Even if you’ve never heard his name, if you’ve eaten around the city at any point since the ‘80s, it’s likely you’ve had food prepared by chef Phil Jones.
Whether it was during his early days as a line cook at the Beverly Hills Grill or the Rattlesnake Club, or after he helped open the original Fishbones in Greektown, or during the heyday of his Silver Spoon carryout restaurant in Grosse Pointe Woods, or maybe while he had the food service contract at the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House, or when he ran a stall during the old TasteFest in New Center, or while he was executive chef at Lola’s in Harmonie Park, or, later, at COLORS across the park. Or you may have tried one of the 400 recipes he developed for the fast-casual soup chain Zoup!, which still prominently features his chicken pot pie flavor, which can be had in 17 states and three locations in Canada.
“He’s such a creative person,” says Kathryn Lynch Underwood, a planner with Detroit’s City Planning Commission as well as a founding member alongside Jones of the Detroit Food Policy Council. “He’s also someone that can take different cultures and different flavors and mash them up in a very compelling way. So certainly the joy part of food is deeply who he is, but also justice. And everything he does around food is usually through a lens of justice and equity and uplifting others and congratulating and celebrating other chefs. All chefs don’t do that.”
Chef Phil Jones is the lead chef coordinator of Make Food Not Waste, an event held in Detroit’s Eastern Market on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019, which provided 5,000 free meals to the public made from food that would’ve otherwise been thrown out. (Photo: Mark Kurlyandchik, Detroit Free Press)
Indeed, across a four-decade career cooking in and around Detroit, Jones’ influence on and importance to the local food system is difficult to overstate.
“I think Chef Phil’s impact is at the ground level and permeates through all levels of the food system in a way that a lot of food system workers could never say,” says Avalon International Breads Director of Retail Operations Bekah Galang. “He works with everyone from the composters and the farmers all the way to the top tier with James Beard. … He really focuses on the ways that we’re similar and not the ways that we’re different.”
Over the last 10 years, Jones has transitioned from a restaurant chef to what he begrudgingly calls a “community chef.” A majority of his work now is pro bono and centers on food activism, whether it be educating the public on how to minimize food waste at huge events, driving community-based food policy locally behind the scenes, or calling out the racial and social inequities of the food system to the faces of its most powerful and privileged members.
“It’s important that people recognize that passion and talent and creativity have been a part of who we have always been in Detroit,” Underwood says. “And it’s not new with the New Detroit. And I think Chef Phil is a grounding force around food and food justice.”
But Jones doesn’t want anyone to forget: Chef Phil can still cook.
Make Food, Not Waste
At 10 a.m. the day before our interview, Eastern Market’s Shed 5 is abuzz with activity as the doors open to the public. It’s only the second year of Make Food, Not Waste, but the event looks and feels like a much more well-established affair, with slick signage and a smooth-running operation.
The event was an idea that environmentalist Danielle Todd wanted to bring to the city, inspired by a similar function in New York City. In 2017, she took the idea to members of the Detroit Food Policy Council, an organization that influences city policy to ensure an equitable and sustainable local food system.
The event is entirely volunteer-run and most everything is donated by organizations like Eastern Market, Cherry Capital Foods, Hungry Harvest, Keep Growing Detroit, Marx Layne & Company and Skidmore. Some 20 of Detroit’s hottest chefs participate and make dishes out of food that would otherwise go into the waste stream. Kroger is the presenting sponsor, which helps cover some of the costs that can’t be donated.
Todd and Jones liken their roles at Make Food, Not Waste to the founding members of Public Enemy.
“I’m Flava Flav, the hype man, and she’s Chuck D, the heartbeat of the work,” Jones says. “For whatever reason, I’ve kinda become the face of it. And then I yell and give good orders.”
Ten minutes after doors open, people are starting to trickle in, but the food isn’t quite ready yet.
“Bekah!” Jones calls out to Galang, who is also a volunteer and is on the Make Food, Not Waste steering committee. “Grab a towel with some bleach. Anywhere there’s water on these tables, we need to get it up.”
