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State of the Onion address: Markets, restaurants and learning opportunities grow

As the new Culinary Correspondent for The Rapidian, I begin by establishing a foundation on which I base my own opinions, business and interaction within the “food scene” of our community, whether it’s buying food, dining out, or exploring local food issues.

/Jamie Skriba

As the new Culinary Correspondent for The Rapidian, I'll be exploring the current state of the food scene in Grand Rapids from the prospective of a local chef and food writer. I’ll give you my take on the best restaurants, discussing new trends and projects, and keeping tabs on where the food scene heads next. We'll start today with the state of our markets, restaurants and food education.


Food, in my book, begins at home, so we Rapidians should be awfully pleased at the growth and development of more places to buy good food. With the overhaul of the popular Fulton Street Farmers Market and the forthcoming excitement that is the Downtown Market, there is proof that we respect and support healthy, seasonal, local food as a standard of weekly living, not just an entertaining pre-brunch stop.

My greatest hope for (and fear regarding) the Downtown Market is that it will help strengthen the ease of locally-sourcing your food.. The worst thing the Downtown Market could turn into is sort of a culinary “Disneyland” of random desserts, heirloom quail and fun- though impractical- gourmet odds and ends. Don’t get me wrong, these things are all deliciously inspirational once in a while, but if the Downtown Market becomes a “once in a while it’s fun” stop, it will certainly be a failure as to what it could be. As anyone who has to cook for a family knows, a stop at a great market can be incredibly exciting, but among all of the truffled pasta and wacky cupcakes, my family still needs a bag of flour and a jug of quality, reasonably priced milk.

Small local food markets like Nourish, Treehuggers, and even Grand River Grocery are gaining footholds in the local community as practical places to buy good food. These small shops often participate heavily in the local food community, acting as drop-off sites for multiple local CSA’s.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares (think: vegetable subscriptions) are another great omen of the shift in local food around town. Whereas once CSA’s were nearly unheard of around town, except for the occasional secretive mention from your granola-worshipping neighbor, now there are many local farms offering fantastic subscriptions at reasonable prices—and better yet, people are buying into them.

One hurdle we as a city are slowly getting over is an understanding of the actual costs of good food. We’re at a transitional phase that has caused many people to lose track of what real food can and should cost—in both directions.

Most of us scoff at having to pay more than a dollar or two for a loaf of bread. We’ll all agree that “big agriculture” is horrific and we tout the values of sustainably raised beef, but god forbid we spend more than $0.79 per pound on hamburger in our regular shopping habits.

On the other side of the issue, plenty of food producers, restaurants and shops have jumped on the “local = lucrative” bandwagon and grossly overcharged or overrepresented their products’ values, establishing a an unnecessary disparity between the general consumer and the locavore.

Not everyone is interested in widening this gap. Many restaurants do a great job of offering top-quality food at respectable prices. Plenty of producers are stocking store shelves with high-quality groceries that cost exactly what they should.

Let’s agree to work toward a midpoint: we’ll recognize that good meat costs more. The solution? Eat less of it. But we’ll also expect that when we agree to pay more, we won’t be taken advantage of by trends, buzzwords, and profit-margins that love to adhere to the newest foodie-craze and wring every penny out of it they can.

Ultimately, good food costs more than terrible food, but should not cost as much as fancy food. Case closed.


Grand Rapids’ restaurants are growing and improving at a pride-instilling rate, but still a bit of a motley crew in some ways.

More and more restaurants are offering local and seasonal cuisine. I challenge us to hold those buzzwords to a standard. Some restaurants still mix their small pile of locally sourced lettuce with a big bag of Gordon Foods Service spring mix, and still see it fine to call it a “local salad” and charge you $12 for it. But more and more restaurants are offering great events, interesting daily specials and some fantastic happy hours (stay tuned for plenty of articles-to-come on my summer happy hour tours).

There are definitely some hurdles to overcome as we shakily try to turn ourselves into a “food city.” We regularly lose incredibly talented chefs, cooks and other culinary professionals to other, more interesting cities because of a lack of leadership and respect in many kitchens. The average rate of pay for restaurant chefs in this city is awfully low, and when better opportunities lie elsewhere, we often are left with the B-list.

Now don’t misunderstand—there is some incredible talent in this city. But with a highly respected culinary school and one of the best agricultural regions in the country, we should be able to retain and develop even more.

Interestingly, we also are a city that’s addicted to "small plates." I hypothesize that it’s a combination between a lack of standard dining practices, a little bit of the “cheap” factor and a lack of interest in entrée offerings at many restaurants. Either way, it’s an interesting trend to notice.

Entrees are often the least interesting thing on the menu. For whatever reason, chefs get more creative with small plates and appetizers. Perhaps it's fear, cost cutting or a plain lack of interest, but when you move to the entrée section, the creativity disappears. You have “the chicken,” “the salmon,” “the steak,” “the pasta” and that’s about it.

Similarly, vegetarian dining in this city is pretty dreadful. I’m not a vegetarian, but I eat a Mediterranean diet, and meat is only a small portion of it. At restaurant after restaurant, the vegetarian dish seems to be such a blatantly pandering throwaway that it’d almost be better to replace it with a legitimate dish that featured meat than something vegetarian that the chef obviously doesn’t care a lick about. There are definitely a few great vegetarian restaurants and options around town, but they seem to be only a few very specific locations, and by and large everyone else only offers non-meat dishes out of necessity.

