Turning off Orchard Lake Road on the way to Sylvan Table, two landmarks guide the way: First, the ubiquitous golden arches that mark a McDonald’s drive-thru, followed by a sign reading “Welcome to Sylvan Lake, the Prettiest Little City in the State of Michigan.”
The path mirrors that of Nicole and Tim Ryan, who ironically came to their locally sourced, farm-to-table restaurant by way of constructing fast-food joints. Born and raised in Massachusetts and Wisconsin respectively, Nicole and Tim met while working together in Chicago before moving to Michigan in 1993. With their backgrounds in business and construction management, the two started Ryan Construction Inc. in 1995, through which they built various commercial restaurants while raising their two children. They dreamed of one day opening a restaurant of their own, one aligned with their values and interests.
When their children left for college in 2016, the Ryans saw their now-or-never opportunity. After finding a plot of land on LoopNet, Nicole discovered a 300-year-old barn located at the time in Maine that — after it was disassembled, transported more than 800 miles, and rebuilt by the couple in Michigan — became the bones of the restaurant. And so Sylvan Table was born: a self-described “neighborhood restaurant” that endeavors to serve “rustic, elevated, multicultural cuisine” while upholding its mission to be environmentally sustainable.
The renovated barn now features multiple dining areas — an intimate glass solarium, two open-plan, downstairs dining spaces, and a mezzanine that overlooks the space below — in addition to a bar, an open kitchen, an 8-foot wood-burning grill, and a wood-fired pizza oven. The result is a unique space that, for its size, still manages to feel intimate, and exudes a warm, rustic charm that appeals to all the senses.
In the solarium alone, one might find themselves engulfed in the crackle of a wood fire along with the sweet cinnamon smell of fresh apple butter, and — even in the cold winter months — streams of sunshine from outside. Nicole’s dedication shines through in the thoughtful details that make Sylvan Table unique, from the clusters of dried flower arrangements to the concrete wall which separates the bar from the downstairs dining space, in which Nicole has carefully inlaid long blades of wild grass for a distinctive, earthy texture.
Reconstructing the barn was just the beginning. The Ryans then set upon transforming their three remaining acres of land into a farm, which now includes a second storage barn, a mandala garden for herbs and edible flowers, an outdoor smoker, three hoop houses, chicken coops, and beehives. Nicole drew from what she’d learned in a University of Massachusetts, Amherst online homesteading course, which heightened her sensitivity to food waste and other destructive food production practices. Sylvan Table, in contrast, embraces regenerative agriculture to practice sustainable stewardship of the land.
Nicole’s leadership sets the tone for the rest of the tight-knit Sylvan Table team, to which farmer Rick Rigutto is the latest addition. Nicole and Rigutto met in October 2021. Rigutto, who worked at the Farm at St. Joe’s in Ann Arbor for three years managing commercial-scale organic farming, was seeking a professional change. By early November, Nicole had hired Rigutto to take over the Sylvan Table farm.
Rigutto, who hails from Cleveland, attended culinary school and worked in restaurants after graduating from high school, through which he became interested in agriculture. “One of my biggest motivations for being involved in agriculture in the first place is that I loved to cook,” he says. “I just wanted all of that food on hand.”
He apprenticed at, then went on to manage, organic vegetable farms in southeastern Pennsylvania. After relocating to Michigan to be with his then-fiancee, Rigutto gained experiences at St. Joe’s. That experience is crucial for Sylvan Table, where Rigutto provides regular crop updates to executive chef Chris Gadulka, who adjusts the kitchen and bar menus according to seasonality. The early spring menu, for example, stays true to the restaurant’s new American sensibility while reflecting the transitional season. It offers dishes hearty enough to satisfy on chillier days, while anticipating the thaw with fresher, verdant touches, like the richness of bone marrow cut by sweet-acidic Michigan apple mignonette, or the smokiness of wood-fired chicken refreshed with fragrant rosemary and lemon salt.
Sylvan Table cultivates a feeling of abundance despite working within seasonal constraints. “We think you should eat things when you’re supposed to be eating them,” says Nicole, who emphasizes that seasonality is an opportunity for creativity. “You’d never have a fresh tomato on your plate here until it’s fresh tomato time, but you might have a dried tomato, or maybe a pickled tomato.”
Creativity involves not just preparation, but partnership: To source ingredients in season, a restaurant of its size and scope requires regularly working with other local farms. “When I say local I don’t mean locally from Ohio, I mean locally like 50 miles, maybe 100 at the most,” says Nicole.
