A tale of tomatoes, a chef who loves to get his hands dirty, and a sauce 28 years in the making...
Alex Young, Head Chef and Managing Partner at Zingerman's Roadhouse, has led a nomadic life — in many ways, the kind of life everyone thinks that chefs lead. Born to English parents who moved to Albequerque when he was 2 and then to Northern California, he left home at 17 for New York to seek his fortune in the restaurant business. With no formal culinary education, he started out bussing tables and worked his way up, in a journey that included restaurants all over the United States and London. He promised his wife Kelly, a Dexter native, that they would move to the Ann Arbor area — and then wound up moving her and their children 12 times in nine years. The break that "got him out of the poorhouse" was the success of the Pittsburgh Fish Market, but he's a man who keeps his promises, and he and his family eventually made their way back here.
Now he lives on the outskirts of Dexter in a large house originally built for a pastor by his enthusiastic but not professionally-skilled congregation ("good enough for who it's built for," says his father in law), with his wife, three children, and an organic vegetable garden complete with greenhouse. We visited him at his garden, and then followed up with an interview at the Roadhouse to discover how Zingerman’s Roadhouse came to be and to ask about his amazing vegetable garden.
Alex met Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig, co-founders of Zingerman's Deli, through a mutual connection. He went to them with a restaurant business plan in hand. From that point, it was a three-year process putting together the concept that would become the Zingerman's Roadhouse. Alex moved to Cleveland to be closer to Ann Arbor and spent the next two years driving up for meetings. Then, in what he terms "a leap of faith," he left his job and worked at the Deli for a year before they finally opened the restaurant.
The plan he originally brought the Zingerman's partners was for an "American brasserie," doing more cutting-edge cooking, similar to what he had been doing before. Ari, however, has long been passionate about traditional American foods, so it was a natural evolution to end up with a restaurant serving high-quality versions of traditional cooking.
The first sight of Alex Young's garden is enough to make any home gardener stop and stare with green-eyed envy. A deer fence encompasses a garden that is almost too large to handle by hand. (And with plans to expand it even larger next year, Alex talks of buying a tractor.) A significant portion of the space is devoted to his 40-some varieties of heirloom tomatoes, and another section is thick with the "three sisters" of corn, beans, and squash all growing together. Though it's an excellent method for preserving the soil's nutrients, there's a reason nobody does it any more; Alex has to crawl through the corn and squash and beans to harvest it. There are peppers, potatoes, leeks, onions, melons, and just about every kind of vegetable that grows in Michigan... and a few that usually don't, such as artichokes. They don't do well with a harsh winter, as they can't handle the freeze and won't fruit until their second year. Alex tried to trick the artichokes into thinking they had lived through two seasons but, as he said as he gestured at his fruitless plants, "the artichokes are smarter than me."
So what inspired his garden? “Tomatoes, actually.” Alex had a vegetable garden as a child in California, so gardening wasn’t new to him, and with the growing interest in heirloom tomato varieties he knew he had a use for them at the Roadhouse. Heirloom tomatoes don't always taste better than modern varieties, but Alex's really do (though some, like the tiny golden pear tomatoes, are more ornamental).
(Click on the small photos to see a larger version.)
Last winter, realizing he needed a green house, Alex read a book about them, then sketched the plans on a napkin. He based his on a pole barn, and got advice from a carpenter friend about building orientation and roof slope for maximum heat efficiency. And then he started digging – in December. (That’s dedication!) He had never built anything like that before, but by Spring the greenhouse was ready. And it’s beautiful, with a germination chamber for starting seedlings (right side of photo) and ground space for the tomatoes that he hopes to harvest later this year.
These days, customers are increasingly interested in where a restaurant gets its food -- and the connection between farmer, restaurant, and customer can't get any closer than when the produce comes from the chef’s own garden. Alex uses his cornucopia of heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables primarily for specials, such as the tomato and mozzarella salad, shiitake-stuffed patty pan squash, "the three sisters" (squash, corn on the cob, and yellow beans), and for special dinners like this summer’s Heirloom Tomato Dinner. (Click the thumbnail images to see the full photos.) The rest of the vegetables at the Roadhouse come from other local farmers. But when he has a bumper crop, they get used more widely. Last year, his tomatoes were on every hamburger for about a month.
