ANN ARBOR - Eve Aronoff has become a household name in Tree Town.
With more than 25 years experience in the restaurant industry, degrees from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and an appearance on Bravo's hit show "Top Chef," Aronoff brings unique international influences to her Cuban street food joint Frita Batidos on 117 W. Washington St.
Frita Batidos opened its doors back in 2010, and since then, it's become one of the hottest spots to grab a signature flavor-packed burger and milkshake day and night.
We sat down with Aronoff to learn what inspires her cooking and some exciting new projects.
When did you first become interested in food?
"I was very naturally interested in food (from a young age). I always had a great appetite and loved to be in the kitchen with my mom. I went to Brandeis in Boston to go to school and (got degrees in) Russian literature and comparative literature. My parents were professors, and I just wanted to get the best education I could. But (when) I started cooking for spending money, first day I started, I knew I wanted to do this, to open a restaurant."
Tell me how you got from Brandeis to Le Cordon Bleu?
"As soon as I started working in restaurants, I fell in love with it and I wanted to go to culinary school, but I didn’t know if I would get the opportunity to, so I tried to create a curriculum for myself. My first job was a hotdog vendor at Fenway Park, and then I worked at a little Italian restaurant on Newbury St., and then I just tried to learn as much as I possibly could. I cooked for about 14 years before I ever went to culinary school, so I had quite a bit of hands-on experience before I went to school."
What was that process like applying to culinary school? Were you nervous?
"I wasn’t nervous, I was just very driven. I just wanted to go there to the source, be immersed in the culture more than anything, go to the markets and if I was going to get the opportunity to go to a culinary school, I wanted to go there."
What did that experience do for you?
"I think my style became more refined. I had been cooking for a long time, but just focusing more on the technique and the plating and the nuances of the flavors. My passion and instinct for that became more refined. And the biggest influence was spending the time in the culture, where people were just so passionate about food in an everyday way. I spent a lot of my time walking around and went to all the markets and boulangeries and patisseries."
(Photo: Cybelle Codish)
How come you decided to open Frita Batidos?
"I originally opened a restaurant called eve in 2003, and so at that point, I had always wanted to open Frita, but I decided to open eve so I could express my cooking style more broadly.
"I think I’ve had from the most informal to the most formal experience, and I think you just usually see it as one or the other. If it’s something really informal, there’s not as much time and care put to the food sometimes, and if it’s a formal environment, it’s not as warm. So I just wanted to take what I loved about both, and that was the starting point for Frita. The places that I love that are casual are street food, but I’m really passionate about quality."
General manager of Frita, PJ Johnson, who was also present for the interview, explained that he rose quickly in the ranks from kitchen to manager and was surprised to learn that Aronoff had been on "Top Chef."
"She doesn’t carry herself like that. She’s in the trenches, like everybody else," he said. "I’m passionate about food just like Eve (and) the whole convivial aspect of the restaurant."
Aronoff continued, "We’ve been open for seven years, but a lot of the guys we opened eve with are still there, so it’s like one big happy family."
It sounds like you've been able to create this nice, unique work culture.
Aronoff: "Yes, it’s been very personal. I wasn’t even setting out to create it, but it’s just natural because it’s the way we do it."
Frita Batidos signature Cuban street-burgers (Photo: Scott Spellman)
What do you think draws staff to Frita?
Aronoff: "You have to really like a challenge!"
PJ: "Have you ever been in on a Friday or Saturday night? The line is out the door. It’s a lot of stuff, it’s really hands-on and you’ll be busy the whole shift."
How do you deal with that influx?
Aronoff: "I think it’s the protocols. We always talk about being a hybrid, bringing together the passion and the detail of a much more formal environment, but in this anything-goes kind of place. So a lot of places that are busy, bustling, there’s no time to look at every dish and taste everything carefully and offer really gracious service, so we want to do all those things – so that’s a big part of the challenge – being busy and maintaining that standard."
Does Frita use a lot of local ingredients?
Aronoff: "Yes. We have the Michigan growing season that we have to work with – it’s part of our foundation. We’re always meeting new farmers. We have a really good friendship with Melvin Parson. Lunchroom, Zingerman's and Frita were his first clients.
"His jalapenos are so spicy! His are bursting with flavor. He’s growing things with care, he’s so passionate about it -- it tastes delicious."
Read about Melvin Parson and The Lunch Room
Are there any plans to expand?
Aronoff: "We’re opening a new location in Detroit. I can’t say where yet, but it will be end of May 2018. We’ve been looking for a space for four years.
"We want to keep it personal and intimate, so it’s bigger than Frita in Ann Arbor, but it’s not huge. We like that spirit of it."
Frita Batidos serves up fresh milkshakes and cocktails daily (Photo: Scott Spellman)
During the interview, Aronoff read me a text she received from one of her supervisors that day:
“A teenager, college aged person and an older guy were sitting at the same table eating their meals alone and they started talking to each other. It was heartwarming to see and it made me really think about how we really are achieving the warm community aspect. Two people who otherwise wouldn’t have known each other have connected over a meal.”
"To get a random text like that from a supervisor – you have to really care. If you don’t care, it’s not going to be a nice fit," she said.
What’s your impression of Ann Arbor as a food town?
Aronoff: "Generally, it’s pretty open minded, which I really like. People are well-traveled and come from different backgrounds. They really appreciate what we’re doing and will peep their heads in the kitchen while we're working on anew recipe and come in and taste it. There’s a lot of diversity in the university -- it’s a really good fit for us."