I have definite respect for the few restaurants that are continuing to challenge and train the dining community around town. Odd animals, offal (the chef-term for the nasty bits), global flavors and unusual combinations are still not regularly seen around town. I tip my hat to those places that are making a valiant effort to expand the palates of the majority of their diners, while sating the appetites of those of us who make those less-traditional foods a part of our diets already.

We’ve got a dangerous addiction that we need to kick before we’ll ever be able to advance into a real food city. We’re addicted to shiny, highly-designed spaces.

Of course, it’s a nice feeling to dine somewhere big and open with vaulted ceilings and custom-designed flooring, but it creates two major problems which will forever poison our restaurant scene if we can’t kick our habit.

First, it tells prospective restauranteurs that you need this if you want to be successful. Restaurant kitchens are expensive to open. Very expensive. But when you tell the chef who finally gets the gusto to open his or her own new place that, on top of the extraordinary expense of the restaurant itself, they also need to find an additional hundred thousand dollars to hyper-design the space into the next issue of Architectural Digest, then either the chef quits his dream and moves to another city, or he opens it anyway and passes the expense on to you, the customer.

Why is your pasta $25? Did you see the bathroom fixtures? That’s why.

Secondly, our shiny-restaurant fix tells customers that this is what makes a great restaurant. Forget good food, a genius chef and stellar service, if the restaurant doesn’t look like a museum exhibit, we think it's not worth it. We need to hold our restaurants to a standard regarding the food, the talent and the service. Frankly, I can eat a fantastic meal in a garage. If the food is good enough, I don’t even notice I’m standing in a garage.

One can’t talk about dining without mentioning drinks, too. Pro’s and con’s abound in our intoxicological scene, most definitely. Most people recognize that we’re now Beer City USA, which is fantastic—we’ve got some stellar breweries and should be proud. We do, however, need to make sure we’re keeping aware of a standard.

“Local” and “good” are not synonymous, and we don’t want a reputation as a “beer city” based on quantity rather than quality. Our local beer tradition is fantastic, but we must be careful not to flood our own market. If we're not more careful, hopheads and big beer enthusiasts will ruin the craft beer movement. Breweries and beer enthusiasts need to keep aware of the value of beers that aren’t 11% alcohol or 15,000,000 IBU’s.

Plenty of clients, students and friends of mine will mention their distaste for craft beer because it’s always “so bitter” or “so strong.” This shouldn’t have to be true, though. Fresh, light, clean and sessionable beers are just as respected in the craft beer movement as your favorite triple imperial stout, and hopefully will help to develop new craft beer enthusiasts.

We need to ensure we’re building a “second generation” of craft beer enthusiasts by allowing room for- and demanding quality of- all types of beer, even light ones, fruity ones and mild ones.

We’ve definitely ascended into a pretty great wine scene in Grand Rapids. Most restaurants around town have finally developed wine programs that offer interesting, well-rounded and appealing lists at relatively fair prices. There are still a few holdouts, but overall we have plenty of options to go out for a great glass of wine or six.

The cocktail scene on the other hand is pretty terrible at present, but slowly gaining ground. For the longest time, we’ve lacked a cocktail culture entirely, and therefore no restaurants or bars had any need to support it.

Cocktails had been a specific set of high-octane drinks meant for one thing: to get the drinker lit. Therefore, whereas a glass of wine at just about any time of the day was seen as completely ordinary, the idea of a cocktail in the afternoon or a cocktail before/after dinner carried with it the stigma of “you’re drinking.

With the global popularity of cocktail culture ever-so-slowly seeping into Grand Rapids, we’re starting to lose those archaic worries of social impropriety and the juvenile joy of getting plastered at any given time. Our bars and restaurants are slow to catch up. Places locally often don’t so much have a “cocktail program” as they do “a guy who read a book once.” The important thing though is that the efforts are starting to be made in that direction. There are only a few places locally that are at a good pace, but many are at least looking in the right direction, and a few of them even have some talent behind the bar. And- full disclosure- as a Mixologist and Bar Consultant myself, that’s exciting for me and my colleagues.

Culinary Education

One of the most exciting developing trends in the Grand Rapids food community is that of the interest in culinary education. Local chefs (including myself) teach classes regularly, restaurants host demonstrations, farm and wilderness “food tours” pop up every weekend and the Grand Rapids Cooking School is still going strong and continuing to attract more and more students and teachers. There are even some wonderful after-school programs bringing the idea of local food and good eating to locals of all ages.

I’d say this is the strongest sign of good things to come for the food scene in our city: the interest in learning.

Yes, we can be cheap. Yes, some of us are still neurotically afraid to try new things. Yes, some restaurants need some work, and some chefs need to step it up.

But we’re learning, and we’re wanting to keep learning. Home cooks of all ages and talent levels seek out new classes and lessons every week. New projects are constantly in the rumormill.

Every time one of these new projects launches, it’s welcomed with wide open arms by the growing food community, as we’re excited to have yet another option for good food in Grand Rapids.

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