ANN ARBOR - In 2004, Ryan Gillies, his brother Chef Thad Gillies and resident sommelier Kevin Hobart came together to create what is now Logan Restaurant, a lovely establishment with a lot of heart and a warm, personal feel. Ryan serves as Logan's general manager and is one of the nicest people with whom I've enjoyed a hot chocolate (I'm not a big coffee guy).
I met Ryan basically by accident when I attended the Ann Arbor Film Festival's DVD launch party, realizing very quickly that he was a fascinating person. Ryan graciously accepted my invitation to to discuss not only Logan Restaurant, but his brother, Thad, whom he lovingly refers to as "Chef" and what he loves most about this wondrous town of ours. It was truly a privilege to speak with him.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
You’ve lived here for many years, correct?
Why Ann Arbor?
The why was real simple. I think diversity is one of the biggest reasons for anybody who likes being here. It’s an incredibly open city in all regards so it's been nice to be a part of that. Also Ann Arbor is the biggest little city there is. It can compete at a cultural level with much larger metropolitan cities, but still has that smaller Midwestern feel. As far as doing business in Ann Arbor, I think it’s probably just as easy as any other city. It’s probably even easier because people are really open. We’ve been fortunate with people being personally involved with us. Some people have even helped us out over time.
Was there something that motivated you specifically to want to work in the restaurant industry?
For me, honestly, no. Back then I just saw it as an avenue to make a change that I wanted to make, which was to leave defense contracting. I initially just saw it as an avenue to get back close to home and be near my family again. I was very excited to be able to work with my brother an help his dream come true. But really I just saw it as an exciting change and did not know what to expect, truthfully.
You’re the general manager of the restaurant and your brother is the chef. Have your positions ever overlapped to where you’re going back in the kitchen preparing food?
Well there’s no way not to improve your home cooking skills when you’re working with a world-class chef on a daily basis, but would I consider myself a chef? Absolutely not. But that was one of the things that has worked out well for us, which is the fact that there is no crossover. We had specific skills to make this this thing called “Logan” happen. Do I offer him my personal feedback on something if he’s developing new dishes? Yes. But I told him I would never interfere with his food and that’s what he wanted out of a business partner. We’re going to go in whatever direction the food takes him. So it’s worked out well, especially considering we’re 5 1/2 years apart and we’re closer now than we ever were as children, just because of that age gap.
How has the menu changed over the years? How has it evolved?
What we found was that people here were not responding to [a changing menu], quite frankly. They wanted to see those dishes they had learned to love and we had to respond to that and take care of the people who were coming in regularly. So the menu now has been reasonably stable, with the exception of a few changes largely based on what Chef is feeling. The Thai Scallops are the only dish that we’ve had since day one unmodified. Just knocked it out of the park with that dish and it’s still a No. 1 seller at this point 13 years later.
What do you think the reason is for that specific dish’s popularity?
I think again going back to Ann Arbor, a lot of people here are really well-traveled, so they’re used to seeking out different cultural experiences. If you look at the menu, that dish really captures one of [Chef’s] passions, which is Asian-inspired flavors, and it’s mainly in the sauce. I think, honestly, if you ever come in to try it, you’ll see why. It is just a magical combination of flavors. It’s the production of that sauce that is still to this day one of the most complex sauces we have. It’s got something like fifteen different ingredients in it, almost all Asian-inspired. I think that that is one of the reasons why people like it overall.
As a vegetarian myself, I’m always curious: Has vegetarianism or veganism noticeably shifted things on the menu?
Yeah, for us it has. We have responded to it over time because there are so many people that are moving in those directions. Veganism we don’t see as much and I think that it’s tough in the restaurant world, but there is definitely a market here for that. It has shifted our gears, because there are now quite a few options that are available. I would say vegetarianism and gluten-free are the two biggest dietary health concerns for most people. It has definitely shaped some of our menu. There are dishes that are still on the menu that Chef has modified so that they are gluten-free.
So as things have shifted over the years have you found more and more people coming in to ask about those menu items specifically?
Oh absolutely. When we’re taking reservations, I would say it’s getting close to 50 percent where people have to tell you about some sort of dietary concern.
Shifting gears to an equally important topic: dessert items. How often do they change?
They haven’t changed much. We do do a few seasonal specials, especially when fruit’s fresh, but as far as what’s on the printed menu, it’s been a little stagnant. It’s largely because it’s where Chef has the least interest. But those dishes are solid. There are six of them that cross the normal boundaries and then we have our quirky cookies and milk, which believe it or not are a huge hit. It’s been on the menu since day one and Chef wanted to do it because no one was doing it.
Tell me about Kevin, your third partner and full-time sommelier. Do you find the wine list to be a major motivation for people interested in coming to Logan?
Absolutely. Kevin’s on the floor every night and is really passionate about wine and extremely knowledgeable. The most wonderful thing about him is that he’s completely unpretentious with his approach to wine. The idea of the snooty sommelier is all too real in many establishments and I think a lot of people shy away from wanting to talk to someone like that, especially if they’re not a wine guru themselves. Kevin [on the other hand] is really good with everyone, from the personal collector where they have a huge seller themselves, down to someone who just wants to be comfortable with their selection for their big night out. He’s really good at picking people’s brains and he’s got an amazing palette to pair these wines. Every wine that he has is geared towards something on the menu.
Aside from having a down-to-earth sommelier and an excellent selection of wines, what else would you tell people about Logan that they might not already know?
One thing is, it’s actually a myth we’re trying to dispel lately, which is that we seem to have this aura of unattainability or something like that. We’re seeing that people always think that [Logan] is for the big night out. I would really like people to realize that you can just come in and get a glass of wine and an appetizer. You don’t have to do a three- or five-course menu, which is very common at our restaurant, but it’s not just for that. If you like well-crafted, inspirational dishes that are one-of-a-kind and you just want a small plate of food, come on in and get it. That’s one of the biggest things I would like people to know. Don’t keep us in mind just for the special occasions. We’re there for you every day.
Can you talk about the decision to name Logan after Chef Thad’s son?
We were putting the plan together for what now is Logan, and Thad and his wife had decided to have a child. Logan was about to be born when we signed the deal for the space. So we had a good concept for the restaurant but we’d still been fighting on the name. None of us wanted to use our names, so quite frankly we gave it to my nephew, Thad’s firstborn child, to be the namesake of the restaurant, which now that he’s 14 he thinks is pretty cool.
Going back to Ann Arbor’s uniqueness, what is your ideal Ann Arbor day? What do you like or love about the city?
The perfect day for me is coming down, getting a bite of food, meeting up with some friends for maybe an afternoon cocktail on my day off, which then may slide into going to see some event that I did not even know was going on that day, but my friends did. I think that’s one of things I like. There’s always something going on, whether you’re paying attention or not. And you don’t have to have a plan. You can just come downtown and let the day kind of unfold. Quite frankly, those days I don’t plan are sometimes the best days I have.
Copyright 2017 by WDIV ClickOnDetroit - All rights reserved.