Alex stressed that tomatoes are a very important traditional American food. They're one of the two major foods that originated in the Americas -- the other is corn, which is the Roadhouse's mascot. They're often associated with Italy, of course, because of all the red sauces and dishes that use tomatoes in Italian cuisine, but they're actually a New World import that the Italians enthusiastically adopted.
Interestingly, the tomato took a circuitious route to North America. The fruit (and if you tried some of Alex's heirloom varieties, you wouldn't doubt it's a fruit) is believed to have originated in Peru and was then domesticated in central America, where the Spaniards encountered it and took it back to Europe. Tomatoes were accepted in some areas as an aphrodisiac (or, as one Roadhouse diner put it, "the Viagra of the day"). Eventually it was brought to North America by European settlers. Because the tomato is related to deadly nightshade, early settlers at first believed it was poisonous, but by the 1830s they were, in contrast, widely touted as a cure-all. Today, tomatoes are that special emblem of late summer. Home gardeners everywhere wait with impatience for that moment when they can pluck the first tomato and savor its fresh taste, as opposed to the bland grocery store tomatoes available the rest of the year.
Minding the Costs: Providing good value for high quality
The most common criticism of the Roadhouse is that the prices are so high — $10 for a hamburger, $14 for macaroni and cheese. We asked Alex if he could address that issue, and we received an enlightening mini-lesson in restaurant economics. In his own words:
“The reality is that our margin is half that of other restaurants because of the cost of our ingredients. For example, our buns run 52 cents each, while other restaurants may pay only 14 cents or so for a really good commercial sesame bun. The chuck we use is $3/lb, easily twice the price that other restaurants pay for their commercial meat. Our cheese runs $9-13 per pound — wholesale — which is 3 times the price of the average american or swiss cheese at grocery stores.”
"Yet, though our food costs are 2 to 3 times more expensive than other restaurants, our prices are not 2 to 3 times higher. Our hamburger is $10, but it would be $7 or $8 at another restaurant. We try to offer good value for the high quality of ingredients being used in our dishes.”
Operating at half the margin of other restaurants, in a business not known for large margins to begin with, has posed challenges for the Roadhouse team. Alex explained that it helps that their staff are very committed to the Roadhouse, and they care about its success. “They take a lot more care, and we get a lot less wastage than you see anywhere else. But still, it's hard.” One thing is for sure: the Roadhouse staff is enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and has much less turnover than normal. We've seen many of the front of house staff there from day one.
We asked Alex to tell us his favorite menu item that uses tomatoes, and he pointed us toward everything that uses the tomato-based barbecue sauce. (It's on the beef brisket (sandwich photo), the barbecued ribs, and the barbecued chicken.) The sauce is his personal recipe that he’s been working on since he was 13 — a sauce 28 years in the making! Judging by the reactions we got when asking the staff about it, it’s a staff favorite, too... but they're not as addicted as the regular who used to sip it straight from the cup, and now asks Chef Alex to ship it to him in Alaska.
But there’s another dish that he wishes more people would try: the alder plank-roasted salmon. Says Alex, “It's a sleeper dish — it's got a loyal following, but most people never try it. It's very good. Subtle, special.”
In another recent change, the Roadhouse is now offering a brunch menu on Saturdays as well as Sundays. So now there’s two days a week when you can savor the ever popular Hangtown Fry (cracker-crumb oysters fried with applewood-smoked bacon and scrambled eggs) or delve into some Southern grits.
2501 Jackson Ave,
Ann Arbor, MI 48103
A photo-review of the Zingerman's Roadhouse Heirloom Tomato Harvest Dinner starring — what else? — some of the very tomatoes you see growing above...