Breaking Bread With Pop-up Chef Brad Greenhill

Mint fazzoletti lamb bolo, aleppo, whipped ricotta. In the recipe section of Brad Greenhill's blog, the consonants alone are a zest to the palate. And relish the pictures: Pretzel sticks never looked so prime.

But you won't find these dishes on a restaurant table (at least not yet). Greenhill, a chef, entrepreneur, and techie, plates up dinners of this caliber for functions hosted by area nonprofits such as 826 Michigan and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. He also figures prominently in the local pop-up dining scene, holding monthly dinners at The Bar at 327 Braun Court and Jefferson Market.

Like theater's off off-Broadway, call it the off-restaurant scene - where the meals are equal to, and in many cases better than, those served in established eateries. Cooked by up-and-comers or culinary artisans, you just have to look a little harder to find them.

Greenhill didn't go to culinary school and has less traditional roots than many chefs. An engineering graduate of the University of Michigan, he's largely self-taught. The French Laundry Cookbook was his first, and of late, he's adding out-of-print Italian volumes to his hundreds of cookbooks. He started as a line cook at the former D'Amatos in downtown Ann Arbor in 1999, a year before graduating from U-M.

"After I graduated I didn't want to do the traditional corporate gig sort of thing. I was super into creative stuff," Greenhill says. He cooked full-time and started a music production and record label. His bands played concerts and parties in Ann Arbor and toured nationally. But after a couple of years, he was lured to a Boston kitchen in 2002 by his friend Michael Berardino.

Greenhill joined him at Carmen, an Italian restaurant in Boston's North End. It was a three-man kitchen: Greenhill, Berardino, and a dishwasher. Clientele dug the 20-seat dining room: during the two years Greenhill was there, Carmen was written up in Gourmet, Bon Appetit, the New York Times – and it scored two "Best of Boston" awards.

However, as is common in the industry, Greenhill felt burned out. He also wasn't ready to commit to Boston, and missed Ann Arbor. So he returned in 2004 and launched another venture, web and graphic design firm Stereo Interactive. But sometimes all it takes is a hiatus to find you still love what you put aside.

"As soon as I left cooking, I re-found my love for it," he says. "I started studying it more intensively and started hosting dinner parties at my house and then I started doing pop-up concepts...I'm transitioning back into doing cooking full-time."

Greenhill is still at the web design, but he hopes for that to be more of a sideline. "Somewhere there's a balance between computer work and manual labor. That's what I'm trying to achieve."

He wants to get back into the restaurant biz, albeit under a different guise: chef-owner. This time, he says, burnout wouldn't be an issue because he would have a personal stake in the business.  

Negotiations fell apart on a possible downtown Ann Arbor location a couple of months ago. "It felt like they wanted to go with an established national brand or chain or something like that, rather than local, which is just kind of unfortunate."

He feels both the Detroit and Ann Arbor markets are underserved when it comes to chef-driven destination dining. In Ann Arbor, "After Eve closed, [Osteria] Mani picked up the slack. People are looking for something a little different and a little better to go to. We can definitely use more of that. There seems to be a lot of mediocre spots, places that are more about the theme or the concept rather than the actual food that's being served...The better restaurants there are, then the more talent there is around town, and the better all the places will get."

Downtown or Kerrytown are preferable, but if nothing gels in the next year, he'll head east again: to Detroit. "Detroit is the city to watch. There's a lot of cool culinary undercurrent going on, with the pop-ups which are a trend across the country, along with food carts and food trucks. I think there's a lot of cool stuff coming soon in Detroit."

He'd probably go with Italian again, but he also likes New American, with "a little bit of southeast Asia in it, a little bit of American South, a little bit of the Mediterranean."

Until he gets a permanent canteen, he'll stick with the pop-ups, usually serving 60-80 people over two seatings. Dinners run from $50-$80 a head. Of late, he's been holding them at The Bar at 327 Braun Court, or at Jefferson Market, which is closed during the evening. He'd like to expand into Detroit as well. He cooks in the kitchen of Jerusalem Garden and then brings all the food, plates, utensils, and decorations on location.

"A lot of these pop-ups, I look at it as a high-wire act. We don't test the menu before we do it and it's all just so spontaneous. You're basically setting up and tearing down a restaurant within the course of eight hours."

On off nights at home, there's either roast chicken or pasta with rojo - homemade tomato sauce. The term "rojo" was coined by the workers for whom he cooked at D'Amato's.

"A few years ago I had some friends over and I just made a batch of pasta with sausage and tomato sauce and one of my friends exclaimed, 'Man, this Rojo is righteous', and it just kind of stuck." He named his website Righteous Rojo, after his garnish. And company is still the best accompaniment to his dinners.

"Why I cook now is more of about bringing people together. I think that's always been my common theme and what I've wanted to do with my life."

Greenhill will be hosting a five-course Ramen dinner at The Bar at 327 Braun Court this Saturday, Nov. 10. Click here for more information.

Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer and the Assistant Editor of Concentrate and Metromode. Her last feature column was: "Ypsilanti's Eastside Recreation Center: Two Visions". She cooked Greenhill's recipe "Roast Chicken Aleppo, Warm Bread Salad, & Salmoriglio" and found it to be the best chicken ever. She also thinks the bread salad would make a great substitute for Thanksgiving stuffing.

All photos by Doug Coombe except the last 5 photos from Brad Greenhill's Instagram (bgreenhi).

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