as a buss-boy when I got to New York, and ended up helping out in the kitchen a short time later. I’ve never left the kitchen since.

MARK: What, if you don’t mind my asking, brought your family to the United States?

ALEX: My father was an Art Professor, and we came here so that he could teach.

MARK: For the next 15 years or so, after moving to New York, it sounds as though you were always on the move. After putting in time at a number of restaurants in New York, like the China Grill, you made your way, after a stop in London, back to California, where you worked at restaurants like San Francisco’s Corona Bar and Grill. Eventually, all of this work would culminate in an offer to become Executive Chef at the Pittsburgh Fish Market, a position you would eventually leave to become the first Executive Chef of the Hilton Restaurant Group… Still good?

corntomatosALEX: Perfect, so far.

MARK: I’m curious how your vision may have evolved over this 15-year period. Clearly you now have an interest in what we might call traditional American food, but my guess is that this wasn’t always the case, right?

ALEX: True, but when it came time to build my own restaurant, I wanted to focus on American food.

MARK: Why? Was it just that you thought that traditional American would work in Ann Arbor? Or had you begun to see a nationwide trend in that direction? Or was it simply that you’d fallen in love with barbecue?

ALEX: Really neither; I had simply crafted my business plan in that direction because that’s what I felt best allowed me to do what I wanted to do.

MARK: Back to family stuff, and your culinary history… Your mom, as I understand it, while born in Wales, was the daughter of missionaries, and, as such, spent a great deal of her life in Africa. And maybe it’s just that we first met several years ago at a Moroccan dinner that you’d worked with my daughter and some of her school friends to produce, but my sense is that you also have an affinity for African food. Is that the case?

cornmanmanALEX: North African foods intrigue me, and I love grains and braises. Searing those rich spices into goat or lamb gets me going.

MARK: As for why you’re now here, in Michigan. I understand that we have your wife to thank… something about a promise to give up the life of an itinerant chef and settle down in her home town of Dexter, Michigan…

ALEX: Yes, that was the deal.

MARK: So, as I understand it, you started looking for opportunities here, eventually reaching out to Paul and Ari at Zingerman’s, and pitching them on the idea of what would eventually become the Roadhouse. They liked it, and eventually you’d join the Zingerman’s family, first working for a year in the Deli, and then launching the Roadhouse in 2003 as chef and managing partner… I imagine that was a pretty big leap of faith for someone who had pretty much reached the top of the industry as the executive chef overseeing all of Hilton’s operations.

ALEX: It was a bit of a leap, certainly, as there was no where else in the area where I would work.

MARK: What was it that finally made you take the leap? Was it the travel and being away from your wife and kids?

corngoatALEX: Yes. I decided I couldn’t raise my family that way any more. The desire to provide for your family is a pretty strong motivator.

MARK: I’m curious as to how the idea for the restaurant evolved from the first time you pitched it to Paul and Ari, and what we see today. Is it pretty true to the original vision?

ALEX: The Roadhouse is much more complex than I’d originally envisioned?

MARK: How so?

ALEX: A few reasons: open-book finance, all the wonderful people that we’ve worked with over the years, our guiding principles, and I have an active imagination.

MARK: As I understand it, the initial vision for the Roadhouse was a little more Italian in nature, wasn’t it? How did the menu evolve to what we know it as today?

ALEX: My initial business plan was for an American restaurant. After meeting Ari, though, and hearing his idea for a Bruschetta Bar of sorts, I went off in that direction. I loved the idea, and spent a year working on that vision and plan. When Ari and I were walking up to the building that would become the Roadhouse, though, Ari turned to me and said “Blue Plate,” which was the working title of my American Restaurant business plan.

MARK: Has the idea for what we now know as Cornman Farms always been part of the plan? Did you know from the start that you wanted to operate your own farm?

ALEX: I knew I wanted a farm to look at. Actual farming, though, wasn’t part of the plan. It just happened as a result of me wanting a hobby. But then I became very passionate about it.

MARK: Would you say that your appreciation for food and where it comes from has grown exponentially since the launch of the Roadhouse, as you’ve traveled the country, visiting the farms and various food businesses whose products you sell?

cornbarnALEX: I don’t travel as much as I’d like to, but my appreciation for farmers and producers has definitely grown exponentially!

MARK: Had you ever worked on farm prior to moving to Dexter? Did you know what you were getting into?

ALEX: I didn’t have a clue as to what I was getting into.

MARK: I’ve heard you talk before about the process of becoming a chef, and the need to essentially pay your dues. I believe, in fact, I’ve heard you speak positively of the Japanese model, where young people have to carry produce for years before they’re even allowed to handle a knife and cut a vegetable. Given that, I imagined that you would have gone through an intensive learning process before attempting to run a farm on your own.

ALEX: I believe in earned respect, and discipline. It takes much repetition to become really good at anything.

MARK: How big was the original farm, and how has it grown since your first purchased it? If I’m not mistaken, you’ve purchased additional property, correct?

ALEX: At the very inception it was 75 square feet. It’s now 48 acres.

MARK: Can you give us a sense of the scope at Cornman? I hear things here and there, and I’m not quite sure how it all fits together. For instance, I recently heard that goat milk and beer will figure prominently.

cornbanquetALEX: We’ve got goats for milk, pigs, cattle, chickens and a donkey. And we’ve got lots of produce. No beer, though. Although we’re starting to grow grains.

MARK: And, you just recently opened up the barn as an event facility… What was that process like? And how did the opening go?

ALEX: The opening went brilliantly, thank you.

MARK: I was raised on country ham, but I know very little about it. Do you have an interesting fact or anecdote that you could share?

ALEX: Wrap a piece of fish in it and grill it.

