When Alex Young was seventeen, his mom dropped him off at the San Francisco airport with a ticket to New York. One way.

The teenager got a job as a busboy at “a cool little restaurant” that did a lot of catering to film sets. Alan Alda, he soon learned, liked spicy pasta. One day the chef called in sick. “I went in the kitchen,” says Young, “and never came out.”

Young is now forty-six, and the head chef and co-owner of Zingerman’s Roadhouse. Last spring, he became the first Ann Arbor chef to win the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef” award for the Great Lakes region. He; his wife, Kelly; and children Ethan, Emma, and Lucy piled into a motor home, drove east, and parked in New Jersey. Young changed into a tux and Kelly into a formal gown in the camper, then caught a cab to the ceremony at Lincoln Center. In a lighthearted allusion to the Roadhouse’s authentic but casual American food, he told the crowd, “I would like to thank the James Beard Foundation for recognizing mac ‘n’ cheese and fried chicken.”

Young’s “office” at the Roadhouse is a cubbyhole in the basement. Dressed in cutoffs and a T-shirt advertising Grillin’, Food Gatherers’ annual fund-raiser, he sports boyish good looks and a lean physique, the result of hard physical labor in the kitchen and in his home garden. He laughs easily and says “sweet!” a lot. But though he’s no temperamental, pot-throwing kitchen martinet, the self-taught chef is demanding of the Roadhouse’s 120-some employees. “If he tells you to do something,” says Mark Baerwolf, one of the restaurant’s twenty cooks, “he’ll remember.”

Young’s quiet manner and faint English accent–he says “toMAHto”–give off a whiff of British refinement. He was born in England, but the family moved to the United States when he was two years old. His father, a painter who taught at San Francisco State, left the family when Alex was seven. He “never made any money,” Young says, except when painting portraits of rich women, some of whom became girlfriends.

After his parents split up, his mother married a lawyer who worked in San Francisco. During the week, she lived with her new husband there while Alex and his sister Bethany, two years older, stayed in their mother’s home in Bolinas, a small town thirty miles north of the city. Although a neighbor looked in, the two grade-school-age siblings lived independently. “It was a funny situation,” Young says offhandedly. He cooked for his sister and himself, developing his own barbecue sauce when he was nine. After years of refinement, it is now served at the Roadhouse as “Alex’s Red Rage Barbeque Sauce.”

Although Young got good grades in elementary school (and enhanced his popularity by bringing in homemade desserts), in high school he drifted, engaging in what he describes as “bad boy” activities. His mother, Young says, promised to pay his tuition at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Paris, but the money disappeared into her drug habit. When he was old enough to go, all she could afford was the one-way ticket to New York–a reminder, if he’d needed one, that he was on his own.

Instead of going to the Cordon Bleu, Young learned to cook at various New York restaurants, most memorably Jeffrey Chodorow’s original China Grill. One chef was “very kind” and taught him a lot about making sauces, Young says. Another was “unrelenting”–he’d poke at a dish with chopsticks, and “if he didn’t like it, he’d flip it at you.” Once, “he threw a five-pound cooked duck covered with oil at me. It burned my face.”

Around 1990 he moved back to California, taking a job at a restaurant in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. “It was a pretty romantic setting,” he recalls. “There was a back door on the beach.” There he met Kelly, a native of Dexter, who was waiting tables. They married in 1993.

Young job-hopped around the country, working mostly at hotel restaurants. He became known as a rising star who significantly improved previously undistinguished kitchens. Kelly was thrilled when he took a job in Long Beach–only to discover, she says succinctly, that it was “hell on earth.” Out walking with their first child, Ethan, Young, a self-described “friendly Midwesterner,” would say hello to people, only to be ignored. Their house was robbed. “There was no community because all of us were living behind bars,” she says.

Their next stop was Pittsburgh, where Young developed a successful seafood restaurant for the DoubleTree hotel. DoubleTree’s corporate parent, Hilton, then sent him around the country to clone it. Though well paid, the work was difficult–Young discovered how hard it was to reproduce the talented staff that made the original successful. (It’s “pretty much a struggle” to find good cooks who can also take on management responsibilities, Young says–he’s been looking for a second sous chef at the Roadhouse for a year and has yet to find someone with the requisite cooking and leadership skills.)

Though they liked Pittsburgh, by then the Youngs had their eyes on a much smaller town–Dexter, where Kelly’s family had lived and farmed for more than 100 years. Young got in touch with Zingerman’s founders, Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig, and showed them a business plan for a restaurant he wanted to open. It turned out to be just the starting point of an extended conversation.

“We spent a year talking about different ideas,” recalls Weinzweig. Young took a job at a Hilton in Cleveland so he’d have a shorter drive to Ann Arbor for their weekend meetings. At one point, it looked as though the restaurant might feature Tuscan food. As Young recalls it, that changed overnight when, while looking over the former Bill Knapp’s restaurant in Westgate shopping center at Jackson and Maple, Weinzweig announced that he wanted it to be a regional American restaurant.

In putting together the menu, Young refused to trust the Internet as a resource. “Anyone can post a ‘corn bread recipe from Missouri,'” he says. “That doesn’t mean it’s authentic.” Instead, he consulted with Ann Arbor culinary historian Jan Longone, famous for her collections of American cooking books. “He is one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met,” says Longone, a Roadhouse regular.

Taking a steep pay cut, Young quit the corporate world for Zingerman’s, running the kitchen at the Deli for a year while the Roadhouse was under development. Of their relationship, Weinzweig says, “We may disagree over other things, but we rarely disagree over the food.”

