Alex Young uses both hands to squeeze a lemon wedge into his iced tea. And you can tell, from that action, he likes to work with those mitts. His hands aren’t outrageously big, but they’re calloused and cut and you know he likes to get them dirty.
"We’re beyond organic," Young says, under a beige-colored hat blazing an embroidered cartoon rendering of a fat yellow carrot, as he takes a sip of the tea.
Iced tea seems like a farmers drink, so it’s fitting he’s talking about Cornman Farms, the tract of land he’s been toiling on for over a year now – though he doesn’t think of it as work – with his family and friends, growing veggies for the signature dishes he creates at Zingerman’s Roadhouse, his restaurant in Ann Arbor.
They call him the Chef in the fields, 'cause that’s what he’s been for about 26 years, slicing and dicing his way from northern California, to New York, to Ann Arbor – not with the dirty hands of a farmer, of course, but with the clean hands of a chef.
"We’re not certified organic," says Young, who is Head Chef and managing partner at the Roadhouse, continuing about Cornman Farms. "We didn’t go through the process. But it doesn’t matter. Organic isn’t what it used to be. It’s kind of like a marketing tool these days."
Organic isn’t exactly what it calims to be, Young explains. He says you can till plastic into the ground and still call the veggies organic. And, even more shocking, organic can still be processed, which seems to defeat the purpose of the label. So, he likes to replace organic with another word.
"(Organic) is not authentic all the time," he says. "We’re an authentic farm. I talk to my customers. There is a level of trust here with my food, so being labeled and certified organic is not important."
Young’s 'authentic' farm blankets six acres right now, with one acre completely devoted to what he calls "big ugly things" – also known as heirloom tomatoes – headed straight to the Roadhouse. And he’s not kiddin’. These bad boys are huge, lumpy, ugly monsters that range from green to yellow to red and, he boasts, are "full of flavor."
He has two full-timers in the field, which he plans to double next year, and in the next five years expect to grow Cornman to at least 100 acres. He also wants to add grass-fed cows to the farms growing population of chickens and ducks. "Some are pets and some are not, but they all have names," he says about the poultry roaming the grounds.
And, of course, he’s looking to start growing grains – with germs.
"The oils and the nutrients are in those germs," he explains, pointing to his white t-shirt that reads "Full flavor grain has germs." The USDA says that those germs must be removed. So they’ve created a process to remove those germs, and then another process to add the nutrients in the germs back. "It’s a lot of wasted energy," Young says. "All the flavor of the grain is in the oils they are removing, as well as the vitamins and nutrients."
This ambitious farm is a long ways away from the 100 sq. ft. garden he started behind his house in Dexter for a few tomatoes (which the Chef seems to have a thing for) and dinner veggies. In fact, he has such a passion for tomatoes that two summers ago he hosted a special Roadhouse tomato dinner featuring 47 varieties. That’s a heckuva lot of tomatoes.
"This started as a hobby in the garden," he says. "But I’ve always wanted a farm. It’s very much like cooking. I’m making something – from soil, to seed, to cucumber, potato, or leek." And, then, eventually to the plate of
See, this is the philosophy of Young and Zingerman’s: If you can’t find it better somewhere else, do it yourself.
"That’s why we started the Bakehouse and the Creamery," he says, where the Roadhouse gets its bread and some cheeses. The Bakehouse and the Creamery are two of the eight Zingerman’s companies (the Roadhouse is another one) that make up this multi-million dollar Ann Arbor staple. And, Young says, maybe Cornman could be their ninth business, especially if it grows to what he is envisioning.
"In two years I want 50 percent of our entire Roadhouse product to come from the farm," he says. "And, maybe one day, all the food could come from there."
This whole food scene, in fact, has been changing since the mid to late ’90s, according to Young. And it’s fitting right into Zingerman’s and Young’s cut and calloused hands.
"I would say about eight years ago a shift toward comfort food started happening," he says. "And then the general public started becoming more concerned with health and it shifted again. Comfort turned into healthier, higher quality food products – but not low fat, low fat isn’t usually healthy. People started to want real food, and in a larger scale this has shifted again toward nutrition."
This translates into real food. Not processed and washed with chemicals, but pulled from the land and touched by human hands.
"We farm for flavor," the Chef says. "We pay great attention to detail. It’s traditional farming, the way we farm."
And that’s why Cornman is important to Young, Zingerman’s, and Ann Arbor.
"This is real food," he says. "People are paying more attention to what they put in their bodies and we feel responsible for that. We respond to the community and have a great deal of respect for our customers. We want to do it right. Ann Arbor has really helped us sculpt this business."
This idea of staying local – and keeping the food growing in the Michigan – is also a big part of the success of Zingerman’s and the Roadhouse.
A huge amount of the money Zingerman’s spends and makes stays within Washtenaw county, according to Young.
For instance, he uses Chelsea Lumber as much as he can. And makes trips out to Tantre Farms, also in Chelsea, for ingredients he doesn’t grow on his own farm.
Considering Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse environment in the U.S. – California is number one – the state is in a prime position to keep produce local. And not to mention a chef’s dream.
Young says Cornman Farms may just be the beginning of better eating and, ultimately, better living. He’s even reduced the Roadhouse’s trash by two dumpsters by taking scraps from vegetables and fish and reusing them as compost for the Farm.
"We don’t pay the true cost of unhealthy eating until many years later," he says. "These are health problems: Diabetes, allergies, cancer. We have to think of our health and the health of our children. We have to start somewhere."
Young believes Cornman may very well be that somewhere. "We want to set an example," Young adds. "Just do something, make a difference. We’re not going to be able to right all the wrongs. But something has to change."
And though he beams when he talks about all the past, present and future of the farm, the Roadhouse, and Zingerman’s, he shines brighter for some of the simpler moments of life.
"I watch my three-year-old daughter sit in the garden and eat peas," he says with a smile. "That’s the most rewarding thing, for me to see that."
And though Cornman Farms might be a point of change for Zingerman’s, the Roadhouse, and Ann Arbor, for Young maybe that change has already begun in his own children, in the garden, behind his house in Dexter.
Terry Parris Jr. is a Ferndale-based freelancer, reporter for Hamtramck's newspaper the Citizen, and is Concentrate's Talent Crunch editor.
Garlic to be used at the Roadhouse-Cornman Farm in Dexter
The Roadshow- Zingerman's Drive-Thru-Ann Arbor
Alex Young and his daughter in the new greenhouse-Cornman Farms in Dexter
Alex Young checks on his tomato plants-Cornman Farms in Dexter
The Kitchen at the Roadhouse- Ann Arbor
Chef Alex Young-Cornman Farms in Dexter
The Roadshow-Ann Arbor
All Photos by Dave Lewinski
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. He can frequently be spotted in waders in the Huron River.