In anticipation of the first-ever Young Guns dinner at the Root - which sold out in less than 48 hours - Eat It Detroit will run a new profile every week leading up to the event featuring each of the six participating chefs. This week, it's Chef Nikita Santches of Rock City Eatery in Hamtramck.
Born in Moscow, Nikita Santches moved to the USA at the age of 12. He has been on all sides of the food service industry since the age of 15. Dish washing and a 10-year stint in corporate food service led him to the owning and operating of his own business "Nikita Santches Catering." From there he cultivated his notorious identity as "The Pie Guy" when he began his "Rock City Pies" business venture. With the help of Ferndale's Rust Belt Market and a finalist spot in Comerica’s Hatch Detroit 2012 competition, Rock City Pies’ popularity started taking on a surprising identity of its own. He has recently expanded his brand into a full scale restaurant in Hamtramck. Rock City Eatery brings high-quality, unique, locally-sourced modern American (with an old world twist) cuisine to the city of Hamtramck. You can find him Monday-Saturday in the kitchen of 11411 Joseph Campau. Head in if you’re looking for food...booze...or a damn good slice of pie.
EID: What is your culinary ethos? As in, as a chef, what do you BELIEVE in? What is important to you as a chef in your cooking and, in a bigger picture, what do you think the most important values are for a chef to have?
NS: I believe that food should be tasty, unique, and affordable. Now that I run a restaurant my goal is to try and expose people to new ingredients, new dishes, and to introduce new and more adventurous ways to approach dinning. I feel like eating at a restaurant should be a fun event. Have a drink or two, have good conversation..and don't spend the entire time taking pictures of your food. Stop overanalyzing and critiquing. Just relax and have a good time. You're not a Top Chef judge whose job it is to over analyze. Enjoy your food. I feel like each chef has their own set of values, but I think that all of us are trying to serve something that tastes delicious.
How/where do you see Detroit's/Michigan's culinary scene fitting in on a national level? Thinking in terms not of where it is (which is still far behind most other major cities/states) but where it COULD be, how can Michigan chefs/restaurants evolve and where do you see them going?
I feel like the culinary scene in Michigan is getting better, but it's not on the level of other major cities. I feel like there are a couple of reasons why we are behind in the culinary world. I think there's a lot of talented, creative chefs in Michigan, but they are locked into making food that the restaurant owners tell them to make..which is dictated by an average Michigan diner. Or, there are chefs that are too hesitant to get out of their comfort zone and try to make something that they are not familiar with. I understand where restaurant owners are coming from with trying to please the majority of diners. Unfortunately, average consumers evaluate the quality of a dish by the size of the portion, cost, and how familiar they are with the ingredients. For instance how much bacon is in it...the Guy Fierri Syndrome. So the problem lies in the fact that we don't have a large enough customer base willing to try new things. People are too afraid to get out of their comfort zone. I have experienced this first hand in the past few weeks, as people go for what they are familiar with and hardly order anything that has 'cool' ingredients like: tongue, duck eggs, ox tail, etc. I've gotten complains that my beef burgers taste too much like beef because I use 30-day dry-aged beef. I think as our generation moves back to Michigan from cities with better dining culture this will change.
What advantages does a chef have in Michigan over other states?
I think some of the biggest advantages we have is our accessibility and variety of vegetables and fruits that are grown here, and the fact that the clientele in Michigan is very loyal to their restaurants and the area. Michigan is home. I grew up here, I love it here, and I will never leave this area.
What is your favorite cuisine and/or what are your favorite or signature dishes to make? What do you geek out over?
I feel like I approach cooking differently compared to some of my fellow chefs. I did not go to culinary school, so I taught myself how to cook by experimenting with different ingredients and styles of cooking. That's how I approach cooking to this day. I like playing around with traditional dishes and putting creative spins on them. If I see an ingredient that I'm not familiar with, that's what gets me going. I love cooking with ingredients that need a lot of TLC to make them taste good. Like taking a tough cut of meat, braising it until it's tender, and seeing it develop better flavor than any steak. I geek out over being able to overcome obstacles. For example, my restaurant kitchen consists of a 10-burner stove and two regular ovens underneath. There is no other cooking equipment. I think my home kitchen is bigger! So, I'm very proud of how much food we put out of that tiny space.
Who have you worked with who has most influenced you, and who most inspires you as a chef?
The person that I learned most from is a lady named Mary that I worked with for several years. She was a Southern lady from Alabama that taught me how to develop flavors and showed me the ropes. As far as chefs go, I look up to David Chang. I feel like he is the best chef in the U.S. But, the number one chef/food writer that I look up to is Anthony Bourdain. I admire his views and philosophy when it comes to food. He travels all over the world and eats in all of the best restaurants in the world, but he would always prefer simple food that has well-developed flavor. That's how I like to approach my food.
When James approached your about being a part of this Young Guns dinner, what was your reaction? Did you consider yourself one of "Michigan's most dangerous chefs" prior to this? What do you think of your fellow Young Guns?
I was very pleasantly surprised. I feel like I'm a new kid on the block, and I do not have as much of experience as the other guys. So, I felt very honored to be included in this event. I think all of the guys that are a part of this event are very talented and each one brings something unique to the table (pun intended).
As a chef, what do you hope to achieve in your career? Where do you see yourself in 5, 10, 20 years? And how do you hope to help strengthen and bolster Michigan's culinary scene?
At this point in my life I feel like I'm living the dream because I have my own restaurant and I have all of the creative control. I feel like that's every chef's dream. As far as the future goes, I hope that my restaurant does well and I keep making unique and interesting food. I hope I can get Michiganders to think about food a little bit outside of the box, to try new things, and stop thinking about food so seriously. Realize that food is subjective, it's supposed to be fun...and drinks should always be involved.
Read last week's interview with Chef Michael Barrera of Streetside Seafood in Birmingham here.