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A man with a black and white beard wearing a black long sleeve shirt with rolled up sleeves, a green and brown chef’s apron, jeans, shoes, standing next to a sandwich board sign that says Vigilante Kitchen Open Interviews in Detroit, Michigan.

This Chef Is Trying to Build the Sober-Friendly Restaurant Detroit Needs

Shifts will begin with daily meditation, other self-care rituals to encourage a balanced lifestyle

Nevy Wolfe Photography
Serena Maria Daniels is the editor for Eater Detroit.

A forthcoming restaurant in Midtown featuring Midwestern comfort food with Asian influences and classical French techniques is aiming to tackle one of the biggest issues impacting restaurant workers: addiction.

While successful candidates will be able to demonstrate their ability to follow a recipe, work well in a fast-paced environment, and be detail-oriented, job seekers at the new Vigilante Kitchen — to open inside the space currently occupied by Smith & Co. at 644 Selden — will ideally have a desire to “work toward positive self-change and support those on the same path, while pushing their skill sets forward,” reads a job posting.

“Our core mission is to help industry workers struggling with addiction by offering tangible tools and guidance down a balanced path of recovery, regardless of direct history with addiction or sobriety,” the posting reads.

Aaron Cozadd, a veteran in the local culinary scene, says that he wants to help restaurant workers develop the types of skills that he found to be useful in his journey toward sobriety. In addition, the restaurant’s current waiting area will be transformed into a cafe called Satori, which refers to the Zen Buddhist term for experiencing enlightenment. The chef hopes it will serve as a space where one can grab a cup of coffee during the daytime, and eventually as a space that will stay open after service has ended at the restaurant — as a dry bar for folks who may be employed in the hospitality industry who want an alternative for going out after work.

Cozadd tells Eater that by his early 20s he was using pills, alcohol, and heroin while working in fine dining. “I think that recovery has to be as cool as drugs, in order for it to have the same impact,” says Cozadd. “I got this idea to make a project where the sole purpose other than being a great restaurant — [it] has to be a killer restaurant first — but that the guiding mission would be to support industry workers who are suffering from addiction, by providing them with tools, and guidance down a path to find a balanced way to live so that they can enter a quality recovery. [I wanted] to design a restaurant that was conducive to that — that didn’t ask them to work 80 hours a week, one that allowed them the time to do the things, but also, as part of compensation gave them the tools to do the things [necessary to maintain sobriety].”

Instead, Vigilante will be open five days a week for dinner service only; employees will have two days off, and not be asked to work long shifts. The hope is to allow employees enough time in their weekly schedule to take part in other benefits that Cozadd wants to offer, including recovery meetings or meditation sessions before the start of service, access to an addiction counselor, and gym memberships — in addition to health insurance available to all full-time employees. According to the job posting, hourly wages range from $17 to $25 an hour. Participation in these activities wouldn’t be required, but would be available to whomever wants to utilize the resources.

For the food and drink, Cozadd will layer the rich, earthy, umami, bass notes of Japanese cuisine and combine his training in French technique to offer twists on classic comfort foods like a hot chicken spiced up in a brown sugar Sichuan peppercorn dry rub and placed in a steamed bao bun; a tomato soup made with a base of shiitake mushrooms and accented with coconut cream, ginger, miso, and black sesame and accompanied by grilled cheese sticks made with Hokkaido milk bread and caramelized onions; or the open-faced crab rangoon made with jumbo lump crab, a cream cheese and lobster mornay, Thai chile, scallion, black sesame, and wonton crisp.

While promoting a more balanced lifestyle, Vigilante Kitchen will serve alcohol. Cozadd is collaborating with neighboring Nain Rouge Brewery to develop a line of beers that complement the flavors coming out of the kitchen, with possible flavor combinations like a porter infused with black sesame, a Sichuan pepper-spiked saison, or a blonde ale flavored with lychee and cherry blossom. A full bar will continue to be available.

