Eat Local at Brighton's The Wooden Spoon
Chef Steve Pilon says some words a lot. But unlike that guy in The Princess Bride, he actually knows what they mean.
Take Community. “Of course I’m in business to make money,” says Pilon, owner and head chef at the Wooden Spoon in Brighton. “But I’m really here—we’re all here—to support our community. That’s where I spend my ad dollars. I don’t give out coupons; instead I’ll give to a local charity or school.”
The combination restaurant/market’s doors have opened just half an hour earlier, and now, at 11:30, people are streaming in. Some head straight for the takeout counter, peering into the glass cases stocked to overflowing with bright green, crisp-edged salads and earth-toned whole grains studded with jewel-cut veggies. Others slide into booths or sit at a table.
One makes a beeline for Pilon. Even with her arms laden with takeout purchases, she finds a way to hug him, saying, “Thank you so much.”
She’s Sue Schwartz, a volunteer from the LACASA Center, which helps women and children who are victims of domestic abuse. “We’re just showing our love and support,” says Pilon. Since it is Child Awareness Month, he and his staff are displaying awarenessraising pinwheels outside the restaurant and market. It’s just one organization that the Wooden Spoon supports. Another is Gleaners Community Food Bank, where Chef Pilon has performed in, and won, its annual fundraising Iron Chef competition.
Competing is where Pilon started, after graduating from Schoolcraft College. He chose the nearby school over the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA), where he was also accepted, partly because it offered the “most bang for the buck,” but also because of the faculty. “The master chefs who taught me—Dan Hugelier, Jeff Gabriel, Joe Decker—the education was superb.” He participated in Food Olympics across the U.S. and in Europe. But when a competition in Germany called him away when his daughter was three days old, he realized that he had to find a way to be home.
Local gigs followed, including a stint as the executive chef at the Oak Pointe Country Club in Brighton. In 2012 he found a market for sale. It was perfect; he kept the market and added space for tables. He named it in honor of his grandmother: “When I would go to her house when I was a kid, she always had a pot of something on the stove—usually some kind of green chili—and there was always a wooden spoon sticking out of it.”
Leading to another favorite word: Legacy. “We have to think about what’s in line for us in the next 100 years. How can we be responsible and reduce our carbon footprint? What kind of world do we leave for our kids, our grandkids?”
That concern has partly informed his decision to work with local farmers as much as possible—as well as his love of the best, freshest possible flavor. Menus are printed in house in case “we suddenly get a huge batch of fantastic local blueberries. We get them on the menu somehow, instead of having all this stuff we have to keep in stock.”
And if Pilon can’t find what he needs locally, he grows it. “My biggest inspiration right now is seed catalogs. I’ll see something and then think, ‘Wow, I could do something great with that.’”
He currently supplies all the microgreens for the restaurant from a lettuce wall he cultivates at his home, where he also has a network of PVC pipes covered in strawberries. Both are grown using hydroponics. Pilon has another set of plants nourished by aquaponics, in which fish in a tank produce the fertilizer.
All those greens result in a wealth of salads on the menu, including the vegetarian arugula salad, which may, depending on the season, feature roasted beets, pears, gorgonzola and marcona almonds. Or the carnivore’s fantasy, the Black and Bleu, in which Pilon’s artisan lettuce is topped with a grilled flat iron steak, onion, roasted peppers and polenta croutons. At lunchtime, sandwiches run the gamut from classics like the Reuben and the Croque Madame to the Californication and the Bollywood.
Vegetables and fruits liven up dinner plates as well. In the spring, pan-roasted Great Lakes walleye rests next to silky fennel and squash, an apple gastrique providing a luxe finish. Meat lovers can get 12-hour falling-apart beef brisket or pan-roasted duck, while vegans can swoon over the gluten-free quinoa and green chili enchiladas. No matter where one lies on the protein continuum, there are plenty of dishes that manage to hit the sweet spot of richly delicious and brimming with health. To drink, select from a solid wine list, a massive array of Michigan beer, or creative craft cocktails.
All of that is informed by the biggest word of all: Passion. Given the choice between a talented, but disengaged, graduate of a prestigious culinary institute or someone with less training and more heart, “Every single time, I go with the one with passion,” says Chef Pilon.
Steve Pilon embodies living, breathing, vibrant passion. In between helping local charities, mentoring aspiring chefs, working with local farmers, tending his own crops, managing his kitchen and running his business, you might easily wonder when he sleeps.
He laughs. “I have high-level ADHD, and I don’t medicate. I’m in the perfect line of work.” It’s a safe bet that pretty much everyone at the Wooden Spoon, from the cheerful staff to the crowd that keeps coming back, agrees with him.
Find out more at The Wooden Spoon