If you ever dined at the critically acclaimed Selden Standard, had cocktails at the Skip, or whiled away Sunday brunches at Gold Cash Gold, chances are good you’ve encountered the culinary or bartending talents of someone who worked at Roast.
The downtown steakhouse, located on the ground level of the Westin Book Cadillac, was launched in 2008 by celebrity chef and restaurateur Michael Symon. It is often credited as one of the early catalysts for the city’s culinary resurgence and a mainstay in the city’s fine dining scene, beloved for its happy hour menu featuring a decadent burger for just a few bucks.
Roast abruptly closed earlier this month, following the sale in December of the Book Cadillac by Cleveland developer John Ferchill to a joint venture between Chicago-based real estate firm Oxford Capital Group and a New York-based hedge fund called Taconic Capital Advisors. While some say the closure did not come as a surprise, it displaced 30 kitchen and front-of-house workers without notice. Eater tried reaching a representative from Michael Symon Restaurants but has not received a response.
Jenna Belevender, a contributing photographer for Eater, was among many who spent her early days in Detroit working off and on as a busser and host at Roast, before launching her career. In the days after the closure, she posted a series of photos on Instagram of the space from a visit in 2019.
“A bunch of people have reached back out to me because of the photos that I posted and they were like, ‘It really did change my life,’” says Belevender. “I know of so many people [from Roast] that, like any other restaurant, dated, but [then went on and] got married and have kids from there. It’s really beautiful and sweet.”
Among the alumni who helmed the staff at Roast were Andy Hollyday, who for a long time led the kitchen as the chef de cuisine before opening Selden Standard; Joe Rob, who worked as a bartender and went on to launch the Skip and Standby; and Brendon Edwards, who recently opened the Metropolitan in West Village.
Edwards, who also worked with Rob to open the defunct modern French restaurant Antietam near Eastern Market and Standby, had spent much of his earlier career traveling to Japan and Mexico, and had a stint working in Chicago. Following his travels, he says Hollyday asked him to step in to work on his line at Roast.
“I think that when you get a lot of talent together, of very talented cooks, more so than just [one] talented chef, it really bred this synergistic feel of how to expand your craft, so everybody got better at their craft of cooking,” Edwards says.
Roast was part of a group of restaurants under the Michael Symon brand. Cleveland-born Symon came to fame during the 90s and aughts, at the height of the so-called celebrity chef era, winning The Next Iron Chef in 2008 and frequently hosting programs on the Food Network.
Over the years, he opened several restaurants across the country — including Roast in Detroit in 2008, just before the recession hit and a few years before the city filed for its historic municipal bankruptcy. At the time, many of the city’s storied fine dining establishments had already closed and chefs had long since taken their talents to the suburbs.
In a 2009 story naming Roast as Restaurant of the Year, the Detroit Free Press said that in part, “Michael Symon’s Roast represents so much more of what Detroit needs. Another catalyst for a livelier downtown. An advocate for the farm-to-table local foods movement in a rich agricultural region. A magnet for visitors. Affordable high-end dining.”
As Edwards sees it, having the Symon name was a trusted source in the culinary scene.
“What Michael Simon did with the celebrity chefdom that he had was to point your finger towards a place that you ended up knowing had some degree of skill, and a place that you could respect.”
But while Symon may have lent his credibility to draw in diners, Edwards and others say that he rarely made appearances at the Detroit restaurant.
A decade later, the Freep’s former restaurant critic Mark Kurlyandchik declared in an updated review that Roast was still solid in its food and beverage offerings despite the influx of competition.
“So yes, Roast is still relevant. And, at 10 years old, it’s still fire,” wrote Kurlyandchik.
Behind the scenes though, some say there were definite signs of aging. During a visit in 2019, Belevender says she noticed falling ceiling tiles and recalls frequent issues with the building’s sprinkler system that occasionally forced the restaurant to close on short notice.
“It was definitely falling apart to the point where I was like, ‘This is kind of heartbreaking,’” says Belevender.
