Lloyd Roberts, a Jamaican-born chef, trained in French technique who’s worked in some of the top Asian restaurants around the world, comes into his own in Birmingham.
By Dorothy Hernandez
Photography by Viviana Pernot
Ever wanted to try the food of Japanese celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa or famed French culinary legend Jean-Georges Vongerichten? If you don’t have the opportunity to fly out to New York, Japan or Russia to try their food, you can see their influences on a plate at Adachi.
Jamaican-born Lloyd Roberts is the executive chef at the Birmingham restaurant housed in the historic Ford-Peabody Mansion as well as the new pan-Asian restaurant Zao Jun in Bloomfield Township.
“What we’re doing at Adachi is putting everything that I’ve learned from (Nobu, Vongerichten, Gabriel Kreuther) and bringing it to Michigan,” Roberts says. “We’re not here to change Michigan (food); we just want to add on to what’s already here because there are great restaurants here, and we just want to bring something a little bit new, a little bit different.”
Roberts, 44, was born in Jamaica as one of five children. Weekends were dedicated to feasting with family and friends. While Roberts today specializes in Asian-inspired cuisine and classical technique, his food foundation is firmly rooted in dishes like curry goat or jerk chicken, Jamaican staples he learned how to make growing up.
Family is another big influence — from his grandparents to parents. His parents and older brother immigrated to New York in 1985, and the rest of the family followed in 1987.
“For my parents it was all about education for us, getting a better jump-start on life educationally,” says Roberts, describing a shared experience among many kids of immigrant parents who leave their home countries in search of better opportunities for their kids. “My dad was an engineer back home in Jamaica. My mom was a nurse, and (they) gave up a lot to have us come here to America.”
Many of his siblings pursued highly educated professions such as computer programming, which Roberts studied. But after working as a waiter at a catering company, Roberts was intrigued by the hospitality industry and pivoted away from computers. He worked his way up at the company to operations manager but realized he wanted to be in the kitchen, so he enrolled in culinary school in Manhattan. As school came to an end, he knew he wanted to work for great chefs and did whatever it took to learn from the best.
As someone who stepped away from a more lucrative career in computers to culinary arts, where he earned $7 an hour at one job, Roberts has built his career on taking risks.
“I really wanted to work for Nobu,” he says. “That’s every kid’s dream coming out of school. There’s a couple of people you want on your resume. One of them is Jean-Georges, the next is Nobu. … I went over (to Nobu’s restaurant), and the only position they had was an expediting position.”
An expeditor in a restaurant is mainly responsible for making sure dishes get to the right tables. But he took it because he wanted to get his foot in the door. He worked at Starbucks in the morning and the restaurant at night. The gamble paid off as it led to him working his way up the ranks, eventually traveling around the world to Moscow to open a Nobu restaurant there. It wasn’t his first choice — he wanted to go to Cape Town but was sent to Russia instead.
“I didn’t know a word of Russian,” he says. “I studied Russian on the flight going there … I’m so happy that Nobu pushed me, took me out of my comfort zone and put me in a place to push myself to the limit.”
He opened another Nobu restaurant, this time in Budapest, before leaving for the Zuma Restaurant Group, which took him to another city he wanted to cook in: London. His father suffered a stroke, so Roberts took some time off before heading back to Moscow and then went on to Dubai where he worked for three years.
The cost of educating his young child in Dubai was skyrocketing, so it was time to make another move. He saw an ad looking for a Japanese chef for an upcoming restaurant in Birmingham, and he sent in his resume. He didn’t think anyone would respond to him being halfway around the world, but it wasn’t long until the owners came calling. It was time for Roberts and his family to make one more move, this time to Michigan.
Adachi originally was part of celebrity chef Michael Schlow’s restaurant group, but the owners Kenny Koza and Clint Mansour parted ways recently with Schlow.
The split hasn’t slowed Roberts’ momentum with the May opening of the pan-Asian sister restaurant Zao Jun. Roberts says there’s a lot of room for creativity there. Is it time for his Jamaican side to make its way to the plate? The initial menu doesn’t incorporate Jamaican flavors, but he says, “who knows?”
He would love to incorporate oxtail in dim sum, but Jamaican style, he says. The flavors aren’t too far off from Asia with the star anise, all spice and cloves.
“Maybe we’ll spin some type of jerk over there, you know, but just do it with some Asian flair,” Roberts says.
Yellowfin Tuna Poke with Spicy Edamame and Soy Ginger
1 pint shelled edamame
5 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt to taste
Using a blender, blend the shelled edamame and water to a smooth puree. Add the lemon juice and mix well. Add the salt to taste.
3-4 ounces diced yellowfin tuna
3 tablespoons soy ginger (recipe below)
1 tablespoon shelled edamame
Micro rainbow mix garnish
3 ounces fresh ginger
3 ounces pickled ginger
6 ounces rice vinegar
7 ounces soy sauce
½ cup sugar
1 cup grapeseed oil
To make the dressing, peel the ginger and cut into cubes. Place the fresh ginger, pickled ginger, rice vinegar, soy sauce and sugar in a blender. Blend until very smooth. Slowly drizzle the grapeseed oil into the blender with the motor running. Pour into a clean container and place in the refrigerator until later.
In a bowl or plate, place 3 tablespoons of the edamame puree and mix in a circle, leaving a hole in the middle. Using a clean bowl, mix the tuna with three tablespoons of soy ginger dressing and season with a little salt. Place the tuna mix in the middle of the edamame puree. Garnish with toasted breadcrumbs, unblended edamame, a touch of shichimi togarashi (if you like things spicy) and micro rainbow mix.
325 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham