It was nearly a year ago that Ima — Eater Detroit’s 2017 Restaurant of the Year — eased its way into a small brick and cinderblock building on Michigan Avenue. On its surface, chef Mike Ransom’s restaurant seemed unassuming at first — a tight, Asian-influenced menu of udon noodles and rice bowls with communal seating. But for the initiated, there’s no mistaking why this place is special.
Ransom’s phenomenal broths and bright, often vegetable-forward dishes are the type that fans eat once and then find themselves fantasizing about days later. And thanks to casual, wallet-friendly prices, those same customers can indulge that urge to return again, and again.
That satisfied feeling is by design, says Ransom. “I want people to see the the care that's put into it and the ingredient base as being something that they can see as a lunch item or as a everyday meal, rather than an occasion,” he says.
Ima also gives off the feeling of a constant state of improvement with each visit. Behind the scenes Ransom was, indeed, slowly tweaking the establishment in phases. First came dinner. Then came the ramp up to lunch and with a rotating board of specials. Over the summer, the restaurant also acquired a liquor license that allows Ima to offer an expansive selection of sake and shochu. Even now, Ransom is looking forward to future improvements such as the addition of a enclosed outdoor patio where guests can stay warm while waiting for a table.
Eater sat down with Ransom on a recent afternoon over a pot of Ima’s refreshing ginger-green tea to reflect on the restaurant’s remarkable evolution since opening day.
What was the biggest surprise from this journey over the past year?
Mike Ransom: Seeing the way we are perceived and becoming that neighborhood spot that I wanted it to be. You have goals and you have things that you envision, but for those things that actually happened it's been very surreal. To be able to see people coming back and being excited about the food as we are.
You got your start cooking in Michigan 20 years ago and then left for several years to run kitchens in Chicago, San Francisco, and Baltimore. When did you know it was time to return to Detroit and open a restaurant?
When I moved away in '07, I told people that I was going to come back. That was my plan, but at that time it was pretty distant and I didn't know it was going to happen. But over the last five years, I saw that I was more prepared myself to do it than I was then.
I started saving and preparing to move here two years ago — flying back and forth from Baltimore and seeing the scene and seeing where the energies were and where people were, where the development was happening. Within a year I was working on a business model.
Was Ima always destined to be an Asian-influenced restaurant?
I knew it was going to be Japanese-focused, but originally it was going to have a sushi-raw bar side. I was going to be the hot food guy and I had another friend who's a Japanese sushi chef from Japan who lives in town here. He and I were working on a project together but we both decided to do two chef projects for the first project was probably little too aggressive. So I toned it down to being just what you see here — a more distilled model and something also that fit into this property.
My original property was going to be three times the size. When I was working from Baltimore, I was working with some architects on another space that was going to be a new buildout and that was going to be a full concept with a lot fuller menu with a full tempura side of the menu — not just noodles and rice bowls. But when I moved here that whole thing fell apart and I was left without a restaurant. So I started doing pop-ups in the meantime, just to keep busy and while I was doing these pop-ups this location was brought to my attention by a friend.
Do have any regrets about opening in a such a smaller space?
I'm happy with the size but it's logistically challenging just having the amount of prep space that we have... But I think for the first space this is great, because about everything to be managed from one viewpoint. That was my dream after being in restaurants where I had three different kitchens and in-room dining and banquets and catering and room service. I wanted to be able to manage everything from one vantage point to be able to see the dining room, see the kitchen, and be connected with everything. So I love the space for what it is.
What do you think it was about Ima that resonated with customers over the past year?
I think one because it's a price point that people can afford to dine in on a semi-regular basis rather than on a special occasion basis. I wanted it to be something that I could use my techniques and my knowledge of food that I've been building for the last 20 years, but have it translate to something that isn't an upper price point that people can't afford.
I want to overproduce and overperform to people's expectations and I want people to see the the care that's put into it and the ingredient base as being something that they can see as a lunch item or as a everyday meal, rather than an occasion.
That also goes for the atmosphere. Having an atmosphere be something that's comfortable and that you can feel like you can just come in as a neighborhood person or you know in your pajamas even almost and be able to have no preconceived expectations. It's a neighborhood spot.
Ima’s broths have these very layered flavors. How do you develop that depth of flavor for your soups?
The broths are cooked overnight for 12-14 hours and then we come in first thing in the morning to finish them, which takes another couple hours. One of my favorite classes in culinary school — the first class you have to take — is called “Soups and Stocks” and you learn how to do French-style consommes broths and demi glace and all these bone broths and fish broths and veggie broths.
Those were always my favorite classes, so I use a lot of French technique in my broths. I'm not doing traditional Japanese broth for the entirety of each recipe. For the recipe I am using a lot of French technique and I worked in a lot of Italian restaurants, so [Ima is] pretty much as a culmination of all the things I've cooked and love to eat in my life. That's why I don't call it Japanese cuisine. It's definitely Japanese-focused but you'll see a lot of other techniques used across the board.
What kinds of things did you do to maintain a consistent experience for guests?
It's a combination of having your recipes tested and really, really foolproof, but also having the same cooks here that were here before I opened. I was lucky enough to have some really good hires in the beginning... That's the most valuable takeaway from this last year... Turnover would not have allowed us to be as consistent and to have our guests feel like there's a consistent experience every time.
What do you do to help retain employees at your restaurant?
First I think it all starts when you're hiring. When I interview, I let people know that we don't allow egos to be translated into the every day and I tell people that they need to treat this as our home and that we're here together more than with our families. If they have a problem with cooperating the rest of the group and leaving their egos at home and not being sociable and being part of the crew and a positive level, then I don't have room for them.
I also come from a very corporate background where in the hotels that I was managing my pay was based on employee opinions. Every year around this time, [Kimpton Hotels] did an employee pay survey and all my employees voted on the job that I did all year. And if I did horribly year, after year then I probably would not be retained as an employee. But if I did well then I was also rewarded for it. It's just treating your staff fairly and having transparency. And a lot of the ideals that I learned from these places I've carried on here. And it's treating everybody fairly no matter who they are.
Were there any big lessons that you learned from the process of opening your own restaurant?
To be very lean in what you do in the beginning. Throughout the whole building process we were trimming things away that we didn't need to have in order to open. If it wasn't for that distillation process I would not have opened.
We opened with $700 left in the bank account — that's about half of our inventory of groceries. So you can imagine if I had bought the nice equipment that I wanted or the special fancy stove that I wanted, I wouldn't have been open and I would have been finding people to lend the money to fund my build out.
How did you fund the project?
I had four investors. One of them is a restauranteur that I grew up with but most of all were family and they each chipped in. They pulled from their retirement essentially and I agreed to pay them as competitively as a retirement would. So they weren't losing any retirement funding but so it was all family pretty much. There were no conventional lenders involved.
Was that stressful at all for you having to borrow money from family?
That was my biggest thing is like, what if it doesn't make it? This is their retirement on the line. There was a lot of stress. I think any chef knows that anytime you put food out, it's a reflection of yourself and you're always going to take it very, very seriously. So I knew that I had to I had to make this thing happen at the highest level, because it's something that I've been doing for other people in my life and this is my chance to do it myself. But to have family's money involved definitely upped the ante a bit.