Tell us about your new collaboration with Melange.
"It has been really consuming and fulfilling at the same time. We are good friends with the owners, and they always came to eve and forged a lot of their business deals at eve, so we became friends through that.
"I wrote and developed a new menu for them, so it’s kind of like a new restaurant has evolved within the same space. The design, the culture, the service points (will all be new).
"I’m officially the consulting chef, but it’s really a group of six of us that have been working together for so many years did it hand-in-hand together, recipe-testing after work and staying up really late working on developing the menu. So now the menu is officially in place. It's my style of cooking, but it also combines the influences of Scott Burk and Jay Mullick, the owners. Jay is Indian and Scott grew up with really wholesome country cooking, so it’s really interesting. They’re developing their own fingerprint with my style of cooking."
What flavors can we expect?
"It’s my style, which is a love for texture and contrast and big flavors, so it’s always a balance --complex but harmonious. If there’s something that’s more complex and spicy, then there’s something really simple and cool and bright as a contrast to bring out the best of both. We developed a recipe for naan which started with Jay’s mom’s recipe -- that’s how you start every meal, with this house-made naan, sprinkled with curry leaves, Calder Dairy butter with a little fleur de sel and an aromatic spice on top. So it’s interesting because it’s just focusing on the flavors, but then those influences that meant a lot to Scott and Jay as we’ve gotten to know them."
Is there a launch date for the new Melange?
"We did a soft opening and launched the menu. The staff is super excited about it!"
To see the menu, click here.
Besides running several active projects in the food industry, Aronoff is launching a non-profit to engage with underserved local children through food and photography. Read her full statement about "¿POR QUE NO?" below:
"It has been my dream, since I entered the culinary field 25 years ago, to offer cooking classes to underserved kids growing up in stressful environments. My hope has always been to provide them with an opportunity to learn, to create and express themselves through cooking, and to benefit from the many joys and practical benefits of cooking I feel lucky to have experienced. And, most of all, to have a great time doing so.
At the time I started cooking professionally, I had just had a serious accident and was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Cooking provided me with an outlet for the stress I was experiencing and an area in which I could focus my energy and let go of the anxiety I was carrying. Learning to cook got me through the hardest period of my life as I fell in love with cooking and the limitless possibilities for growth and creativity. Cooking has always been extremely therapeutic for me - working with your hands, tasting and focusing on something that is all at once physical, mental, productive and artistic is a great distraction from life’s challenges - and ending up with something you can be proud of and enjoy with all of your senses is uniquely fulfilling.
There is nothing I would rather do than share the passion I have for food with kids who might like to spend some time in the kitchen together and find some of the same kind of opportunities that I found in cooking.
And at this time years later, I feel incredibly fortunate to be joining forces with Nick Azzaro, a friend and very gifted photographer and teacher.
Nick’s commercial career began in college working for Detroit photographer Ameen Howrani. After receiving his BFA at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, he moved to Chicago and worked on photo campaigns for such clients as Abbott Labs, National Geographic, Lou Malnati’s Pizza, and Sears. His style combines personal experience with learned techniques from some of the best in the industry to create a highly dramatic, editorial style.
Now, back in Michigan, Nick continues to work with commercial clients, but spends equal time teaching photography to Ypsilanti students K-12 through EMU Bright Futures and other non-profit organizations. The student’s photography is a way to share their voice with the community.
Together we are creating POR QUE NO?! To us, POR QUE NO?! means coming with an openness to cook, take pictures, learn and eat, and see where it may lead. Hopefully, in the process, we can be a part of some fulfilling shared experiences and creating some delicious food made from scratch to bring home for families to enjoy together. It is our hope that learning these new skills in an environment that fosters getting in touch with your interests and passions can lead to a more exciting and fulfilling future than might have been previously imagined. Because POR QUE NO?!
The programming for Por Que No?! will draw from the experiences I have had teaching cooking workshops to kids as I was progressing in the culinary field as well as my current role serving on the board of the Michigan Restaurant Association’s ESF (Educational Support Foundation) where I have the opportunity to serve as a professional mentor working hand-in-hand with students in culinary events and competitions for "PRO START," an impressive organization that offers culinary and business training for young students aspiring to go into the food service industry. In addition to building confidence, teamwork and fostering creativity, kids learn sanitation, knife skills, how to create recipes, calculate food cost and more.
The kids participating in ¿Por Que No? will have the opportunity to learn the skills of cooking as well as photography through the unique combination in programming. For each class, the kids will participate either in the food preparation or working hands learning how to capture the cooking process through documentary photography. Of course, everyone will get to enjoy the results, eating and checking out the photographs together! Classes will range from topics such as shopping and cooking from the farmer’s market, to fresh pasta and sausage making to cake decorating to recipe and menu development to food and documentary photography.
Our Advisory Board is comprised of some of the most successful and kind-hearted individuals in their fields and are people who we trust and can count on for guidance and support along the way. Together, we hope to provide a bright spot in what might be an especially challenging time in the life of kids in need of a bright spot.
We hope to augment the programs with perspectives of other talented individuals in the food and photography communities. If you want to be a part of ¿POR QUE NO?, please let us know - we are open and eager to connect with like-minded people that can help serve these communities and contribute your talents, energy and insights!"
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