Chef Phil Jones hugs one of his many admirers at the Make Food Not Waste event in Detroit’s Eastern Market on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. (Photo: Mark Kurlyandchik, Detroit Free Press)
Galang met Jones in 2013, when both worked for the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) in Detroit. She ran a boot camp for people who wanted to start a collaborative food business and Jones was the executive chef at COLORS, the ROC’s restaurant that doubles as a food-service training operation for folks looking to join the industry.
“He was so well-versed in what the community was going through at that time,” Galang recalls. “And he also had an ear to the ground of things that were happening nationally and internationally. He was able to keep up with the trends and what was going on on the outside, but really his heart is just in the city.”
Close to 11 a.m., publicist David Rudolph lingers in the kitchen trying to find his client, chef Max Hardy. A woman breaking down boxes asks whether he’s a volunteer.
“I’m just a friend of Chef Phil’s,” Rudolph says.
“Everyone is a friend of Chef Phil’s!” the woman says incredulously. “He’s a social butterfly. A grouchy one.”
Jones, overhearing the exchange from the other side of the kitchen, cracks a wry, knowing smile. After a minute, he announces that he’s going to sit down. He needs to get off his feet.
“He’s done so many great things before anybody was paying attention,” Rudolph says to me as Jones limps away, using a cane for support.
“He’s an institution,” Todd echoes. “I think anyone who meets him is just taken in by his warmth and his incredible culinary skill. Going above and beyond is not enough of a phrase to describe him. He can be as tired as can be and will cook for people in the community that need support. It is the depth of his love for Detroit, for the people of Detroit, for food — you just don’t come across with other people. He’s authentic. He’s meaningful. And he’s selfless. He gives and he gives and gives.”
Later, Jones asks me a favor. More of a directive, really. If I’m going to write about him and tell his story, he says I need to include the socarrat.
“The what?” I ask over the din of the crowd now enjoying the free food.
“You know, the crusty bits of the paella,” Jones says. “I get a lot of people who see this life of mine, but they don’t see the challenges. The cane is a challenge. Depression, alcoholism — all the challenges that go along with our industry. You need to tell the whole story.”
The crusty bits
Even though Detroit is home to Jones, his early years were marked by loneliness and upheaval elsewhere. As he tells it, he was born in Cleveland but only stayed for a couple of months. He didn’t know his father at all growing up and was raised by his free-spirited mother and maternal grandmother. They were in the beauty business and the little trifecta of a family unit wound up bouncing around the East Coast for the first few years of his life.
At age 3, he moved to St. Croix after his grandmother fell in love with the Caribbean island on vacation. His mother was having some issues and stayed in the U.S. and little Phil would travel back and forth.
“We were on food stamps back then,” Jones says of his early childhood. “It was hard. At least I got 15 meals a week at school. My mom was never a great cook at all so that was some of the better food I had. And I guess that’s probably why I started cooking so early. Even if I was with my mother or grandmother, they were always working. If I wanted to eat, I had to cook.”
Jones’ first cooking job came at the ripe age of 6, while living on St. Croix. He got a little booth together and sold meat patties during one of the island’s many festivals.
“Life in St. Croix was a little different,” he says. “You grow up a little faster. My first day of kindergarten they dissected a cow, basically, and they taught us how to make rice. By the end of the week, I could make a meal.”
At 8 years old, his great-grandfather on his mother’s side fell ill, prompting a move back to his mother’s native city of Detroit. Here, his grandmother became the first black woman licensed as a manicurist in the state of Michigan and ultimately opened up a line of nail salons at Northland, Fairlane and Eastland malls.
Chef Phil Jones photographed Monday, April 17, 2006, while he was executive chef and manager of Lola’s restaurant in Harmonie Park. (Photo: RICHARD LEE, Detroit Free Press)
“She was actually the first woman and first black (person) to own a business in a mall in the U.S.” Jones says proudly.
Even after settling back in Michigan, the family moved around between Detroit, Oak Park and Southfield. He was always changing schools, always the new kid. Finally, in seventh grade, Jones got into the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and found some sense of stability.
But with his mother and grandmother working, Jones was alone quite a bit.
“All that alone time probably made me a little strange,” he admits. “I’m still painfully shy. I don’t go to parties. I give them because it’s easier to control. Most of the time I want to be in some sort of service capacity because it gives me an excuse. Whether it’s DJ-ing or cooking, it’s some other reason for me to be there.”
