A lot of soul in this hole-in-the-wall in northwest Detroit
The unassuming carryout restaurant is the only place to get the Boogaloo Wonderland, which pays homage to a historical Detroit sandwich
“Cooking is about one key thing,” Greg Beard says on a recent Tuesday in the small kitchen of Chef Greg’s Soul -N- The Wall on the northwest side near Mumford High School. The temperature in the kitchen is way past comfortable, compounded by the fact that collard greens have been simmering for hours and meatloaf and chicken are sizzling away on the stove top and deep fryer, respectively.
“What is it, James?” he says, turning to the cook tending to the meatloaf on the stove as well as the cornbread on the flat-top.
Spatula in one hand with skillet handle in the other, James turns around and replies without missing a beat.
At the moment, time is working against them. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., but lunchtime is the busiest. The ticket delivery orders are piling up on the stainless steel table in the middle of the kitchen. Six styrofoam containers are laid out on the table, waiting to be filled with two orders of chicken wings, meatloaf, a grilled chicken wrap (only lettuce) and catfish. These soul food favorites will be paired with fries, mac and cheese, sauteed cabbage or cornbread dressing, no gravy.
Beard gets to work. He prides himself on making things to order and cooking from scratch.
“I don’t open up a box, add water and watch it grow,” he says as he measures out cornmeal, flour and sugar to make another batch of cornbread batter.
Indeed, most of the dishes are made from scratch, such as the multilayered peach cobbler (a three-day process that includes marinating the peaches and making the buttery dough). When an order is placed for a burger, that’s when Beard will form and season the patty. Nothing sits under a heat lamp, waiting to be picked up.
“Fast food ain’t good and good food ain’t fast,” he says. “I heard that in a commercial once.” Beard throws a lot of ready-for-TV sound bites into conversation. Some typical Beard sayings: “I keep it 100,” “To make a long story bearable,” “Urban flavor with a twist,” and “It’s a beautiful thing.” He says that last phrase quite a lot.
Eventually James steps away as Beard completes the orders. In about 15 minutes, the food is ready to go, and the table is cleared of tickets.
I’ve worked with a lot of chefs, and I haven’t met one quite like him. Even with his one-liners, Beard is an intense and cerebral man with unwavering faith and spirituality.
He’s cool under pressure as he works by himself to clear orders, but gets fired up talking about the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that had just taken place a few days before a recent Tuesday morning when he let me into his kitchen to cook.
His restaurant is in the neighborhood where he grew up. His parents divorced at 2 and his mom moved away to California. His dad, among many things, owned a restaurant, an auto shop and a furniture store. He was also a boxer and musician, and many of these talents have also rubbed off on Beard, who is also a musician.
Beard started cooking at age 13. At age 20, he started cooking professionally when he moved out to Los Angeles to be with his mom, where he started building his culinary foundation and learned how to cook all kinds of different cuisines from Japanese to Italian working at hotels and restaurants. He returned to Detroit in 1995 after his father fell ill and started working at the Marriott in Livonia.
His culinary resume is quite extensive; aside from working at restaurants and hotels in metro Detroit including the former Summit at the top of the Renaissance Center, he’s also worked as a production chef for the county making thousands of meals a day. He went to culinary school at Henry Ford College in his 40s, getting that piece of paper that already said what he already knew.
He also knew he wanted to open a restaurant. He just didn’t know where.
“I've been thinking about the people, the young folks, older people. (In this neighborhood, there) used to be mom-and-pop stores. I remember in this neighborhood growing up as a child we had candy shops, we had ice cream parlors, we had hobby shops, we had pharmacies, clothing stores, boutiques."
A few years ago, he was on his way back from church and driving down Wyoming when a voice in his head that told him to turn left. That’s when he saw a building with a for-rent sign in the window with a phone number. He started to look for something to write with so he could take down the number and went to the barber shop next door. No need; the owner of the building was there.
In 2006, Beard opened his restaurant and has been grinding it out in this small, off-the-beaten path spot that’s mostly carryout. You won't find this hidden gem on listicles of the same five places to dine at in Detroit (however, the restaurant is on Yelp and has an impressive five-star rating).
The name is a play off the phrase hole-in-the-wall, and Beard puts on no airs. Customers place their orders behind a Plexiglas window (the landlord won’t let him take it down, as well as the bars on the windows) and then wait inside the brightly colored room painted pumpkin with cinnamon trim as jazz and soul music plays loudly on the speaker outside (he’s a self-taught guitarist who loves music and even breaks out his guitar to sing a few songs for me). There has been “tear-jerking moments” such as when he didn’t know how he would find the money to pay for a new exhaust system or when there was only a few dollars in the cash register after a full day of being open for business.
He has a feeling things are changing in his favor. In 2011, award-winning singer and songwriter Allee Willis was on her way to a concert when two murals on the side of Beard’s restaurant made her get out of the car. She started taking pictures of the murals when Beard came out and told her, “Why don’t you take a picture of the real thing?”