Past menus have offered rabbit from Les Roggenbuck’s East River Organic Farm in Oxford, for example, in an effort to utilize the sustainably plentiful protein.
Rigutto has enjoyed cultivating micro, yielding boutique ingredients like specialized greens that the kitchen can highlight, often as an amuse bouche.
“It’s all about getting people to experience foods they’ve never had before,” says Nicole. “I think that people really need to learn more about where their food comes from, and about soil regeneration. That’s kind of the key to everything, including our environment and climate change.”
Apart from the hyper-seasonal menus, Rigutto hopes to build sustainable values into the landscape itself. He is currently working to transform the farm according to permaculture principles, which will involve food forests and long-term perennial landscaping, even in areas that aren’t growing produce; the roof of the storage barn, for example, will soon sprout clusters of vegetation that will contribute to the farm’s overall ecosystem. Rigutto ultimately aims to produce an environment that is not only agriculturally efficient, but also welcoming and engaging, one in which “embedded in your landscape is the opportunity to taste things and learn,” he says.
Over time, Nicole and Rigutto will expand this range of opportunities for education in sustainability. They are excited to eventually host school field trips (the parking lot can hold multiple buses) and specialized workshops related to bettering food systems.
Nicole’s ultimate goal is to leave a zero-waste footprint, though she acknowledges that it’s a near-impossible endeavor. “But that won’t stop me from trying,” she says, referencing the ongoing, extensive planning to offset the waste generated by the restaurant.
While Sylvan Table has always composted on-site, Rigutto is making it his priority to further streamline their disposables. He is particularly eager to utilize a bokashi that was recently gifted to the team, which is functional during the warmer months. Bokashi, which means “fermented organic matter” in Japanese, refers to the anaerobic composting process which involves compacting waste with inoculated bran in a bokashi bucket, and will allow the restaurant to process all kinds of kitchen scraps — including meat and dairy products, which aren’t compatible with more common aerobic composting systems. As an additional benefit, bokashi yields a “compost tea” that can be used to naturally fertilize crops.
Nicole is also constantly looking to improve upon the restaurant’s use and reuse of other materials: She’s working on turning their cardboard into mulch and outsourcing their glass to be reused in a variety of ways. Long-term, she’d like to outfit the barn with solar panels. They’ll always have progress to make, she admits, and it’s always more expensive to do things in a sustainable way, but she remains undeterred. “You do what you can do and even when it’s way bigger than you are,” she says, “you still try and do the right thing.”
Indeed, the Ryans are no strangers to taking the more difficult path. Nicole recalls how early in the construction process their team dug into the ground to make space for a basement under the barn, which currently houses more kitchen space, pantries, storerooms, and a staff meeting area. The hole kept filling up with water; unbeknownst to the Ryans, their land sat on an artesian well. Nicole remembers their construction manager telling her he could push it all back in. Nicole, who also received well-meaning advice from friends in the trade who told her that their project was too ambitious, considered the easier route, but opted to properly irrigate the well, which is now a source of potable, recyclable water, used to maintain their crops.
Despite the work to come, the Sylvan Table team remains enthusiastic and unphased, perhaps owing to their respect for seasonality: They understand that any kind of flourishing relies on fallow periods. This is especially true when you’re doing things the Sylvan Table way: thoughtfully, sustainably, and locally.
“It’s just a whole process,” Nicole says. “All the little things take time. It doesn’t happen overnight. Even the farm itself takes quite a few years, actually.”
Even so, the fruits of their labor are already apparent, and further yields are imminent: Nicole will graduate with her culinary certificate from Schoolcraft College by the end of April, when the restaurant will also launch brunch service. Meanwhile, apart from streamlining the compost and transforming the farm, Rigutto has started on standardizing the farm’s operational budget, inoculating shiitakes in a new mushroom-growing forest, rejuvenating the beehives, and cultivating edible flowers within the structure of the outdoor seating pavilion.
Every one of their many developments is driven by the same overarching goal. “I’m just trying to be conscious about what we’re doing and not the kind of restaurant that’s just in it for the profit,” says Nicole, who hopes that Sylvan Table might also serve as an example for other restaurants. “I want to do what we’re doing but also think about everything around me while we’re doing it. It’ll be challenging,” she adds, “but I’m excited about that part of it.”