Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Lasting Legacies

August 22, 2023

Metro Detroit is an area bursting with changemakers — those who break the mold to recreate it in their own image. Simply put: Forging your own path is the Detroit way. It’s also a sentiment actively celebrated within the physical spaces of The Henry Ford as well as instilled through its educational resources accessible online and around the world.

In the city’s culinary and grower worlds, several chefs and organizations are certainly blazing their own trails, working with a fierce passion and fortitude to create more equitable workspaces and, more importantly, more equitable food systems.

Whether it’s a woman-run kitchen where all voices are valued, a restaurant opened by immigrants who refused to fail or a BIPOC-led farm rooted in food sovereignty, thought leaders headquartered right in The Henry Ford’s backyard continue to set their own table when there isn’t a seat for them elsewhere.

Executive Chef at MARROW, Sarah Welch

Executive Chef at Marrow, Sarah Welch / Photo by Gerard + Belevender

The Benefactor
Sarah Welch, Executive Chef at Marrow
Detroit’s modern-day neighborhood butcher shop and restaurant hybrid

Sarah Welch wasn’t suited to win Top Chef. Her egalitarian approach to the kitchen and loving nature were out of place in the cutthroat cooking competition. “I definitely hated it,” she said about competing on the TV show. “I work in a highly collaborative kitchen, and what makes the food at Marrow really exceptional is not me — it’s all the people that aren’t me. I missed the collaboration I have [at Marrow] so much. I’m a ‘we’ person. I’m not really a ‘me’ person.”

Located on Detroit’s east side, Marrow prides itself on local collaboration. The restaurant sources meat from Michigan farms with ethical butchering practices and produce grown at Detroit urban farms like Coriander Farm, Rising Pheasant Farms and Keep Growing Detroit (see Page 58). In Marrow’s kitchen, Welch is committed to teamwork where everyone’s input is valued — something she didn’t always experience as a young chef.

Reflecting on her early career, Welch recalled that no one wanted to hear her opinions. “Kitchens are often top-down like dictatorships, and so I really wanted to create a democratic experience. Running a kitchen, for me, is trying to figure out how to shepherd people in the direction I feel like we should go but also keeping in mind that I had a lot of opinions when I was in their position. I want to be the benefactor of the people around me, not a scary overlord.”

For Welch, this means admitting when she’s wrong and that her method isn’t always the best. This attitude seems rare for a James Beard Award-nominated chef, but it’s how she likes it. “I don’t think my workplace is average. I think it’s very odd,” she said with a laugh. “But I like that people that work for me or work with me feel comfortable telling me that I’m wrong. I like that I’m given space to be wrong and time to grieve that ‘being wrong’ feeling.”

At Marrow, women run the show. With founder Ping Ho and Welch at the helm, the restaurant is creating a space where women can be seen and heard.

“It’s as beautiful as it is obnoxious,” Welch said about working at the woman-led restaurant. “We have a power squad at Marrow with some really awesome women and leadership, and I don’t know how it happened. I wanted to foster a place where I felt heard. Maybe that’s part of the reason why we tend to collect women because we are giving them a space where their opinion does matter, and it’s hard to find that elsewhere. And we’re doing that not just for our leadership but for people who work for us outside leadership roles. So it’s instilling in a younger generation that there are places where you do matter.”

Picture of Chef Sarah Welch's hands plating a dish for guests at MARROW

Chef Sarah Welch plates spring vegetable ricotta gnocchi with local rabbit confit, fava beans and rhubarb. / Photo by Gerard + Belevender

Welch was raised between Michigan and Jamaica and attended New York’s French Culinary Institute. She moved back to Detroit to work with celebrated chef Brian Polcyn at what was then called Forest Grill, a modern European restaurant in Birmingham, after being fed up with New York’s “dog eat dog” mentality. Prior to working at Marrow, Welch helped open Republic Tavern with Kate Williams and wound up leading the kitchen after Williams’ departure. Welch was also executive chef at the restaurant’s sister diner, Parks & Rec, for a time.

After years of experience being overworked in male-dominated kitchens, Welch and the Marrow team are hoping to create an industry standard where people are valued over profits.

“I remember being required to work 80 hours, but I was only allowed to clock 40 of them,” she said. “Sometimes I slept in my car — true trauma story — so I knew I definitely didn’t want people in a position where they were not getting paid for their work. In opening Marrow, we wanted to curb turnover and mitigate the burnout that was happening in the industry. That was pre-COVID, and it’s still an issue.”

On Top Chef, Welch was sent home in episode four of her season but dominated Last Chance Kitchen, a gauntlet-style companion show where eliminated chefs fight for a chance to rejoin the main competition. Welch won Last Chance Kitchen, making her way to the Top Chef finale where she ultimately lost.

She’s fine with that. The scrappy spirit and collaborative mindset she exhibited on the show are part of what makes Marrow a Detroit gem.

