West Village restaurant Marrow aims to rekindle the butcher-customer relationship while building a sustainable, equitable business. Executive Chef Sarah Welch takes SEEN inside the kitchen where they practice beyond just “farm-to-table” cuisine.
By Dorothy Hernandez
Featured photo by Derrick Martinez
Sarah Welch grew up in two worlds: Ann Arbor and Jamaica.
Her parents traveled a lot, making frequent trips to the Caribbean island nation. One year her father, Steven, went there looking to buy a house. He was lost and asked a passerby for help when he couldn’t find the land he was looking for. The man told Steven that the beachfront property in front of him was for sale. He bought the land, and built the Lost Beach Resort from the ground up.
Welch spent a lot of time at her father’s resort, especially with the cooks in the kitchen, doing prep tasks such as cleaning spiny lobsters and making coco bread. The neighborhood kids her age also knew how to cook, so she made sure she knew how to grill fish and make dumplings too. Peer pressure aside, these experiences had a profound impact on her.
“That was a huge influence — learning that people my age in other countries are self-sufficient in terms of feeding themselves,” Welch says. “They go to the little shop up the street, they buy what they need, they take that home, they cook it for themselves. Sometimes one of the kids didn’t have the financial ability to do it, and so (the others would) share with each other. And so there were a lot of early lessons for me of equity and sharing and fairness and food.”
Those early lessons would come full circle years later at Marrow where she’s executive chef and partner along with Ping Ho, who also owns The Royce wine bar in downtown Detroit. Since opening last fall, the restaurant has garnered local and national attention, from landing on Eater’s list of best new restaurants in America to cooking at the James Beard House in August. But for Welch, while she’s proud of these accomplishments, these days she’s thinking bigger, such as what she can do for her team’s personal growth as well as making sure Marrow isn’t just talking the talk when it comes to buzzwords like “local” and “farm to table.”
“Re-establishing authenticity is really important to our business — being a cornerstone for people to learn about their food and learn about where their products come from,” Welch says.
The business aims to bring back the idea of having a relationship with your butcher, buying your food fresh every day and cooking it.
While those early years in Jamaica fostered Welch’s love of food, her pragmatic parents advised her to not go into a creative field like culinary arts without studying business first. Welch went to Michigan State University to get her degree in hospitality management. Then she headed to New York to pursue her passion for cooking at the French Culinary Institute, now called the International Culinary Center.
While in school, she did an externship at The Spotted Pig in New York City and worked with Michelin-starred chef April Bloomfield. That’s where Welch learned how to cook with organ meats and showcase it as an entrée, like calf’s liver steak.
“That was pretty influential in terms of dictating the style of food that I got into,” she says.
After graduating, she had the opportunity to help open another restaurant with Bloomfield, but opted to come home to work for acclaimed chef and charcuterie expert Brian Polcyn at Forest Grill in Birmingham, now Forest. She deepened her knowledge of whole animal butchery there and worked her way up from line cook to sous-chef.
She was part of the opening team of Republic Tavern in Detroit as sous-chef before getting promoted to executive chef after Kate Williams left. While there, she was recognized as chef of the year by Eater Detroit, and the restaurant was on Detroit Free Press’ list of top new restaurants in 2016. A year later, she was let go by management, to her surprise.
It didn’t take long for her to figure out what was next. Ho says the two ran into each other while in line for coffee at Ashe Supply Co. downtown. Ho had just written her business plan for what would become Marrow and was looking for a chef. That started the conversation of the two of them partnering.
Growing up in Singapore, Ho would shop with her grandmother at the outdoor market. Despite all the various options for meat, fish and vegetables, her grandmother would go to specific vendors.
“I remember asking my grandma, ‘How do you know which guy to buy from?’ And she says, ‘This vendor’s meat is always fresh, he knows what I like. I’ve been buying from him for 35 years.’
“So that kind of relationship with the people who provide our food has been lost in this day and age, and I thought it would be great to bring back this classic butcher shop concept, where we can stop by on the way home from work, pick up some meat and then cook what the butcher recommends,” Ho says.
With a name like Marrow, it may seem like this is another steakhouse but it goes beyond that. Highlighting pan Asian flavor profiles, the restaurant shows you don’t have to consume monstrous portions of meat to enjoy it. That philosophy is on display with dishes like glutinous rice dumplings. The filling is made with beef trimmed after the dry-aging process and mixed with vegetables, ingredients that would have otherwise gone into the trash. The dumplings are then fried in beef tallow instead of oil. Vegetarians can feel free to dine with their omnivore friends as all appetites are welcome, and there’s always plant-based options, Ho says.
Ho and Welch have partnered with Rohani Foulkes and Kiki Louya, the owners of Folk restaurant and The Farmer’s Hand market in Corktown. The businesses share similar values in supporting local producers and fostering employee-friendly cultures. The grocery closed over the summer to make way for a new restaurant called Mink, slated to open this fall. The four also joined forces to create a hospitality group that brings together all of the restaurants’ hiring, training and payroll.
Welch says she aims to build something that’s not a flash in the pan with Marrow and Mink.
“I don’t want to be a trend, and I don’t want Marrow to be a trend. I hope that what we provide has long-lasting roots for Detroit and the city,” Welch says.
Glutinous Rice Dumplings
10 ounces minced beef
4 pieces mushrooms
1 small radish, shredded
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 pieces Chinese chive, finely chopped
2 tablespoons mushroom sauce
3 tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2/3 cup wheat starch or tang flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 cups glutinous rice flour
1 1/2 cup water
For the Filling
Combine all into mixer and mix until liquid is absorbed by meat. Put into piping bag. Set it aside.
For the Pastry
Place wheat starch or tang flour in a large bowl with sugar and glutinous rice flour. Separately, boil the water in a small pot and then mix it with ingredients in the bowl. If it doesn’t come together, return to pot and cook until it forms a thick dough. It should not be too dry (cracking on outside) and not too wet (sticks a lot to fingers and hands) but just enough for it to form and shape with a little flour on hands and rolling pin.
Working quickly, roll out dough to ¼-inch thickness and cut into circles with dough cutter. You can re-roll the trim but keep covered with damp towel while you work. Add some filling to the center of each dough round — roughly 2 teaspoons. Fold the dough to enclose the filling in a half moon shaped dumpling. Close and seal the dough using water if needed. Set completed dumpling aside then repeat.
Fill a pot with oil (or beef fat) for deep frying. Bring fat to 350 F then deep fry dumplings (it will easily burn) until golden brown. They should be crispy all around, and tiny bubbles should form on the exterior of the dough.
8044 Kercheval Ave., Detroit