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  • Writer's pictureJen Childs

VERSA teams up w Chef Jared Gadbaw to design Detroit's most expected New Restaurant - Oak and Re

Yet another high-profile chef is trading the Michelin stars he helped earn in a bigger city to come set up shop in Detroit instead.

Garden City native Jared Gadbaw left Michigan 18 years ago to pursue his culinary ambitions in New York City, where he trained at the French Culinary Institute after spending most of his youth working at a Dearborn car dealership with his father.

“You’re young and you think this’ll be easy,” Gadbaw, 40, recalled of his big move. “I thought I’ll learn to cook in two years and go back to Michigan to become a smashing success.”

Those callow dreams gave way to a star-turning two-decade run through some of the Big Apple’s best restaurants, first on the hot line at fine-dining gems like Esca and Eleven Madison Park.

But in 2007, Gadbaw answered a Craigslist ad that would set the course of his life for the next 10 years.

The future home of Oak + Reel, a seafood-centric Italian restaurant from lauded chef Jared Gadbaw, on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit's Milwaukee Junction neighborhood on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019.

(Photo: Mark Kurlyandchik, Detroit Free Press)

Chef Michael White, who had just begun growing his own culinary empire, hired Gadbaw as a sous chef for his Italian restaurant Alto.

As Gadbaw tells it, after a year at Alto, White brought up the idea of opening a seafood restaurant to rival the likes of Estiatorio Milos and Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin — a crazy concept in a town full of culinary institutions at the height of a recession.

In 2009, with Gadbaw as chef de cuisine, the upscale Italian seafood restaurant Marea opened to immediate success, earning the title of Best New Restaurant from the James Beard Foundation, as well as GQ, Esquire and Bon Appetit magazines. Though, as these things go, it was White’s name attached to the accolades. Still, with daily kitchen operations under his purview, Gadbaw helped steer Marea toward earning a Michelin star in its debut year.

A second star followed the next year. Gadbaw would go on to open two more restaurants for White in New York and Istanbul, but something changed in early 2016 — Gadbaw became a father.

“Having kids changes your life no matter where you’re at,” Gadbaw said. “Your priorities are different.”

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Those 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. shifts and that 1,000-square-foot New York City apartment became an issue, especially when the Gadbaws welcomed another child in the fall of 2017.

By that point, Gadbaw had dedicated a decade of his life to White’s Altamarea restaurant group, but he had no ownership stake in it. It was time to revert to the original plan. It was time to go home.

In March 2018, the Gadbaws relocated to Farmington Hills.

“Thankfully my return to Michigan coincided with a sustained growth here in the city,” Gadbaw said.

There had been an investor courting him for a Detroit project for a while, and at first Gadbaw obliged. But the investor was pushing for a Midtown or downtown space and Gadbaw wanted something a little more neighborhood-oriented.

“I just wanted to have the ability to look out my window and see trees and grass and be a part of the community and have some space,” Gadbaw said, adding that Midtown and downtown rents also turned him off. “I want to be able to keep prices down so people can come a couple times a month instead of once a year."

Michigan native Jared Gadbaw, who earned Marea restaurant in New York two Michelin stars and a James Beard Award while running its kitchen, is opening a seafood-centric Italian restaurant called Oak + Reel in Detroit's Milwaukee-Junction neighborhood. (Photo: Abby Gadbaw)

Gadbaw and the investor parted ways and the chef instead signed a lease on a 9,500-square-foot building on East Grand Boulevard near Beaubien in the Milwaukee Junction neighborhood last year.

Front Dining Area - 3D rendering by VERSA

Notably, the building shares a wall with another highly anticipated restaurant, Freya & Dragonfly from the team behind Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails.

That fact doesn’t appear to bother Gadbaw much.

“I think it’s going to be awesome,” he said. “There’s power in numbers and from what I’m told everyone here was excited to have me come because of the benefit of having an experienced operator to further train our talent pool.”

Work is underway to prepare Oak + Reel, as the seafood-centric Italian restaurant from Gadbaw will be called, for a spring 2020 debut.

The name is a reference to the wood that will burn in the restaurant’s hearth — a central focus of the cuisine here — as well as a nod to both fishing and film reels. (The Jam Handy building, once the heart of Detroit’s filmmaking industry, sits directly across the street.)

The restaurant will seat about 130-140 diners on the ground floor plus an additional 36 in two different private dining rooms in the basement. Further along, Gadbaw plans to open a jazz lounge with a speakeasy vibe in the basement that will seat an additional 30.

Formal Dining Area - by VERSA

It’s a big restaurant, but Gadbaw noted that the size is intentional.

“I wanted something that could be my everything,” he said, adding that he’s not interested in growing a multiple restaurant footprint, except maybe some fast-casual concepts down the road.

And he’s excited to make an impact in what is shaping up as a culinary hotspot of a neighborhood.

“I hope we’re able to do for Milwaukee Junction what Selden Standard did for the Cass Corridor,” Gadbaw said, though he added that he was sensitive to perceptions of gentrification.

“I think we can do good things for the people that live there — there’s room for everybody,” he said. “I hope I can create programs and throw parties for the neighborhood and be a part of it instead of coming in and trying to change it.

“I’m not a young chef in the beginning of my career hungry for attention for myself. My goals are to be successful so I can do good.”

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