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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 02/15/2011

Smoke Signals: Can barbecue save Motor City?

By Jim Shahin
union smokehouse_opt.jpg Union strikes a note for the common diner in Detroit. (Union Smokehouse)

Something extraordinary has happened in the world of cuisine: The Detroit Free Press bestowed its 2011 Restaurant of the Year award to a barbecue eatery.

It's the first time in the 12 years of the award that the honor did not go to a high-end restaurant.

A barbecue place? Restaurant of the Year?

True, Calvin Trillin once remarked that Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque in Kansas City was the best restaurant in the world. But even as food obsessed as he is, Trillin is not an actual critic. And while any number of readers may agree in theory that their favorite barbecue joint ought to be Restaurant of the Year, they usually (not always, but usually) come to their senses after sobering up.

But the choice of Union Woodshop in Clarkston, about 40 miles north of Detroit, is as much about symbolism as about food.

“This is not just a ‘best’ restaurant thing,” Free Press restaurant critic Sylvia Rector explained when contacted by Smoke Signals. “The selection must have some kind of significance that fits the times.”

And the place.

Detroit is as walloped a big city as exists in America. To some, it is pitiable, a once-strong industrial colossus brought to its knees, begging for government handouts. To others, it is weak, a victim of its own union greed and management short-sightedness. To still others, it is a fearsome wasteland of post-apocalyptic proportions. Few see what Detroiters themselves see: a place of deep pride and astonishing resolve.

“I think you have to be in Detroit to appreciate the spirit of the people here,” Rector said. “We have to cheer for ourselves.”

Union Woodshop’s owners had operated a fine-dining restaurant, the Clarkston Café, complete with a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef, in the same town as their barbecue operation. But the cafe closed in January 2009 as Detroit’s economy, already reeling, was further battered by the Great Recession. Despite the blow, the owners did not want to give up on the space or their employees. For months, they tossed around new concepts. Ultimately, it hit them: barbecue.

In September 2009, Union Woodshop opened. The CIA-trained chef, Aaron Cozadd, stayed on. More than 70 percent of the café’s staff was rehired.

In December 2009, Rector awarded the Woodshop four stars. “I never gave a place this casual four stars,” she said. “This was the first time.”

When thinking about the Restaurant of the Year award a year later, the quality of the food definitely played a part. Chef Cozadd, Rector wrote, “runs the Woodshop kitchen with the same passion for great food that he brought to the cafe.”

But it wasn’t just the quality of the food that impressed Rector. It was the story of perseverance. In her piece announcing the award, she wrote:

This year, it seemed right to honor a venue that became more casual and affordable but kept its focus on quality, creativity and good ingredients. For its ability to change, survive and then excel with great food in a fun atmosphere, Union Woodshop -- embodying Michigan's resiliency and refusal to accept defeat -- is the Detroit Free Press 2011 Restaurant of the Year.

The award may not mean as much to Detroit as the Saints's Super Bowl victory meant to New Orleans in 2010, but it is a strong statement about a restaurant’s ability to say something about its place. Like cities across the country, Detroit is experiencing a barbecue boom. “It’s likely we’ve never had more and better barbecue choices than at this moment,” Rector wrote last fall in a story about Detroit barbecue.

In the piece, she spotlighted eight top barbecue restaurants, seven of which opened within the last year. The eighth, Slows Bar-B-Q, is credited with lighting the city’s barbecue fire when it opened five years ago. Last summer, Bon Appetit called Slows one of the 10 best new barbecue restaurants in the country.

What's particularly interesting about Detroit’s barbecue explosion is that much of it is being led by talented, highly trained chefs who have worked in some top kitchens. Rather than being a ground-up phenomenon, as barbecue has been for decades, especially in the South, some of Detroit’s barbecue restaurants have opted for a top-down approach. Chefs are deciding to stay in the city and use their talents to create food that everyday citizens can enjoy.

Maybe Union Woodshop is not the “best” restaurant in the Detroit area. But the fact that Rector had the courage to step outside the cloistered world of white-linen tablecloths to celebrate something deeper about food than what's on the plate is something even non-Detroiters can cheer about.

From the D'oh! Why Didn't I Think of That File?!: According to Thought Catalog, a Cleveland-based restaurant called Hot Sauce Williams intends to expand into Colorado so it can sell its new marijuana-infused barbecue sauce called (what else?) "pot sauce." It's easy, the report says, to secure a prescription for "medical marijuana” in the state. First Detroit. Now Cleveland. Clearly, the Midwest barbecue scene is enjoying high times.

Michelle Obama Redux: Smoke Signals received a lot of comments to his open letter to the first lady about the firestorm that followed her simple compliment of Charlotte, N.C., barbecue. In the letter, I offered to take Michelle Obama on a barbecue tour around North Carolina.

Michael Fay, president of the Mid Atlantic Barbecue Association, followed up with an offer of his own. “If the WH wants real BBQ we’ll deliver,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I’ll get 4 or 5 award-winning teams to do a cross-section of regional styles.”

A tour of North Carolina, a delivery of regional styles. Ms. Obama, the ‘cuesophere is ready to serve its country!

By Jim Shahin  | February 15, 2011; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Media, Smoke Signals  | Tags:  Jim Shahin  
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