Thinking outside the boite
by Sally Mitani
Paul ("PJ") Jenkins got his idea for What Crepe? while driving home from his favorite restaurant, Toronto's Cafe Crepe: "I would go to Toronto just to eat them."
Jenkins, whose father is in the construction business, calls himself a fifth-generation entrepreneur (a bio he posts on the What Crepe? website mentions a stint as co-owner of Black Pearl on Main Street), but he claims he had never cooked or even worked in a restaurant when "I asked myself, why don't we have anything like Cafe Crepe in my hometown?"
Home was Birmingham, and he did open a crepe cafe there in 2012. That was his second What Crepe?--he opened his first in Royal Oak in 2009--and this is his third.
Jenkins seems to have a preternatural gift for spotting talent. Sitting at the recently opened What Crepe? on Liberty, flanked by his two executive chefs, he generously turned the interview over to them. Both have stories that read like slacker-makes-good inspirational literature.
Erik Stephenson, Jenkins' Royal Oak chef, calls himself a "lifer" in the restaurant biz: "I tried a sales rep job once and quit." Around that time, "Our moms were hanging out talking--it was just random. My mom said, 'Oh, my son's looking for a job.'" Twenty-five-year-old Stephenson rolled up to the interview arranged via the moms "in torn jeans on my skateboard," hoping to score a job as a dishwasher. Hired in as a prep cook, he advanced to line cook, saute cook, and sous chef before taking the reins at Royal Oak when Jenkins left to start the Birmingham location.
Rob Gunter chimes in with his tale. In his early thirties, he had dropped out of several academic programs and was an unemployed culinary graduate of Schoolcraft College when he went on a date with his wife at What Crepe? in Royal Oak. "There was a guy [Jenkins] who seemed to be in charge. I followed him around, pestering him about what kind of crepe pans
he used and how many burners he had. He said, 'Why do you ask?' and I told him I'd learned how to make crepes at school and was curious." Numbers were exchanged, and "three interviews and one tryout later, [Jenkins] said 'Welcome aboard'--as Birmingham executive chef. Stephenson and Gunter are tag teaming in Ann Arbor until another Jenkins protege is ready to take over here.
The most recent tenants in the space, Yoshi's and Squares, were not around long enough to garner much of a following (many still remember the spot as Dinersty). It's been gently glammed up, but Gunter says that, for the most part, they worked with the furniture and equipment they had. The tables and chairs are Squares furniture, sanded and re-lacquered. About the only new kitchen equipment are the crepe griddles, and they're front and center: you can watch the crepes being made. Because What Crepe? has a liquor license, a bar has been installed against the back wall, and Jenkins has closed off the direct Liberty Street entrance, routing all traffic through the hall corridor.
With Francoise Hardy softly warbling "La Mer" in the background, What Crepe? could be a cool retro-mod bistro on any Parisian side street, until you look at the menu, which makes it clear that there is no slavish devotion to French cuisine here.
Crepes come in sweet and savory: the menu draws a line between the two, though a lot of them seem to contain both, like the Monte Cristo (ham, turkey, swiss, raspberry sauce, and powdered sugar). Jenkins says that's not one of the best sellers--chicken truffle and brie/basil are. Purists and French speakers will immediately note that "crepe" on these premises is pronounced with the Americanized long a, not "krepp." Stephenson says they're all comfortable with the coexistence of the two: "You can go very traditional and order a 'krepp,' but if you want a 'crape,' we think outside the box on that."
What Crepe?, 241 E. Liberty, 369-3207. Tues.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Closed Mon. whatcrepe.com
[Originally published in April, 2013.]