Michelin-starred chef Jared Gadbaw aims to make Oak & Reel Detroit’s go-to seafood restaurant with a focus on contemporary Italian dishes
By Markham Heid
Photography by Darrel Ellis
Launching a new restaurant is a risky enterprise during the best of times. And these are not the best of times. But chef Jared Gadbaw is undeterred by the ongoing pandemic and its many obstacles. In fact, he’s used to this sort of adversity.
Last September, the Michigan native and Michelin-starred chef opened Oak & Reel — a highly anticipated Italian seafood spot — in Detroit’s Milwaukee Junction neighborhood. (The name was inspired by the restaurant’s wood-fired oven and seafood-focused menu, but Gadbaw says the “reel” is also a nod to the neighborhood’s history as the locus of Detroit’s corporate filmmaking industry.)
While the timing of the restaurant’s launch was inauspicious, Gadbaw, 41, says this isn’t the first venture he’s started in the midst of turmoil: In 2009, he helped open New York City’s Marea “in the middle of the recession,” he says. “And that turned into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where everything aligned and we had some success.”
“Some success” is putting it modestly. During its first two years in business, when Gadbaw was chef de cuisine under chef and owner Michael White, Marea earned two Michelin stars and was named the Best New Restaurant in America by the James Beard Foundation. There are few higher accolades. “Jared was instrumental in helping me build Marea,” says White. “His ability and his taste profiles and even his taste memory — bringing those techniques and ethos to Detroit is a win for the city.”
Gadbaw recognizes that the pandemic poses a huge threat to his enterprise. But he’s confident that Oak & Reel will weather the storm. “Everything I’ve ever worked for is in this restaurant, and I know we’re going to make it,” he says. A lot of his confidence comes from the all-star team he’s assembled, which includes alums of Magnet, the Apparatus Room, and several more of the city’s best-loved restaurants. Plus, he says, his bench of investors is deep and committed to helping him endure these turbulent times.
Gadbaw grew up in Garden City and Brighton, and before college he worked at the Dearborn car dealership where his dad was employed. He studied hospitality business at Michigan State University, but after graduation found himself back at the dealership. “I realized if I didn’t get out of there, I’d be there forever,” he says. So he got out of there. “I saw an ad for the French Culinary Institute in New York, and I moved there to learn how to cook,” he says. “I thought I’d be there for two years and then come back to Michigan to open my own place.”
Those two years turned into 15. After graduating from culinary school, Gadbaw worked at Esca, which was then part of chef Mario Batali’s restaurant group. “That was my first foray into Italian seafood,” he says. “I was a line cook and I worked my way up.” His next stop was Eleven Madison Park, which topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2017. From there he made the leap to Michael White’s Alto — another Michelin-starred restaurant — and then to Marea and the many accomplishments that would follow.
While he found success in New York, Gadbaw says that he always had his eye on a return to the Motor City. “I watched Detroit’s progress, and when I saw the momentum that was building, I felt like the time was right to come back and build my own property,” he says. (He now lives in Farmington Hills with his wife and two kids.) He moved back in March of 2018 and “immediately got started fundraising and looking at locations.”
After scouting out spots downtown and in Midtown, Gadbaw found what he’d been searching for in Milwaukee Junction — an area that’s generating buzz and investment but is still sparsely occupied compared to Detroit’s major entertainment sectors. “I could see the long-term growth here, and I wanted to be part of this community,” he says.
Some would say that opening a seafood restaurant in meat-loving Detroit is an exercise in frustration. But Gadbaw doesn’t see it that way. “Almost unanimously, our guests come in and tell me this is what Detroit needs,” he says. “I hope that this will become the place you go to in Detroit for seafood.”
In Gadbaw’s kitchen, his process begins with the highest quality and freshest seafood. “I hold our purveyors to that standard every day so that I can present it as simply and as full-flavored as possible,” he says. If what he sees doesn’t meet that standard, he cuts it from the restaurant’s menu, which he adjusts (and prints) daily. “If I’ve got a piece of halibut on the plate, I want you to taste the halibut,” he says. “I want that to be the ingredient that sings out. The rest is there to make [it] taste better.”
Even those who aren’t into seafood will find plenty to love on Oak & Reel’s menu. “Our pasta, which we make in house, is at least half of our focus here,” he says. That focus includes making separate pasta stocks to complement a dish’s proteins. “If we’re doing a shellfish-based pasta dish, we’re using crustacean stock, not just pasta water,” he explains. “We’re always trying to reinforce flavors.”
That’s something that Gadbaw plans to keep doing. In November, when another Covid-19 surge forced him to close Oak & Reel to in-person dining, he and his team quickly pivoted. As of press time, they were planning to sell gourmet “provision boxes” that include house-made pastas plus sauces, sides, and all the ingredients needed to cook a first-class meal at home. “This time is not without its challenges,” he says. “But we’re going to be successful here.”
Recipe: Broiled Halibut with Braised Greens and Salsa Verde
This delicious dish showcases Gadbaw’s undistracted approach to fish and flavor. Try to find “a nice, fat filet, skin off,” he says.
– 2 halibut filets, skin off
– 1 bunch bitter greens (such as escarole or broccoli rabe), cut into two-inch pieces
– 2 anchovy filets (the kind sold tinned or jarred in oil)
– 1 pinch of red pepper flakes
– 1 lemon
– Extra-virgin olive oil
– Salt and pepper
– 2 cloves garlic
– 2 cups of chopped fresh herbs (Gadbaw likes a mix of 70% parsley, 10% chives, 10% tarragon, and 10% basil)
– 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Pre-heat your broiler on its highest setting. This is how you’ll cook the halibut.
Finely chop one anchovy. Mix this in a bowl with your chopped fresh herbs, Dijon mustard, and the zest of half a lemon. Once mixed, add a thin layer of olive oil to complete your salsa verde. Set aside.
Thinly slice the garlic cloves and add them to a medium saucepan along with the red pepper flakes and three tablespoons of olive oil. Put the pan on the stove, turn the heat to medium, and “sweat” the ingredients until they start to bubble around the edges. This will only take a few minutes.
When this bubbling has started, add one chopped anchovy to the saucepan and smash its pieces into the pan with a wooden spoon. Add your bitter greens, season with salt, and cook until tender—about 5 to 7 minutes. When they’re done, remove from heat and spritz on some fresh lemon juice.
While your bitter greens are cooking, pat halibut filets dry with paper towel and coat with a thin layer of olive oil. Place on an oven tray lined with aluminum foil. Season with salt. Put them directly under your broiler and cook until ready, 5 to 8 minutes depending on thickness.
To serve, use a slotted spoon or spatula to plate your bitter greens without their excess liquid. Place your cooked halibut on top of the greens and squeeze on a little lemon juice. Top with salsa verde.