By Dorothy Hernandez, Foodable Contributor
“Detroit is awash in fresh art and delicious food. Wow!” Mario Batali recently posted on Instagram. The celebrity chef visited Detroit in early October and one of his stops – like many food lovers from near and far who come to the city – included the venerable Eastern Market. The market was transformed recently with several new murals as part of the inaugural public art festival, Murals in the Market, which Batali captured in his post.
The public art is just one piece of Eastern Market’s rich, colorful history. Since the 1800s, when it was first devoted to hay and wood sales, Eastern Market — located about a mile northeast of downtown — has evolved into the center of Detroit’s food community.
Today it’s the largest historic market in the country, boasting 4.5 acres of seasonal produce, specialty food products, and art and music year-round. It’s become a gathering space that attracts food lovers as famous as Batali, fledgling chefs, and everyone in-between.
With 150+ vendors at peak times, shops, restaurants, a community kitchen and incubation space for food entrepreneurs, and community events, Eastern Market is a one-stop shop for chefs.
At the heart of the six-block public market are various markets held throughout the week.
Every Saturday, year round, shoppers from all over metro Detroit descend upon this feast for the senses: the smells of barbecued ribs and the sounds of karaoke waft from Bert’s Marketplace; street performers vie for the attention of the 45,000 passers-by; vendors shout out the day’s deals.
For chefs, the action is not during the day but when the rest of the city sleeps. From midnight to 6 a.m. Monday through Friday, April through November, growers from Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario, Canada, sell their goods to restaurants, grocers, and anyone who wants to buy in bulk. Trucks start pulling up at midnight and work until the break of dawn to fill the needs of area restaurateurs and chefs looking for the best meats, vegetables, herbs, fruits and cheeses.
One of the chefs who comes during the wee hours of the night is Jake Williams, a certified executive chef who teaches cooking classes for low-income families. He’s also deeply engaged in the local food scene, often volunteering for culinary events held at Eastern Market such as the Detroit Food Academy’s Summer Final Showcase, a competition among teen chefs.
Williams shops at Eastern Market because “whether it’s blueberries or the whole hog,” he prefers to support local purveyors, especially farmers. To him it’s all about building relationships with local farmers so he can find the best quality, seasonal products to use for his classes or catered events.
Eastern Market is also where smaller scale operations, such as community gardens and urban agriculture, have a presence among wholesalers.
One example is Grown in Detroit, which offers training, support and access for residents who grow produce in urban gardens and farms throughout the area to sell at the market.
Growing Good Food Entrepreneurs
Playing a key role in Detroit’s thriving food community are entrepreneurs who have built businesses that showcase Michigan’s diverse agricultural offerings. From pickles to jam to drinking vinegars, Eastern Market has helped nurture and cultivate many enterprises.
Earlier this year, to support this growing business community, Eastern Market completed an $8.5 million renovation of Shed 5, which includes the Eastern Market Community Kitchen. This space is an incubator and offers a fully licensed kitchen for businesses to create their unique food products as well as a community space to teach about cooking and nutrition. It’s a part of the Detroit Kitchen Connect program, which helps food entrepreneurs and chefs access commercial kitchen space without having to go through the challenges and barriers of securing their own kitchens, often a costly undertaking. The shed is also now heated to support operations all year, enhancing selling space for the overnight weekday wholesale market.
While Eastern Market has long been a destination for food with the Saturday market and surrounding shops like DeVries and Co. and Cost Wine Plus, in recent years it has become one of the city’s most popular neighborhoods, where dining and drinking institutions as storied as the market itself have been joined by newer establishments that have infused more energy into the area.
One of the most popular restaurants in town is Supino Pizzeria, owned by Dave Mancini, who is also opening another restaurant next door, the rustic Italian spot La Rondinella. On a Saturday, the line is out Supino’s door for a slice of the thin crust, Neapolitan-style pizza. Across the freeway over on Gratiot Avenue, Antietam is another food destination. The elegant French eatery opened last year and after an initial rough start, it has settled in and is one of the top dining spots in the area.
Offering craft liquors, Detroit City Distillery opened last year and also offers pop-up brunches showcasing some of the city’s up-and-coming culinary talent.
Indeed, Eastern Market is a hot spot for chefs and others who are passionate about good food. Batali isn’t the only one making sure Eastern Market is on the itinerary.
For a late summer lunch held at Eastern Market, the menu highlighted the best produce to be found in the market on a September day: a carrot greens salad with carrots from Food Field; roasted hollandaise and pickled red onion with Give and Grow Mushrooms and Rising Pheasant micro radish; Melo Farms pork belly with Rudich sweet corn broth and LaBrosse tomato compote; and a fresh berry buckle featuring Cornelius Williams blueberries and Chantilly cream.
The guests of honor? Urban farming leader Will Allen and Chez Panisse proprietor Alice Waters, who were both in town to talk about the possibilities of green space.
Like many great meals served in Detroit that celebrates what Michigan has to offer, it most likely can be traced to Eastern Market.