Chef Kate Williams talks Detroit roots, opening Lady of the House
Detroit’s historic Corktown, home to some of the city’s hottest restaurants and bars, can expect a new addition this spring: Chef Kate Williams’ Lady of the House.
Corktown, the oldest surviving neighborhood in Detroit, and an area of Irish immigrant settlement in the early 1800s, is also Williams’s current home. She is a Northville native and granddaughter to Irish immigrants who met at the Detroit Gaelic League on Michigan Avenue.
“I wanted to have a restaurant in Corktown and in Detroit, and it’s because I have so many roots here,” said Williams.
Lady of the House will occupy the space that formerly constituted the neighborhood spot St. CeCe’s, often frequented by Williams. The space was perfect for what Williams envisioned as being an intimate, neighborhood watering hole. In addition to the warm and comfortable look and feel of the space, buying the location struck a sentimental chord with Williams.
“It felt important that we kept that location in the Detroit neighborhood, in the ‘family’,” Williams said on choosing the former Irish pub as the location for her new spot.
Though a rising stronghold for up-and-coming spots, drawing and influx of visitors from outside the city, Corktown remains home to generations of residents.
“It’s still a livable neighborhood and we wanted a neighborhood spot,” Williams said.
However, Corktown appealed to Chef Williams for more than her personal history there. In 2010, around the time she left Detroit to work on her dining series in New York, the city’s low rent began attracting artists and innovators.
“At the time Detroit wasn’t really on the map and there were artists and makers that were doing really cool things,” she added. “The people that were flocking to Detroit at the time were also kind of creative and interested in something different.”
This surge prompted Williams’ return to the city. To her, it was less of a business decision and more of a romantic notion of showcasing Detroit’s potential. Williams noted she was inspired by the success of businesses like Dave Kwiatkoski’s Sugar House and James Cadariu’s Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company.
Though initially struck by the creative forces leading the surge in businesses in the city, Williams also heeded the low rent as an opportunity for artistic freedom and financial flexibility.
“We could do something cool and approachable and ... drive the food scene as opposed to diners driving the food scene,” she said. In higher-end markets, Williams contends that overhead drives the price point.
At Lady of the House, she aims to introduce patrons to great food and drinks that are affordable and accessible.
“We wanted to show what we think in our experience is the best of everything but that doesn’t have a price point,” Williams said.
To Williams, affordability equates to creativity. Her calling card — whole animal preservation and highlighting local produce from Detroit’s urban farms — will unequivocally shape the menu at Lady of the House. She calls her aim to minimize food waste on farms hastag #uglyfood, a concerted effort to take produce that local farmers would otherwise have to throw out due to appearance and transform them.
“As a chef it forces you to be more creative with the scraps," Williams said, "Are you dehydrating them and making them into a dust? Are you breaking them down and making an oil? Are you flavoring your vodkas and gins and spirits with them?”
She approaches animals and produce from a wholistic perspective, not just a means of cutting costs. “I feel like my style is very Old World cooking,” Williams said, recalling the need of her ancestors to use the entire animal body to survive with limited means.
With restaurants and chefs increasingly driving food trends, Williams wants to contribute this method of utilizing the entire animal and limiting food waste to the broader landscape of food consumption.
Williams also found the proportion of urban farms relative to Detroit’s population and the symbiotic relationship among community farmers to be unique to the city. The city benefits from urban farming businesses which train and employ local Detroiters and work closely with local chefs to cater to their needs.
“Sarah Papitz from Fresh Cut and Ryan Anderson and Hannah Clark from Acre Farm have organized this biannual meeting where the farmers are like, ‘What do you want us to grow?’” Williams said when discussing the community of farmers she works with.
This exceptional agricultural and local community is part of what drew Chef Williams back to Detroit after highlighting the city’s offerings in her monthly dining series in New York.
“It was like celebrating all these cool things people were doing in Detroit in New York,” she said. “And then I was like, ‘We’ve got to do it here, because there’s a place for this in Detroit too.’” Not only does she consider the city lucky to have great local farmers, but also recognizes the significance of sourcing food that helps revitalize neighborhoods by supporting local business.
For Williams, Lady of the House represents what her career has been building up to. After her past experiences opening restaurants, including Republic and Parks and Rec where she headed the menu, she found herself ready to take the leap to pursuing her own venture.
“I figured out I wanted to be cooking everyday. I wanted to create something I was proud of. I wanted to cook food that I loved cooking and was happy to serve to people,” Williams said.
Though she has yet to plan the menu in detail — a task she’s eager to set her mind to once construction on Lady of the House begins — she intends to feature local purveyors like Joseph Wesley Tea Importers (named one of the top 25 tea companies in the world).
One of Eater Detroit’s most anticipated restaurant openings this year, Lady of the House will reflect the culmination of not only Chef Williams’ work but also the storied legacy of Corktown. As with her dining series, she’s sure to bring the spirit of Detroit and creative flare to the highly awaited Lady of the House.