To get into the Union Hall Kitchen, I go up the alley behind Downtown Home & Garden, rap on the door, and give the one-time-only secret password: “Phillis sent me.”
Inside, humid air is filled with the ravishing smell of onions frying, red peppers roasting, and the countless spices, herbs, and oils wielded by the eight chefs preparing eight wildly different menus for the lunch rush at Mark’s Carts.
“Phillis” is Phillis Engelbert, who runs the Lunch Room, a cart specializing in vegan entrees, sides, and desserts. A thin woman with bright blue eyes, Engelbert offers a rundown of the kitchen arrangements: Every cart gets shelves and a workspace plus space in the pantry and walk-in freezer. Food prep starts every morning at 7:15, peaks at lunch between 11:30 and 1:30, then barrels on through dinner, from 4:30 to 7:30, with cleanup after that. Not every cart is open every day or all day, but the chefs will put in between sixty and eighty hours a week from now until the courtyard closes this fall.
The Lunch Room was among the original carts when Downtown Home owner Mark Hodesh opened the courtyard in May 2011. “Business was good last year,” Engelbert says, “and this year it’s between 20 and 50 percent better.” And though they’re all capitalists, theirs is a collective labor. “I don’t feel any competition,” Engelbert says, “only competition with ourselves to see how good we can be. We all know we all rise and fall together.”
How do so many chefs, a breed not known for small egos, get along in such close quarters? “There’re hardly any conflicts,” Engelbert says, “and anytime there is, we settle it by doing a dance-off to see who gets the most laughs—not that it’s judged! But there’s always dancing. Last time was a rainy afternoon, and Lady Gaga was roaring!”
Jordan Ceresnie’s Cheese Dream—a cart specializing in artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches and soups—is new this year. “I’m a classically trained chef and worked at Zingerman’s Roadhouse for the last two-and-a-half years,” says Ceresnie, a knit cap on his head and his forearms covered with tats. “We’ve been here since the end of March, and business has been good enough so that I’m paying the bills and myself.” In first-year retail, that’s near bliss.
“But even if the money wasn’t as good, I’d still do this because it’s more rewarding,” Ceresnie continues. “I’m working directly with customers here, and you don’t get that in restaurants. Plus I’m surrounded by great chefs.”
Everyone in the kitchen is working full out, moving deftly and with purpose. But the most intense is Paul Kessenich, who runs and with his wife owns Darcy’s Cart, specializing in breakfast burritos and other eclectic and local items.
“We named it after a friend named Darcy,” Kessenich explains as he carefully cuts a flourless chocolate cake. “We were having a conversation over dinner, and she suggested we open a restaurant. I’m here doing a post-doc in math, and I said it’s pretty hard to open a restaurant because the up-front expenses are so high. But we could try a food cart.”
Kessenich offers me a slender slice of cake. “I want it to be the best cake you or anyone else has ever had,” he says. It might be. I’ve had flourless chocolate cake in Paris and Vienna, and this is at least as good.
Across the shiny steel table, Dan Morse bops to his own private drummer as he quarters roasted cauliflower. A U-M business major, Morse is a partner in the Beet Box, another new cart, which serves a mix of fresh, healthy foods.
“One of my co-founders, her passion is food,” says Morse, “and for me, it’s youth empowerment. So together we thought of empowering people through food. We’re a restaurant with a purpose: to serve healthy fast food.” He says the ultimate goal is to open a chain of Beet Boxes on the West Coast and move eastward.
Like all the carts, the Beet Box gets as much as possible of its food locally. “Phillis has been a huge mentor in sourcing food,” Morse says, “but everyone here is phenomenal. We couldn’t have done it without these people. It’s a thrill and a heavy high being here, because everyone has such high energy.
“And it’s fun,” he continues. “We dance. We dance here and in the cart. We play Motown a lot. Nick [Wilkinson of A2 Pizza Pi] says we play too much Motown!”
Too much Motown? Morse laughs at the very idea.
Swaroop Bhojani of Hut-K Chaats makes vegetarian Indian street food. Hut-K is a modern colloquial Indian term meaning not in the mainstream, his website explains, while chaats are Indian street foods “known for their multitudes of tastes and flavors in a single bite.”
Bhojani just can’t stop smiling—or talking. “This is the best work environment, but I don’t work here,” he laughs. “My wife, Sumi, does. I’m at the U-M as [an assistant] professor of radiation oncology. They’re different but linked jobs. There are 100,000 new cancer cases every year related to food that could be avoided. It depends on what you take in your mouth. The human body is a machine, and as a car needs gas and oil so the human body needs nutrition.”
