Steve & Rocky's is a Michigan Pioneer in Farm-to-Table Dining
Steve Allen knows his tomatoes. He’s been planting them since he was 8. But not on a farm. Growing up in Hazel Park, he found himself drawn to helping neighbors with gardens. “I just loved being around the flowers and the vegetables,” he says. “We had an alley in the back of our house, so I got out a shovel and hacked through the coal dust until I hit dirt.”
Gardening became a hobby, then a way of life. Today, he harvests thousands of tomatoes, many of them heirloom varieties, on his land in Hartland, then brings them to Steve and Rocky’s, the restaurant he operates with Charles “Rocky” Rachwitz in Novi. Both graduates of Oakland Community College’s culinary program, the two met through Steve’s former boss, Certified Master Chef Milos Cihelka, of the famed Golden Mushroom in Southfield.
“I had worked my way through the ranks there and wanted to open my own place,” says Steve. “Chef Milos introduced me to his hunting partner, Rocky.” They found that they had a similar goal: an upscale restaurant that would serve great food without charging astronomical prices. When a Fuddrucker’s closed, they had their location.
Opening in 1998, Steve and Rocky’s was an early purveyor of fresh-from-the-farm meals. Top quality ingredients—including Steve’s tomatoes and the free-range turkeys that he raises—are key.
“I might plan a particular dish, but if the food comes in that day and it’s not up to standard, it doesn’t go into the dining room,” Steve explains. To that end, the menu is printed daily; in fact, if you request a dinner menu during lunch, you’ll get one from the night before, because the current day’s will not be printed until closer to service. “Sometimes, we come up with a dish, based on what looks good in the kitchen, about 15 minutes before service,” Steve says.
Still, some dishes are perennials, and Steve claims that he would be “killed or tortured” if he removed the lake perch, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes. Lightly breaded and sautéed lake perch filets are arranged on a bed of basmati rice, with sautéed spinach mixed with hazelnuts and shiitakes. A simple brown butter sauce finishes the plate.
“I’ve had people walk out because we’ve run out of lake perch,” says Steve. “They’re nice about it, but they came for the lake perch, and if they can’t have it, they’ll leave.”
Inspiration comes from the foods themselves and from traveling. “I pick up a lot of ideas in Florida, especially for fish,” says Rocky. “Sometimes, I learn what not to do.” At any given time, fish dishes are likely to outnumber the other types of entrees, which include duck, filet mignon and chicken, as well as an acorn squash stuffed with wild rice, lentils and dried cherries.
Chefs and sous-chefs are also given a free hand, resulting in dishes that combine food in unexpected ways. A current offering, the Alaskan King Crab Bowl, features rice mixed with corn and jalapeños serving as a bed for a sunny-side-up egg. Sriracha zigzags across the top, and the scarlet crabmeat alongside ruby-toned pickled beets add Technicolor pop.
“We learn from our chefs. We’re always learning,” says Steve. Neither does much cookbook reading or Food Network viewing. “The food shows do get a lot of young kids interested in cooking, but for the wrong reasons,” says Rocky. Steve agrees: “They don’t realize the long hours, that you cook weekends and holidays and that you’re not going to want to cook much when you get home.” But the team doesn’t have trouble finding kitchen help, particularly with the Oakland and Schoolcraft culinary programs supplying great new talent.
As for wine, General Manager Duane T. Brady is responsible. As is par for the course here, he’s low-key and unpretentious. “I want a list that’s eclectic,” he says. “I want to make sure that I have wine that the public knows, but also some interesting choices that might be new to them.” He’s a fan of Michigan vintners: “The quality of wine from this state just keeps getting better; it’s impressive.”
Special dinners will focus on a particular food. A tomato dinner takes full advantage of Steve’s plentiful heirloom harvest. There are grill days, harvest feasts and wine dinners. There have been pork celebrations; Steve raises hogs, though he sends them out to be butchered.
“My daughters cried the first year they helped to raise the hogs, and then we sent them off to their destiny,” he says. “But then they got their checks, and now they’re OK with it.”
He does agree with the folk wisdom that everything’s better with bacon, at least within reason. “We don’t do bacon ice cream; I’ve seen it, but I’m pretty sure I don’t need to go there,” he says. “But I do find I use bacon a fair amount. I think of it as almost a seasoning.”
Steve and Rocky are dedicated to helping others, and regularly work with local and national charities including the March of Dimes. At times, they’ll partner with organizations like the Detroit Lions and the Emagine Theater in Novi to take things up a notch. Steve is particularly passionate about 4-H, to which his kids belong. “They teach kids so many things that can be hard to learn at this point,” he explains, “like sewing, animal husbandry, gardening.”
The food at Steve and Rocky’s proves that a dedication to top-quality fresh ingredients can have urban roots and that simple, pure flavors can make even the most sophisticated palate very happy indeed.
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