“I feel like anyone can be sober in a nerfed out room, but to find a true program or recovery and stay sober and still continue to do what you love, you’re going to be around alcohol; like you can only avoid the wine aisle at Kroger for so long before you got to walk by it,” Cozadd says.

As for the space, much of the natural detailing will remain, but in keeping with the rebellious spirit of Vigilante, Cozadd says the interior will embody a playful punk rock aesthetic.

Hospitality workers are more likely to experience higher rates of substance use and depression than those in other professions, but often lack the financial resources or employee benefits to treat addiction or mental health issues. The restaurant industry ranks the highest among 19 sectors for illicit drug use and third for heavy alcohol use, according to a 2015 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration.

Initiatives like Ben’s Friends, Healthy Hospo, and I Got Your Back have emerged in recent years across the country to provide a supportive network among peers who may have also dealt with addiction or mental health issues.

Cozadd tells Eater that by the time he reached 16 and read Anthony Bourdain’s eye-opening book Kitchen Confidential — which details the heavy drug and alcohol use that overshadows the industry — he was already enthralled by the idea of having a career that was both creative and would allow him to wake up at 2 p.m. everyday.

“You could live this sort of party lifestyle, right?” Cozadd tells Eater. “When you got out of work, it was a big party every night so it was very appealing to me and that was kind of how I got into cooking.”

By 30, Cozadd had gained recognition for a 2011 television appearance on an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives; at the time, he was the executive chef for Union Joints Hospitality Group. The night before the show aired, the chef says he got drunk and ended up spending the night of the premiere in Oakland County Jail.

“This is the sign of an alcoholic or an addict,” says Cozadd. “It wasn’t like the night of the party for the show, it was the fact that I just was drinking the day before, which made no sense. Yeah. I think that was kind of a clue to everybody that maybe I still had a problem. Up to this point, no one knew what was happening.”

That’s when Cozadd took steps to realize sobriety, including practicing martial arts, CrossFit, participating in regular counseling, and embracing the teachings of Refuge Recovery, an approach to addiction treatment rooted in Buddhism. He says he is now an ordained dharma teacher with Dharma Gate Zen Center in Troy.

Cozadd says he also found support from his colleagues at Union Joints and eventually the inspiration to launch something on his own that could provide support to others suffering.

“They’re great people, I had great years of my life, formative stuff. They really built me up,” says Cozadd of his time at Union Joints. “When I was in jail, they supported me. They would take my phone calls and tell me what was going on and I would try to help however I could. It’s very frustrating to be separated like that and they were incredibly supportive.”

Curt Catallo, co-owner of Union Joints, says that he’s known about Cozadd’s passion for helping others overcome what he did.

“When we parted ways, we knew that he was going to continue to look for ways to help others in that battle,” says Catallo.

The idea for Vigilante Kitchen came around 2016 while Cozadd was the executive chef for Union Joints Hospitality Group. He’s spent the last several years pitching his vision to various restaurant groups, and, at one point, tried to launch a reality show based on his experiences with recovery.

Eventually, Cozadd’s quest led to a meeting with Mission Restaurant Group, which provides management services for 20 Michigan-based restaurants, including Jolly Pumpkin, Avalon Bakery, and North Peak Brewing Company in Traverse City.

“We met Chef Aaron through some common business associates and felt strongly that our core values and his were aligned. We were inspired by his passion for supporting those in the industry who wanted to stay in [hospitality] but were struggling with addiction. His vision for Vigilante Kitchen was equally impressive and we knew we could move forward with a positive partnership,” said David Ritchie, president of the Mission Restaurant Group, in a written statement to Eater. “We’re excited to support Aaron with the resources he needs to create a unique dining experience for guests and an environment to help our employees thrive.”

Smith & Co. will close its doors for good in early June, and is expected to reemerge as Vigilante Kitchen later in the month.

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