Is Detroit America's Next Big Food Town?

We talk with the team behind the newly opened Katoi restaurant on why Detroit is becoming a magnet for creative types, swelling with restaurant openings, and, naturally, where we should be eating when we visit.

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  • It's all eyes on Detroit! The entire city is becoming a hotbed for young talent—and guess who's jumping on the opportunity first? Budding culinary dreamers.
  • Scruffy blocks, graffitied buildings, and once dodgy neighborhoods are the places to witness Detroit's cultural revolution.
  • New Thai restaurant Katoi is at the center of the action.

Here's the first thing you need to know about Katoi, Detroit's new Thai-inspired restaurant: there are three vastly different people behind it, each of whom plays an integral role in the fabric of the pop-up turned brick-and-mortar restaurant. There's the level-headed chef Brad Greenhill, the more bohemian co-partner Courtney Henriette, and then there's Philip Kafka, the New York City billboard designer who splits his time between the two cities.

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Chef Brad Greenhill reveling in the newly opened space.
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The answer to how three contrasting characters came to collaborate on transforming their lauded pop-up concept into a modern, polished restaurant lies in the kinetic energy that buzzes through Detroit like electricity. Chef Brad Greenhill sums it up best when he's describing his choice to move from Ann Arbor to Detroit: "In Ann Arbor, everyone who knew that I cooked would say, 'Oh, you should really open a restaurant.' Then in Detroit, the attitude was more, 'Hey, let's open a restaurant!,'" explains Greenhill. "The people I was meeting and interacting with in Detroit were more entrepreneurial."

Braised lamb neck with fish sauce tomatoes, garlic sauce, and peanut gremolata.
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It's no surprise that creatives from larger cities like New York and San Francisco are gravitating towards mid-sized cities, like Detroit, for the opportunities and lower cost of living. Partner Philip Kafka, who also owns Prince Media, a wallscape advertising company based in New York, made headlines when he installed a cryptic billboard in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood that read "Detroit: Just West of Bushwick." The billboard was created in the style of Mexican muralist and self-proclaimed Marxist, Diego Rivera. It was Kafka's way of saying: "Hey, you're probably being priced out of Brooklyn, why not consider Detroit?"

Philip Kafka when he's not bouncing between Detroit and New York City.

"When I first moved to Detroit, there were about three new restaurants that people would go to all the time. Now, that numbered has probably quadrupled."–Brad Greenhill

Partner Courtney Henriette who makes all the magic happen at Katoi.

"When I first moved to Detroit, I think there were about three new restaurants that people would go to all the time," says Greenhill. "Now, that number has probably quadrupled—and it's still growing. There are new restaurants opening all the time." Greenhill also cites the sudden explosion of food options around town to a larger cultural zeitgeist tied to people's growing interest in food.

The long communal table running through the restaurant is perfect for Katoi's shareable dishes.

"It's about diners expressing themselves through what they eat," continues Greenhill. And in his case, creative expression manifests through what he chooses to cook. Southeast Asian flavors are not native to the American chef, but he found himself drawn to them when he decided to launch his food truck. "It was the discovery of fish sauce and exploring Asian markets that got me into the cuisine," he says. "The more I started learning about it, and studying it, the more I realized the flavor profiles were exactly what I was going for in my cooking: the balance of sweet, salty, sour, and savory."

Not being tied to tradition is also a point of pride for the entrepreneurs who are choosing to settle down in Detroit, which is why the Katoi team doesn't concern itself with adhering to traditional Thai recipes on their menu. "Probably 30% of the menu would be considered traditional Thai dishes, but those are still our take on them," says Greenhill. "Everything else uses Thai ingredients and flavor profiles to create our own signature Katoi dishes."

Panaeng curry with kabocha squash, tofu puffs, roti, and the aroma of kaffir lime.

Katoi's menu usually features over 20 dishes divided between three categories: vegetables and spicy salads, noodles and curries, and a section for meat and fish. And like Greenhill explains, the dishes are steeped in those Southeast Asian flavors but remain fiercely autonomous in their execution: thrice cooked sweet potatoes in palm sugar and sherry on avocado puree; stir-fried ramps topped with nam prik noom (a type of Thai relish) and garnished with nira flowers; Thai fried chicken served with a traditional sweet chili garlic sauce; and a not-so-traditional coconut milk ranch dip.

Stir-fried ramps garnished with a Thai relish.

As more and more businesses open up in the city center, Katoi will soon be considered one of the pioneers. Until then, it's on the forefront of what might just be the most exciting culinary scene in America.

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