Co-owner of Baobab Fare, Hamissi Mamba

Co-owner of Baobab Fare, Hamissi Mamba / Photo by Gerard + Belevender

The Refugee
Hamissi Mamba, Co-owner of Baobab Fare
An East African restaurant + gathering place + safe space for immigrants, where all are welcome and embraced

When Hamissi Mamba fled Burundi to come to the United States in 2015, he had no idea he’d end up in Detroit. Though he didn’t know it at the time, he’d soon come to realize that he had landed in the Motor City not by chance but by fate.

Mamba and his wife, Nadia Nijimbere, are refugees from the East African country Burundi. They’re also the owners of Detroit’s Baobab Fare and two-time James Beard Award nominees, and Mamba is now a “celebrity” chef after winning an episode of the Food Network’s Chopped.

Baobab Fare became an instant culinary classic after opening in Detroit’s New Center neighborhood in 2021. The restaurant serves classic East African dishes that Mamba ate growing up in Burundi, like nyumbani (slow-simmered beef with fried plantains and rice) and intore (eggplant stew).

Photo of a Classic East African dish (intore) served at Baobab Fare

Classic East African dishes like intore (eggplant stew served with fried plantains and coconut rice) have made Baobab Fare an instant hit in Detroit. / Photo by Gerard + Belevender

They initially had no intention of opening a restaurant. Back home, Nijimbere was a human rights lawyer and Mamba a businessman. “I always say that [opening Baobab Fare] was a survival plan,” Mamba said. “Growing up, my mom said, ‘You have to go to school and get a good job.’ We had jobs in Burundi, so you have that illusion that ‘I will get a job in the United States; opportunity is everywhere; it’s the best country in the world.’

But starting out, nobody would hire me or Nadia for what we went to school for because our degrees were from Burundi.”

After winning a Hatch Detroit grant for $50,000 in 2017, the couple decided to get serious about opening a brick-and-mortar for Baobab Fare, which had previously been a pop-up. But the restaurant almost didn’t materialize as Mamba and Nijimbere had trouble getting asylum to stay in the United States. “2016 was a tough year for us because we didn’t have asylum … at that time it wasn’t easy for immigrants to get asylum to stay in the country,” Mamba said. “The plan for us was to seek asylum in Canada, but after 2017 we finally got it. It felt like a miracle for us in that moment.”

Now the facade of Baobab Fare proudly proclaims to all who pass by, “Detroit Ni Nyumbani,” which means “Detroit is home.”

The Ecosystem
Keep Growing Detroit, Steward of Urban Farming
Imagine a food sovereign city where the majority of fruits and vegetables consumed by Detroiters are grown by Detroiters

Keep Growing Detroit (KGD) is an essential part of Detroit’s urban farming ecosystem. Not only does it own and operate a 1.38-acre farm and teaching facility in Detroit’s Eastern Market, but it also runs a nationally recognized program that provides garden resources and technical assistance to local growers, an urban garden education series, a community-supported agriculture subscription and so much more.

Keep Growing Detroit is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year, while its Garden Resource Program, which provides seeds, transplants and support to gardeners in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck, is approaching 20 years.

The Garden Resource Program exists for Detroiters to grow their own food and have access to food that’s grown within city limits. KGD Development & Engagement Coordinator Danielle Daguio said, “At Keep Growing Detroit, we say that we are ‘cultivating a food sovereign city,’ which means we’re growing and deepening Detroiters’ connections to where their food comes from.”

In 2022, KGD served over 2,000 local gardens and farms through the Garden Resource Program. The program also provides cooking classes, workshops and other community events to local growers for only $15 a year for a family garden and $30 for a community, school or market garden.

“You can get seeds and plants from anywhere, but you can come to KGD without knowing where to start, and we’ll support you with just about everything you need to get growing,” Daguio said. “There’s a lot of social capital that gets built up doing this work. Studies show that people are less lonely when they have a garden because they can join a community where they can share with others, not just what they’re producing but also a connection with one another.”

Lola Gibson-Berg and Akello Karamoko at Keep Growing Detroit's farm in the Eastern Market district

Flowers, fruits, veggies and more prosper at Keep Growing Detroit's farm in Eastern Market district, managed by a team that includes Lola Gibson-Berg (left), farm activation coordinator, and Akello Karamoko, farm manager. / Photo Courtesy of Keep Growing Detroit

KGD relies heavily on volunteers to keep the farm and Garden Resource Program running smoothly. Last year, the farm had roughly 2,300 volunteers assist with tasks ranging from bed preparation and planting to transplant production and seed packing. Like most grassroots organizations, the full-time staff at KGD is small but mighty. Of 16 employees, 69% identify as BIPOC.

“If you want to talk about food sovereignty and land sovereignty, it has to be available to the people that are here, and this is a majority Black and brown city,” Daguio said. “People think eating healthy is for people who are rich or who are far away and don’t live in a city. The work that we get to do says no, it’s not for people who are rich. It’s not for people who live far away. It’s for people who are right here.”

By Randiah Camille Green

This post was adapted from an article in the Summer-Fall 2023 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.