Beard immediately recognized her. Willis told the music-loving restaurateur to close the eatery and come to the concert. Since then Willis, whose favorite kind of food is soul food, has been coming to the restaurant, holding private dinners.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he says of his journey with the songwriter, whom he calls his “sister.”
She’s also flown him out to L.A. to share his signature sandwich, the Boogaloo Wonderland. The name is part homage to the sandwich created by the proprietors of Brothers Bar-B-Q, which previously occupied the space where Chef Greg’s Soul -N- The Wall is now, and part nod to Willis’ song “Boogie Wonderland.”
The menu at this modest storefront is vast, covering all the soul food bases.But the Boogaloo Wonderland sandwich is definitely one of the biggest draws. For the uninitiated, the Boogaloo dates back to the ‘70s and was a creation of co-proprietor Jean Johnson of the beloved Brothers Bar-B-Q restaurants, which was located in the space that now houses Chef Greg’s Soul -N- The Wall.
In a Detroit Free Press article published on Sept. 21, 1979, the Anonymous Gourmet wrote: “This amazing thing is a lofty sandwich about the size of a Size 7 shoe, a split loaf of French bread heaped with finely ground lean pork, grilled onions (and green peppers, if you want them), a spritz of cheese spread, and loaded with ‘Jean’s Sauce of the Island.’ ” Similar to the coney dog, a slick of yellow mustard topped it all off. It sold for $2.10 and for $1.15 more, fries and coleslaw rounded out the “Boogaloo a la Meal.”
The mysterious Jean’s Sauce of the Island was a fiercely guarded secret, one that came from Johnson’s family. When the Brothers restaurant shuttered, the Boogaloo faded into food history.
Years later, Beard resurrected it after two different customers came in at two separate occasions asking for it.
From his experience as a saucier (French for sauce chef) he recreated the sauce, which he also fiercely guards. What he will share is that he takes raw tomatoes and boils them down to create his own sauce, which serves as the base, and adds several herbs and spices such as paprika and onion powder.
On Sept. 28 he’ll be making quite a few Boogaloo Wonderland sandwiches — about 1,000 to be exact — for Willis’ premiere party of “The D,” a song performed by 5,000 Detroiters.
His relationship with Willis has helped open a few doors for him. He’s cooked for other musicians such as Larry Dunn from Earth, Wind & Fire and over the summer catered an event for the cast and crew of Starz drama “Power,” which is produced by rapper 50 Cent.
Beard has a lot of big ideas and as he talks about them, his usual fast way of speaking isn’t quick enough to keep up with his thoughts as the words come tumbling out. He would love to publish a cookbook, host a TV show that highlights regular cooks in the community and, the grand plan, open a sit-down restaurant. With that last one, there’s the issue of time for the chef who can clear a table of tickets in minutes but faces some roadblocks to his dream.
“I’m 56 now. I would like to be in (the sit-down restaurant) by 60,” he says as he looks over the space that has been gutted; piles of debris are strewn about, kitchen equipment and dining tables and chairs forgotten. The space is in an empty building across the parking lot from his current eatery. It used to house various restaurants, including an African eatery as well as Brothers Bar-B-Q, which had been in the carryout space before moving across the way.
As a cook (he doesn’t like to be called chef) who has cooked Italian, Japanese and many different cuisines in between, he’d like to show off some of that culinary knowledge by serving lobster, steaks and pasta at the restaurant.
He would also like to bring in guest chefs who specialize in different cuisines to cook. He doesn’t want to be known just as a black guy who does soul food and that’s all he knows.
“That underestimates me,” he says.
But soul food is not talked about in the mainstream, he says, but it’s been appropriated so much so that it’s trendy. Look no further than southern restaurants selling “elevated” fried chicken and $66 collard greens.
The restaurant will showcase all of his passions and talents, from live entertainment and music to the food. But he’s still got a long way to go before he can open that restaurant. The hefty price tag that comes with opening a restaurant doesn’t faze him from dreaming big.
“I want to create a business that can benefit the community, the city, the county, the world,” he says. The jobs he’ll create will be filled with people from the community and he’d also like to bring back some of that “nostalgia” of the neighborhood.
“I've been thinking about the people, the young folks, older people,” he says. “(In this neighborhood, there) used to be mom-and-pop stores. I remember in this neighborhood growing up as a child we had candy shops, we had ice cream parlors we had hobby shops, we had pharmacies, clothing stores, boutiques.
“I want to bring back nostalgia because I want to do a sit-down that will require people to be interactive. I want to bring foot traffic.”
And it has to be here.
“People ask don't you want to go downtown? No, I want to stay up town,” he says as he riffs off Prince’s “Uptown.”
“Uptown is where I want to be. Come party with me. Why? We got space, we got room.”
Indeed, it’s a beautiful thing.
Chef Greg's Soul -N- The Wall is located at 10009 Curtis St., Detroit MI 48221.