Not that his chaats taste like mere fuel. “All the sauces are my creation,” Bhojani says, “so they are delicious and very nutritious!” And contagious: “We’ve collaborated with the pizza guy for a samosa pizza, an Indian pizza. It’s very good!”
Also back for a second season is San Street, specializing in Asian street food. Like many of the others, owner Ji Hye Kim has big ambitions: “I’d been trying to open a business with Zingerman’s, but I heard Mark was opening a food court. And now that I’m here, with the sense of community and real positive energy, I don’t think I’d leave. I can be a success here.”
Like every cart owner, Kim works incredible hours. “I’m the only full-time person, and I put in eighty hours a week. I work here and at the Roadhouse on Sunday as a line cook, and I also have two dogs and a husband. He’s also a workaholic, so he’s been very understanding. We try to have one meal a day together.” Then Kim turns and starts packing her food to take outside.
Jay Scott of Debajo del Sol is already out “under the sun” at the cart, but his wife, Cristina Trapani-Scott, is still prepping their paella and tapas. “Jay went to culinary school at Schoolcraft College and has cooked at the Earle and the Ritz Carlton,” she tells me proudly. “But he was really ready to do his own food, and he wanted to do a Spanish menu. We’d honeymooned in Spain, and though he’d studied French cooking, he got more Spanish in his experiments, more of a Spanish-Midwestern fusion, taking Spanish flavors and combining them with Midwest traditional—like pulled pork on a paella.”
How’s it working? “Business was good last year, and this year’s started off even better,” she replies. Later, I ask her husband what his goals in the business are. “Catering and maybe another cart at the Farmers Market,” he says, “but ending in a small restaurant, twenty seats tops, with a changing menu depending on what I feel like cooking that day.”
At the other end of the alley, the eight carts are arrayed in a rough rectangle around a group of umbrella-shaded picnic tables. It’s still a bit early, so Darcy’s Cart is the only one open, selling its breakfast burritos, though Ceresnie is busy bustling around inside Cheese Dream and Nick Wilkinson is firing up the semi-detached oven where he’ll bake A2 Pizza Pi’s personal pizzas. Wilkinson has taken local sourcing to a new level: he gets not only his ingredients locally but also his fuel—firewood.
The oven, Wilkinson tells me, weighs 650 pounds. “I got it in Chicago and brought it over in a borrowed pickup truck,” the slim twenty-something explains with a shy smile. “They loaded it with a forklift.” Except for that and the trailer frame, Wilkinson built just about every part of his cart himself, including the housing, plumbing, and electric wiring.
While we’re talking, Ceresnie walks over and hands us samples of a new menu item: a mac-and-cheese sandwich. The quarter is so unbelievably rich and creamy I can’t imagine eating more—especially after the chocolate cake.
Next I head to Mark Hodesh’s upstairs office at Downtown Home & Garden. He explains how the idea for Mark’s Carts came to him: “I visited my daughter in Brooklyn, and she took me to a flea market where I saw two people selling street food, one with a pizza oven on wheels and another roasting Mexican corn. I didn’t think any more about it. Then when I got back—I remember it was a Saturday in August 2009–-I looked at the dirt patch I’d just purchased from the city, and at the time I didn’t have a tenant for the [building that’s now the] Union Hall Kitchen, and it probably took all of a nanosecond.”
Hodesh says Mark’s Carts is only the start for the chefs. “The owners aspire to open their own restaurants, and this is a good way to get their foot in the door. Eat [one of the original carts last season] has already graduated to its own restaurant.”
As a young man Hodesh founded the Fleetwood Diner, and he and his wife, Margaret Parker, also ran a B&B in Maine. He’s enthusiastic about diving back into the food business. Next up is “Bill’s Beer Garden,” a combination beer garden and restaurant—with food supplied by the carts—which he hopes to open in the store’s parking lot/courtyard sometime this month.
“We’re waiting for the liquor license,” says Hodesh. “We’ll be open from five to eleven every night with the season running through October. I’ve been hanging out on this block since seventy-one—since the Fleetwood and Mister Flood’s—even before that. When I was a kid, some people [still] spoke German here. In a way, it’ll be like old times.”
Back in the courtyard, all the carts are open, and folks are starting to come in to check out the menus. All the chefs are in their carts, smiling, even glowing a little from a the heat and the anticipation. It smells great—all the aromas from the Union Kitchen mixed and seasoned with the smoke from Wilkinson’s wood-fire oven. If I weren’t already full, I’d stay for lunch.