By the time Christine Anschuetz applied for a job as a pastry chef at Roast in 2021, she had already spent well over a decade in the industry. The Detroit native had been trained at the French Pastry School in Chicago, where she spent several years working.
She had previously come to Roast from the Henry Hotel in Dearborn but because of the pandemic, she says her job duties were reformatted. She knew she needed to find a more secure working environment.
“I loved going into work, I was proud to work there,” says Anschuetz. “I’m 54. And I thought maybe this will be where I do my last 10 years working.”
Anschuetz was among the crew working on January 8, but it wasn’t until service was over that night that the team was informed of the restaurant’s closing. “We were just blindsided, and that’s just really unsettling,” she says.
Anschuetz says she and other crew members were offered two weeks’ severance pay and that many in the restaurant community have reached out to her with job opportunities at other restaurants.
“It actually really broke my heart because I really always loved [Michael Symon]. I thought when he spoke to his audience, he seemed really genuine,” she says.
In fact, Symon closed several of his restaurants in recent years. At his peak, Symon was attached to more than 21 restaurants. Today his portfolio includes just five establishments, only one of which, Mabel’s BBQ, remains in his hometown of Cleveland.
In October, when asked by a fan on Twitter about the recent closures of many of his restaurants, Symon responded. He pointed to the sale of the Lolita building in Cleveland in 2019, the effects of the pandemic, and wanting to spend more time with his family as determining factors.
The new owner of the Book Cadillac told Crain’s Detroit Business that Roast’s closure was the decision of its “Iron Chef” proprietor.
Anschuetz says that while she understands that the complexities of the business side played into the restaurateur’s decision to close Roast, the way it was handled felt dismissive to the staff.
“I felt like someone either died or broke up with me, like it was the end of a relationship, albeit a short one,” says Anschuetz. “I was falling in love with that restaurant and working there.”
Her next step is to find another job. “After the pandemic, I don’t want more time off,” she says.
The Roast burger was perhaps the most beloved of Roast’s offerings, if only for the fact that at one point, it sold for as little as $3 during the restaurant’s popular happy hour. Served on an English muffin and topped with cheddar, bacon, pickled red onion, and a fried egg, it became the stuff of legend among downtown office workers, business travelers, and industry folks alike, who were known for hanging around Roast’s bar area whether they were on the clock or not.
In support of the displaced Roast employees, a fundraiser was held at Batch Brewing Company in Corktown on Tuesday, January 18. Former sous chef John Yelinek made an appearance to serve the restaurant’s famous burger.
The fundraiser brought in a packed house with hundreds of Roast fans lined up to place orders for the famous burger, rosemary fries, and to show support. By 7 p.m., burgers were sold out and Batch owner Stephen Roginson and other employees had to scour the crowds in the bar’s outdoor tent area to issue refunds to burger fans.
In all, Roginson — who had forgone his previous plans (to hold a barbecue to celebrate his birthday on Tuesday) to make way for the fundraiser — says the event raised about $4,000 and gave the Roast employees the closing party they needed.
“They needed to hug it out and laugh, and I got to witness that on my birthday,” he says.
These kinds of scenes have become somewhat typical at Batch since the pandemic impacted scores of restaurant employees (though perhaps with not such a fervor). Roginson and other organizers have used the Batch space to provide meals to displaced workers, and moved to open up the brewery’s kitchen to support out-of-work chefs who wanted to host pop-ups to supplement their income.
It’s a model that’s taking shape in various forms throughout the Detroit restaurant scene and beyond. A sign of the times, for sure, but also a signal that restaurateurs are beginning to rethink the way they operate in the larger community.
While the impact of Roast’s presence cannot be disputed, Belevender hopes that the days of restaurateurs slapping their names on a building but not nurturing the staff putting in the work are over.
“I know that restaurants are a weird beast,” says Belevender. “They’re very stressful and they come with so much financial responsibility, but so much is put on chefs and I hope that things change.”