October 28, 2021

My Grandmother's Table

A melting pot of love and ethnic culinary tradition in Charlevoix
By Eric Cox | Nov. 28, 2020

Gestures of love come in many forms. Gifting flowers, running errands for a sick loved one, wearing masks, or shoveling out a neighbor’s driveway on a frigid morning qualify.

But one loving act stands out for its ability to remain close to our hearts, both figuratively and literally: cooking for others.

Legendary American chef James Beard may have said it best: “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”

ANCESTOR INSPIRATION
Jozef “Joe” Zebediah’s late grandmother, Martha DeMarino, may not have even known who Beard was during her life in Pittsburgh. But, according to Zebediah, she embodied his love of food and its ability to not only bridge enormous cultural gaps but also to nourish, heal, and harken.

As co-owner of one of Charlevoix’s newest eateries, My Grandmother’s Table, Zebediah and his partner, Nick Easton, want to mimic DeMarino’s approach — nourishing their community with high-quality poly-ethnic cuisine. And though there are many tables in their restaurant, it’s all modeled after one: her’s.

“My grandmother lived in a very culturally diverse neighborhood, and she loved inviting neighbors over for dinner,” said Zebediah. “If they were from Japan or Africa or Poland — or even if they were from America, she’d ask them, ‘What is a food you miss from home?’ Then she’d gather the ingredients for these dishes and do her best to recreate them.”

According to Zebediah, her efforts didn’t always work out well. He said language barriers frustrated the process, and a series of trial-and-error dishes often ensued. Eventually, though, DeMarino would zero in and master the dish.

“This was a true gesture of love from her,” he said. “The people she invited to her table were always greatly touched, and sometimes there were tears. The impact of food is enormous. It connects us to each other and to our homes, our childhoods, etc.”

EVOLUTION OF A DREAM
Easton and Zebediah are putting DeMarino’s approach to work in their restaurant, but their mission didn't start there. In 2018, Zebediah began operating a booth at the Charlevoix Farmers Market, offering soups and some small ethnic dishes. As his food's reputation grew, customers began asking how they could purchase it year-round.

When those market-customer inquiries peaked, Easton and Zebediah approached Jim Simonsen, former owner of Simonsen’s Bakery, about purchasing the property at 115 Bridge St.

“I was really surprised at how interested people were in this kind of cuisine,” Zebediah said. “… the farmers market tent quickly turned into this storefront — within a year’s time.”

The parties sealed a deal, and the new proprietors embarked on an interior overhaul that saw a scale-up of the entire restaurant, including its basement kitchen area. Easton and Zebediah applied for and received a $25,000 Michigan Economic Development Grant, which financed critical new kitchen equipment and some redecorating.

While Simonsen’s Bakery featured a quaint, rustic interior, My Grandmother’s Table relies on a comfortable blend of modern and classic to achieve an interesting and cozy space. The existing Italianate columns match the striking, new black-and-white floors. Gleaming cases of baked goods separate the dining area and coffee prep areas.

A centerpiece of the restaurant’s interior — the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Round Lake notwithstanding — is a massive 35-foot-by-12-foot mural inspired by an 1895 work by Dutch painter Anton Pieck. The restaurant’s mural, painted by Torch Lake artist Gary Markley, depicts a Victorian-era bakery and various activities therein.

The diverse interior mirrors the restaurant’s food and beverage offerings. While the various, colorful entrees carry the bulk of the prestige, My Grandmother’s Table also touts a tantalizing selection of baked goods, including some vegan offerings, and a fully-appointed coffee bar capable of all the best coffee and tea concoctions.

THE MAIN DISH
But it’s the food menu, with its ethnically diversified offerings, that is so interesting. On any given day in the last year, a patron at My Grandmother’s Table might have enjoyed Jamaican Jerked Chicken, Russian Kotleti, Thai Orange Chicken, or Polish Stuffed Cabbage. If Italian is your thing, try the Italian Gnocchi with Meatballs or Sausage. But it’s not all foreign cuisine, either. Three Sisters Stew, a hearty combo that takes its name from the traditional Native American trio planting of corn, beans, and squash, has been on the menu, along with Amish Meatloaf and St. Louis Pulled Pork.

A seasoned diner might think such diverse dishes couldn’t possibly be up to snuff — all on one menu and served on the same day. While some restaurants have “Polish Week” or limited-time-only “Oktoberfest” menu, Easton, who owned and operated a huge nightclub in Ann Arbor for 20 years, and Zebediah, a culinary school grad and former psychologist, feature a variety year-round.

One to try: Polish Pierogi and Kielbasa ($16). The pierogi’s soothing, lush texture and slightly crispy shell paired perfectly with the rich kielbasa — possibly the best Polish sausage we’ve ever tasted. Crowned with a fresh dill spring, a creamy cucumber salad bathed in a subtle, creamy sauce made a great companion.

Though not shown on the seasonal menu, we also tried My Grandmother’s Table’s decadent sushi and nigiri, which was expertly served on immaculate plates, making a gorgeously vivid picture. These items were as fresh and delicious as any sushi-type dishes we’ve yet devoured.

Likewise, the Italian Ravioli, Meatballs and Sausage kept with the other dishes in their tasty authenticity and quality.

Zebediah said some area people discouraged him from offering a menu full of international food and vegan baked goods, saying Northern Michigan people don’t like ethnic or vegan cuisine.

“Actually it was just the opposite,” he said. “Both sold very well. So that was very inspiring to me because that’s what I was accustomed to, and that’s what I love doing — creating dishes that would be a little unexpected, that you couldn’t find anywhere else.”

PLAN YOUR VISIT
While the latest pandemic restrictions have temporarily closed the restaurant to in-person dining, carryout is still available. In the meantime, Easton and Zebediah are taking the brief breather from in-person dining to ready their upcoming winter menu, which will include, among other things, Ukrainian City Chicken, Japanese Sushi, Israeli French Toast, Cuban Black Bean Soup, New York City Eggs Benedict, and African Jollof Rice with Chicken.

For Easton and Zebediah, their diverse, seasonally-changing menu — they source their ingredients from northern Michigan farms and strive to acquire the freshest, most local herbs, meat, fruits, and vegetables of each season — isn’t just about keeping customers interested; it’s also about keeping Grandmother DeMarino’s spirit alive.

“What really impressed me most about my grandmother’s approach to this was that it was really a gesture of love when she cooked for people,” Zebediah said. “This was a thing she could do help people. What impressed me even more was that people were touched. Here was this woman who they didn’t really know very well who wanted to recreate food from their home country for them. As a kid, I would see the impact of food, the smiles, and the happiness. But there were sometimes tears, too, when people were really moved by it.”

Ready to be moved? Find My Grandmother's Table at 115 Bridge St., in Charlevoix. (231) 437-3132 or on Facebook.

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