MARK: I don’t want to go off on too much of a country ham detour, but, as I was raised on the stuff, being from Kentucky, I feel compelled to ask at least one more question. At the Roadhouse, as I understand it, your source your country ham is the Newsom family in Princeton, Kentucky. Assuming you’ve visited their operation, I’m wondering what you might be able to tell us about it. What makes their ham so good?

ALEX: The smokehouse, I suspect.

MARK: Another aside… What do you do with your oyster shells at the Roadhouse? I ask because I’ve always wanted to try to make tabby, and I was wondering if I might be able to get a few hundred pounds from you.

ALEX: We build middens with them, but I could find some for you.

MARK: I believe I read recently that the average age of active farmers in America is now over 60. It’s kind of scary when you think about it… this significant, large scale loss of expertise that we’re about to experience. I’m curious if that’s something that you think about, and something that drives your work at Cornman?

ALEX: There’s a couple of significant problems. 1) There aren’t enough farmers in this country. The small farms have been driven out of business by the big and powerful ones. This led to a degradation of quality, competition, flavor and ultimately our health as a civilization. 2) Since farming was essentially completely organic until 60-70 years ago, the skills and experience to farm organically is being lost.

potcornman2

MARK: Speaking of older, experienced farmers, what kind of assistance, if any, did you have in getting Cornman off the ground, especially as it relates to these lost arts?

ALEX: We have a great crew who have been working with me for a number of years, but there are people in the community that have been incredibly generous with their time and advice.

cornkitchenMARK: Not too long ago, I was having a conversation with Amy Evans of the Southern Foodways Alliance. We were talking about our collective food history, and how, with the growth nationwide chains and the like, it’s at risk. And she noted an African proverb, “When an old person dies,” she said, “a library burns to the ground.” She went on to say, “There’s no way to measure what’s been lost, only document what remains.” I’m wondering if you see your work at the Roadhouse at all through that lens.

ALEX: Maybe… I see preserving foodways, and traditionally made foods as the single most important thing to us as human beings. If we can do anything to help that cause, I feel like we need to do it. Teaching young people to appreciate interesting foods is a big part of that in my opinion.

MARK: Do you have thoughts as to what else you’d like to do in this regard? Might we expect a cooking school at some point? A television program?

ALEX: No, I don’t think so.

MARK: In another recent interview with you, you noted that Spaghetti Bolognese is the legacy food that you’ve handed down to your kids. I’m tempted to ask for your recipe, but, as I don’t want you to jeopardize the legacy, I’ll just ask for one hint. What’s one thing that I should do if I want to improve my Bolognese?

ALEX: Good meat.

MARK: Speaking of meat, you took some heat locally for a comment you made in Bon Appétit a few years back, around the time that you were awarded the James Beard Award. The question posed to you was, “What ingredient or trend would you be happy to have just go away?” And you responded, “Vegetarianism.” Would you like to elaborate?

corncow
ALEX: My feeling is only that, whether we eat vegetables or animals, we should seek to support farms that treat either with respect.

MARK: Where are there still opportunities in the local food ecosystem? What are we, for instance, importing that we could be making closer to home?

ALEX: Meat has the biggest impact on our environment and our health.

MARK: I’m curious, is there’s a specific animal you have in mind when you say that there’s an opportunity for local meat production. Given what you know of Michigan’s environment, local feedstock, our evolving regional palate, and what we currently import, do you have a specific example in mind?

ALEX: Definitely, cattle.

[note: All photos courtesy Cornman Farms.]

This entry was posted in Ann Arbor, Food, Local Business, Locally Owned Business, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

5 Comments

  1. T
    Posted July 7, 2014 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    His quote toward the end about our health as a civilization was great. As far as interviews go, though, this one was painful. The guy clearly didn’t want to talk.

  2. Elliott
    Posted July 8, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I wouldn’t take it personally. In a kitchen environment, conversation is generally terse. It probably also doesn’t help that he’s British.

    More importantly, though, it’s cool to see good things happening in Dexter.

  3. John Galt
    Posted July 8, 2014 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    There’s nothing so flavorful as a factory farmed pig. You can taste the fear. My favorite thing in life is reading the Fountainhead while eating a pike of factory farmed bacon off of a plate made by Cinese children bought from a dollar store.

  4. Meta
    Posted July 8, 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    “Salvadoran Farmers Successfully Oppose the Use of Monsanto Seeds”

    Farmers across El Salvador united to block a stipulation in a US aid package to their country that would have indirectly required the purchase of Monsanto genetically modified (GM) seeds.

    Thousands of farmers, like 45-year-old farmer Juan Joaquin Luna Vides, prefer to source their seeds locally, and not to use Monsanto’s GM seeds.

    “Transnational companies have been known to provide expired seeds that they weren’t able to distribute elsewhere,” said Vides, who heads the Diversified Production program at the Mangrove Association, a community development organization that works in the Bajo Lempa region of El Salvador.

    “We would like the US embassy and the misinformed media outlets [that are pressuring the Salvadoran government to change their procurement procedure] to know more about the reality of national producers and recognize the food sovereignty of the country,” he added.

    During the last two months, the US government has been attempting to pressure the government of El Salvador to sign the second Millennium Challenge Compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a US foreign aid agency created during the presidency of George W. Bush.

    While the US government has not specifically requested the government of El Salvador or local farming coops there to purchase Monsanto products, it has tacitly looked the other way while Monsanto affiliates have raked in huge profits with highly priced, and less effective or less desired products.

    The signing agreement was allegedly based upon the condition that El Salvador purchases GM seeds from Monsanto in conjunction with the Millennium Challenge Compact.

    Read more:
    http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/24811-el-salvadoran-farmers-successfully-oppose-the-use-of-monsanto-seeds

  5. anonymous
    Posted July 8, 2014 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    all four of these comments are by the same person

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