The Roadhouse opened in September 2003 to eager crowds and enthusiastic reviews. The one big complaint was about the prices. A $15 pasta at a Tuscan restaurant was one thing; a $15 mac ‘n’ cheese took some getting used to. Cheerful, hand-drawn posters now call attention to the food’s artisanal ingredients–which are so expensive, Young says, that the Roadhouse’s markup is just half a typical restaurant’s.

Young continues to diversify and expand the Roadhouse menu–Weinzweig points out that he totally reworked the barbecue pit last year, under the guidance of a pit master from Raleigh. But not long after the restaurant opened, a casual incident focused his passions in a new direction. He and the kids had planted a small garden, and one day Young scooped up a few vegetables–potatoes, leeks, and tomatoes–and brought them to the Roadhouse. He used them in preparing a meal, which he served himself. The diners, he says, were so enthusiastic that “I actually got goose bumps up my arms.”

Cornman Farms, off a country road just north of Dexter, looks like a cheery illustration in a children’s picture book. It’s hard to tell where the big farmhouse ends and the gardens begin. Chickens hide under a spruce tree by a hoop house filled with red and green pepper plants. There’s a homemade wooden swing set for the two younger kids–Lucy, six, and Emma, twelve. Ethan, sixteen, is into lacrosse.

Wearing cutoffs, a T-shirt, and a jaunty straw hat, Young leads a tour. It’s late June, and Mark Baerwolf, who in addition to cooking at the Roadhouse manages the garden, is driving a small tractor. Scooping up a bucketful of steaming compost, he drives carefully to the end of a long row of Czech’s Bush tomato plants. He and Wendy Caldwell, a tanned former professional mountain biker, use shovels to tuck the compost around the growing plants.

This “side composting” is a lot of work, but Young is hoping it will keep down weeds as well as the black plastic he’s been using to surround the plants–“it bothered me that we were throwing out all that plastic,” he says. If it works, he might buy a machine to do the composting from an Amish outfit in Pennsylvania.

Caldwell, who also works at Zingerman’s Creamery, rode her bike nine miles to work this morning, arriving at 7:30 a.m. When I ask when she’ll be done, Young answers for her: “When the work is done.” Baerwolf, he says, puts in 100-hour weeks during the growing season.

“Where the pony is now will be winter carrots,” says Young, pointing over a fence. “If you put down eighteen inches of straw the ground won’t freeze, and you can still harvest them in December.” On the other side of the tomato field, the free-range pigs have beaten a trail along the fence; though none are visible at the moment, Young assures me that eight of them are out there somewhere.

What started as a family garden is now an official Zingerman’s business. “This is Sea Island flint corn,” says Young, pointing to some knee-high plants. He describes how the species was taken south to the Caribbean, then across the Atlantic to Italy, before returning to America with Italian immigrants. Corn, the archetypal American food plant, is a Roadhouse motif, so it seemed natural for him to name the business Cornman Farms: it’s where the “corn man”–Young–farms.

On just five and a half acres, Young is growing, among other things, 4,000 pounds of potatoes, 11,000 pepper plants, and 6,500 tomato plants. Two summers ago, he says, the tomato crop was a poor one; though he’d gone from watering with a garden hose to a high-efficiency drip irrigation system fed by its own well, he thought they hadn’t been watered enough. Last year, he watered more often–and every other time, he used water that had steeped in compost. Hoping to get five pounds of tomatoes per plant, he harvested six pounds. All went to the Roadhouse, which now gets about 15 percent of its produce from Cornman Farms.

Though the farm is a Zingerman’s business, the Youngs own the land. For years Alex has had his eye on the twelve-acre wheat field next door. Finally, he says, the owners agreed to sell–if he could meet their price. “It was done on a land contract, all on a handshake,” Young says. He’ll move the produce over to the new field and use the existing gardens closer to the house for the livestock. “In a way, it’s almost like old-time farming,” says Baerwolf.

Within a few years Young has gone from gardener to serious farmer to a crusader for locally grown food. He’s started giving talks to 4-H clubs and his kids’ schools about organic farming and healthy eating and buys prize-winning pigs and cows from local 4-H shows.

Young’s newfound passion as a locavore proved to be good timing. The recession, which spanked Michigan especially hard, made Michiganders more interested both in growing their own food and in helping local farmers. “It took gas going over four dollars a gallon and half of Michigan being unemployed before everyone started to realize that ‘Oh, my gosh, let’s pay more attention to where everything comes from!'”

Like many people who were raised with no one watching their backs, Young takes nothing for granted. The most he will say about his moment of fame is that being a cook means that “I can be dropped from a plane in Alaska and always find a job.”

And like many people who grew up without much parenting, he wrestles with how best to raise his own kids. He wants them to embrace the work ethic that helped him come so far, and they all help out on the farm–but he admits, “It can be hard. I enjoy spoiling them.”

Young had been nominated four times previously for the James Beard award, so his triumph had a special sweetness. But he has no intention of trying to parlay his moment of fame into, say, stardom on the Food Network. “I don’t think I’m great on camera,” he shrugs. He mentions with a quiet smile that he and his youngest daughter “do what we call the ‘Emma and Daddy’ cooking show” for an audience of one: Kelly.

“Emma makes breakfast or bakes a cake, talking in an exaggerated Julia Child accent,” Kelly explains. “She makes Alex her sous chef.”