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Culinary contender

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Published 11/14/2007

Less than a year ago, former Kronk boxer Al Irish and his good friend and business partner Rachel Stern opened NOMI, a hip, contemporary restaurant and martini bar in downtown Northville. They recently introduced their fall menu with an emphasis on small plates and a bold exploration of several ethnic cuisines. Al and Rachel, both relative newcomers to the restaurant biz, have had an interesting year.

METRO TIMES: What is it that attracts athletes to the restaurant business? Mike Ditka has a steak house in Chicago. Michael Jordan and Don Shula are also in the beef business. Is there a common denominator among you?

AL IRISH: When I started fighting years ago, my trainer told me that there are three reasons why fighters fight: money, prestige and women. Athletes like that attention. When they are done with their athletic careers, they miss having people paying attention to them and cheering for them. They miss that prestige.

MT: Can they trade on their names?

Irish: It can work for you or against you. If you're popular enough, people will want to come in and check you out. But when they get there, you gotta give them the right product and the service they demand and do all the right things. You've got to be there, and you can't fall into the women, the alcohol and the night life or you'll lose it that way. I'm in it for the long haul. I love food and people and creating entertainment. I'm here working. You've gotta be there.

MT: NOMI has a cutting-edge dining menu and an extensive drink menu with flavored martinis and the kinds of drinks that seem to attract a young, single crowd — one likely to spend more money at the bar than on food. Is NOMI more a bar than a restaurant?

Irish: NOMI is definitely a restaurant. When we first opened, we tried a few events to attract people, to expose them to NOMI and to Northville. We were bringing in three or four hundred people for DJs, dancing and a model search. We closed the kitchen at 8 o'clock to make room for the crowds that were here for the entertainment. It worked at the time, but we lost some dinner business and it stirred up some people in town that thought that it was out of control. We have applied for a dance permit, but we don't plan to have DJs here every night. We plan to be a restaurant, not a dance club. We have live jazz and blues here on the weekends. Music makes people want to dance. We want this to be a restaurant that attracts the residents of our community as well as people from outside the area who come here to eat. We have a phenomenal new chef who has created a great menu that is drawing people back. And he's consistent. We're serving small plates, like Spanish tapas, but with foods from around the world, not just Spanish: Asian, Middle Eastern, Moroccan, North African, Dutch and American food.

MT: How did you and Rachel end up in business together?

Irish: When I quit boxing, I opened a gym. Rachel used to train at my gym. We became friends first and partners in NOMI next. I had always vowed that I would never go into business with a friend, but it's worked out well.

MT: Are you a cook?

Irish: When I was growing up in Detroit, I started out in the restaurant business because I had nothing else. At 14 years old, no one was going to hire me. My first job, I lied and said I was 16 at a restaurant where I started as a dishwasher. Years later, I worked my way into a non-certified sous chef position, taught by all the cooks. I didn't get paid as a sous chef, but I worked as one. I worked for a while at Portofino in Wyandotte.

MT: Are you involved in the slow food movement and with responsible sourcing of food that comes from sustainable sources?

Irish: Not yet. We have had our hands full training our staff to provide good service and food that is both good and healthy while paying the bills.

MT: Tell me about your boxing career.

Irish: It's something that I fell into. I was on the streets since I was 14. I walked into a gym one day in the Bronx to release some pressure. I hit a bag for a while cause I was so upset with my life and what was going on and the confusion. Someone saw me and was interested in me, felt that I had potential. I moved to Detroit and went right to the pros at 18. I never even fought amateur. I fell in love with the game. I never had attention growing up. All of a sudden, I had attention. I thrived on it, so much so that it became an obsession. I'm still trying to come down off that after all these years. In New York I was involved in the theater and dancing — modern jazz, tap and ballet. I went to the school where they used to film Fame. I boxed: attention. Danced: attention. Opened up a gym: attention. Opened up a restaurant: attention. I don't need all that drama anymore. I've had enough of the limelight. I had a 15-0 record. Now I just want to work at my restaurant.

Jeff Broder does this regular food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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