Come As You Are to Wolverine Lake's Smoky Grill
It's still early in the morning, but the woodsy aroma of smoking ribs is already wafting from the rotating smoker outside of C.A.Y.A. (Come As You Are) Smokehouse Grill in Wolverine Lake. Inside the kitchen, Chef Jeff Rose is in the thick of morning prep. Sporting kitchen whites that highlight his wavy red hair and red moustache, he checks on the ribs while supervising prep work. Between smoker checks, he’s monitoring an apple-cider reduction sauce and a tomato sauce. Both are simmering on the range and mixing their aromas with the wood smoke.
The tomato sauce will accompany smoked meatballs atop creamy polenta, one of the menu’s most popular starter items. The cider reduction will fill out the Autumn Harvest cocktail, which also features Sauza tequila, Fireball, lemon and cinnamon sugar.
Rose got his start in cooking the old-fashioned way: He washed dishes. “I started when I was 14 as a pot washer at a catering hall in New Jersey,” says Rose. “And by the time I graduated high school, I was doing weddings.”
Rose decided he wanted to go to culinary school, but his parents wanted him to get a business degree. The compromise was a degree in hotel and hospitality management from Michigan State University. And by the time he graduated, he realized that his parents were right.
In college, Rose worked in catering and as a sous chef at the university president’s residence. When he graduated he started working for Hyatt Hotels, working in San Diego and San Antonio, where he learned to do every single job from dining to laundry.
Rose moved back to Michigan when he was 24 to help a friend from college open a restaurant in East Lansing and began working at Sweet Lorraine’s in Ann Arbor and Southfield. Unfortunately, the East Lansing restaurant fell through due to lack of investors, but Rose stayed on in Michigan. He served as sous chef for five years at Tribute, did stints at Motor City Casino’s Iridescence and Big Rock Chophouse and helped open Michael Symon’s Roast in Detroit. He spent three years at Toast in Birmingham before making the leap to opening C.A.Y.A. Smokehouse Grill in 2013.
Why did he make the jump after so many years? “You know, I never really wanted to own my own restaurant,” Rose laughs. But the opportunity was ripe. Friends of Rose’s, Richard and Rachel Mandell, owned the building and told Rose they were either going to sell it or open a restaurant. “So we opened it,” Rose says with a chuckle.
Mandell wanted a barbecue joint, and Rose wanted a French bistro. Rose says they met in the middle. But perhaps the result is a little closer to the barbecue side, at least in the decor, which features reclaimed barn wood, exposed cinderblock and a polished concrete floor.
"We have the traditional ribs, brisket and pulled pork,” says Rose. “We also do things like a small short rib. And I fly in fresh fish. We do fresh salads and get everything from local from farms that we can—it’s not just boxed meat.”
Rose sources about 85% of his produce from MSU’s Tollgate farm, which is just up the road. While not certified organic, the educational farm emphasizes sustainable farming practices. All meat is sourced from within 100 miles through Ernst Meats. Rose has been working with the company for 20 years. Ducks come from Indiana, chickens from local farmers and beef and pork from Indiana and Iowa.
Rose says his interest in farm-to-table came from growing up in New Jersey. (You won’t hear an accent, he says, until he gets angry or talks with his mom on the phone for an hour.)
"When I grew up in New Jersey, there were farms all around,” he says. “You didn’t buy your produce from a supermarket; you bought it from the farm.”
The menu offers an array of starters including Butternut Squash Risotto, Wild Mushroom Flatbread, Brisket Tacos and Smoked Brisket Nachos. There’s also a slider and soup of the day.
From the smoker, diners have a choice of baby-back ribs, turkey breast, beefbrisket, Polish sausage, pulled pork or smoked chicken, in two portion sizes: one pound and half-pound. Entrée standouts include a Smoked Chicken & Waffles, Maple-Glazed Salmon, Pork Osso Buco and a Short Rib “Pot Roast.” Vegetarians, don’t despair; the Butternut Squash Ravioli topped with wild mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes and sage brown butter sauce offers a tasty alternative to meat.
The beer list includes a rotating roster of Michigan taps and everything from Miller Lite to Atwater Vanilla Java Porter in bottles. Craft cocktails combine spirits, fruits, herbs and bitters. Don’t miss the Autumn Harvest with cider reduction.
Rose enjoys the far-flung, rural Wolverine Lake location and believes the smokehouse has made a difference in the community. “Everyone loves that they have a good restaurant they can come to,” he says. “They didn’t really have it before that. It’s been kind of a culinary wasteland out here, but a lot of things have popped up which is good. I’m a believer in friendly competition; the more good restaurants the better.”
Find out more at C.A.Y.A. Smokehouse Grill