- Nicholas Williams/Daily
By Giancarlo Buonomo, Senior Arts Editor
Published November 5, 2014
When Brendan McCall was a student at the University in the late ’90s, he thought about becoming a lawyer, or maybe an architect. He still could pass for one — medium height, slim, with a trimmed beard and thick glasses. But one look at his arms, and his profession becomes quite clear.
“There’s two ways to tell if someone’s actually a cook. One, your arms are burned,” he says, jerking up his sleeve to reveal a series of thin red lines running elbow to wrist. “If you’re a chef and your arms aren’t burned, you don’t work in the kitchen any more.”
“And then this,” he says, pointing to the bottlecap-sized callous between his index finger and palm, the result of years of gripping a knife.
McCall has certainly earned his scars. He’s now the executive chef at both Mani Osteria and Isalita, two wildly popular restaurants on East Liberty that are favorites of both reviewers and students alike. But McCall’s journey started as a kid, when his hands were still soft but a love of food was already seared into his conscience.
Born in Somerville, Massachusetts, McCall moved around a lot, but was anchored by his large, extended family — many of whom originated from Sicily.
“It’s clichéd at this point, but cooking is part of your lifestyle,” he says of his Italian-American heritage.
“You don’t have to rediscover food as a daily part of your life, which is what’s happened to a lot of Americans,” he adds.
Growing up in a family where grandparents might have three separate kitchens in one house, and children were enlisted to peel potatoes and pick herbs at every gathering, it would be hard not to become a food lover. But when McCall came to Ann Arbor for college, he soon learned that he wouldn’t always have thirty food-crazed paesanos with him at every meal.
“I took it for granted, because that’s how I grew up,” he says. “But then you come to college and you suddenly have to create and maintain that culture for yourself.”
As a student, he majored in history and anthropology and nurtured his ever-present interest in cooking by hosting dinner parties for friends. But after graduating, and realizing that he had no interest in law, he decided to turn his hobby into a living, at least until he figured things out
“While I’m deciding this, I still have to pay my bills to U of M, so I thought ‘Why don’t I get in a kitchen?’” he says.
McCall got a foot in the kitchen door by starting at the lowest-ranking positions, dishwashing and prepping, at Diamond Jim Brady’s Bistro in Novi. He waited patiently for a chance — really a temporary promotion.
“There’ll be an instance where some guy calls off, he has too much to drink the night before, he doesn’t show up for his shift, you’ve been paying attention, and then suddenly you’re working the lunch shift,” he says.
McCall kept paying attention and was soon working different stations in the kitchen and making friends and connections in the industry. These early days were a slog, no doubt, but necessary to learn the basics. He then moved on to kitchen jobs in Metro Detroit, and stints in Portland and Charleston, before finally returning to Ann Arbor, for what he dubs a “followed-a-girl-here kind of thing.”
Now back in his college town, McCall became a sous-chef at Eve, a once-lauded Kerrytown establishment that unfortunately closed in 2011. He even worked at Zingerman’s, or “anywhere I could get knowledge,” as he puts it.
His big break came, however, when he became the executive chef at Everyday Cook, a unique new eatery and store in the Kerrytown Market. It was a highly creative, experimental environment, where lunch every day was determined by the bounty of the farmers market, and private dinner parties could feature cuisines, and proportions, not typically seen in these parts.
“We’d do something like 15 course tasting menus from southern Spain for eleven people,” McCall says with a laugh.
After a short stint in catering, McCall wanted to open his own place. When I ask whether, because of his background, he immediately wanted to do Italian, he explains that the restaurant business is rarely that accommodating.
“If you’ve been in the business long enough with friends, you’ve had a lot of ideas for things you’d want to do, but you can’t find the space, can’t find the backing, can’t find the team,” he says. “ You need someone who’s going to take that chance on you, so I was really just waiting for a chance, rather than a specific cuisine to do.”
With his business partner Adam Baru, he opened Mani in May 2011. McCall knew that for the restaurant to be successful, and satisfying, it had to have the correct proportions of authenticity and comfort, which are always a concern when serving “real” Italian food.
“You want it to work, right? There’s really no point in doing it if people aren’t going to enjoy it. We’re trying to make them happy, we’re trying to feed them. If they’re happy, we have a healthy business,” he says.
“If I try to do something that’s only for me, only what I love, but no one else likes it, and I keep pushing it, then that’s just ego, and it’s not going to work in the long run anyways,” he adds.
Mani’s menu reflects this philosophy. There is a simple Margherita pizza, but there’s also one with pistachios and red onions. Brunch features an egg dish, but this egg is all’amatriciana, an adaptation of the classic Roman pasta sauce of tomato, Pecorino cheese and cured pork cheek, or guanciale.
“What we try to do is make it approachable, oftentimes recognizable, but with lots of surprises, with an element of discovery,” he says.
And as Mani gets more and more popular, McCall’s dishes can get more and more creative and surprising
“When we opened, people just wanted the salads and the pizza,” he says. “It took several months for them to say ‘Lets try the octopus,’ or ‘Let’s have more of that pork belly.' They start to trust you a little more. Now that we have their trust, I think we can do more.”
But Mani wasn’t enough. Baru’s wife is Mexican, and he and McCall had always wanted to open a Mexican eatery in Ann Arbor that went beyond burritos and nachos. This idea became Isalita, opened two years after Mani, but separated by just a wall. One wouldn’t have thought it would be hard to serve Mexican food in Ann Arbor, but McCall says otherwise.
“If you want to talk about having a difficult time with people’s understanding of the cuisine, Mexican is a much more difficult sell than Italian,” he says. “Italian has a much longer history of being related to fine dining, of people thinking that they’ll go out for a full dinner, while people think of Mexican as knocked-down, inexpensive, lots of beans and rice, lots of cheese.”
Isalita’s menu isn’t any of those things — think watermelon gazpacho and braised lamb tacos. And though it is a separate restaurant from Mani, ideas and people flow between them.
“The staff is excited by both sides. You’ll see a lot of the staff at Mani dining at Isalita, and vice versa. Both sides are very proud of both restaurants,” he says.
McCall is himself proud of having fathered this multi-cultural restaurant family. But his success doesn’t mean that he can sit back and watch the kids peel the potatoes and pick the herbs. When he shows the photographer and me Mani’s wood oven, we ask if he’d mind standing in front of it for a photo, or if the heat, now shimmering off the bricks, is too uncomfortable.
He laughs. “This is where I stand every night.”