After high school, Jones was accepted to Michigan State University. Thanks to his grades and aptitude, he entered the honors college but didn’t even declare his major before giving it all up for the cook’s life. He started washing dishes at a local restaurant and graduated to the hot line, a place he’d stay for the next few decades, albeit in other restaurants.
“The cooking kind of took over with the life and the partying,” he recalls. “I started making a living. And though I had always had been given a good education — going to private schools and that — it was never the way forward because I was raised by entrepreneurs.”
Just as his cooking career was beginning in earnest, his physical health was beginning to unravel. As a young teen, Jones had experienced back problems. Doctors told him they were just growing pains, but in his early 20s, he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.
These days, it’s everywhere, even though the doctors rescinded his rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis in recent years. It doesn’t matter, he says. Everything hurts. He’s been using the cane on and off for 15 years.
“Whatever I have, it’s in my entire body,” he says. “I have days where I just shut down. I can’t walk. I can’t move. It hurts to breathe. … From June to November, I have these flare-ups and some days I have to crawl up the steps. It’s a challenge just being. Some days I lay in bed and cry, because that’s all I can do.”
And though he’s always struggled with it, he was still able to work the long hours demanded by the restaurant industry when he was younger. After coming back from MSU, he opened the Beverly Hills Grill as a line cook, then the Rattlesnake Club, then Fishbones in Greektown, where Jones graduated to sous chef.
After a couple years at Fishbones, Jones opened a carryout restaurant in an old yogurt shop in Grosse Pointe Woods called the Silver Spoon Carryout Cafe — “a silly-ass play on an upscale carryout joint,” as Jones describes it. From there came catering gigs.
The catering led to consultations, and by the late ‘90s, Jones was brought on to do the research and development for Southfield-based Zoup!, which set off a chain of introductions and events that led to him becoming a member of the Detroit Food Policy Council in 2009, Jones’ first taste of food advocacy and justice work.
“I wasn’t even a local food kind of guy,” Jones says. “My thing was the best ingredients and high creativity. Local didn’t matter. My claim to fame back then was I could get fresh fruit from around the world in February. That’s who I was.”
Chef Phil Jones photographed on Thursday, September 1, 2011, ahead of the opening of COLORS Restaurant in Detroit’s Harmonie Park. Jones was the opening executive chef of the restaurant/worker training program. (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)
But Jones’ perspective really changed when he became the executive chef at COLORS restaurant in Harmonie Park, where he connected the on-the-job trainees to some of the local farms and purveyors he’d befriended. Even the James Beard Foundation (JBF) took notice.
Mitchell Davis, chief strategy officer for JBF, says he first met Jones at a luncheon at COLORS that served as a roundtable conversation about food issues in Detroit.
“What resonated with me most then as it does now is Phil’s belief in the power of food,” Davis wrote in an email, “Not just as a material object or an economic asset or even as a source of nutrition and sustenance. No, Phil believes there’s something inherent in food and cooking and even in gastronomy that is profoundly good for us, good for people, good for communities. I have always believed (maybe hoped) that was true, but I haven’t met many people who know what I mean when I try to express it.”
In 2012, Jones’ friend and frequent collaborator Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, was honored with a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award. He brought Jones along and the next year Jones was invited back to participate in a discussion with the journalist Jane Black.
“We were talking and I got real uncomfortable because I’m looking out here at the James Beard Foundation and we’re talking about the food system and the only other black man that was there was the one I came with,” Jones recalls. “There were 275 other people there with the power to control the food system — celebrity chefs, food system leaders — and we’re the only two black men there. From there, my work became about how we look at diversity inside of this stuff. … My thing with that is creating access and representation for folks that would not normally get it. Now someone who lives over here in the hood is at the table.”
Despite his at-times combative stance — Jones says he’s told off a Pepsi vice president, the head of the National Dairy Council and an editor at Good Housekeeping magazine — JBF continued to call on him. In 2013, he took part in the foundation’s first-ever Chef’s Boot Camp for Policy & Change. And, more recently, the foundation has leaned hard into diversifying its ranks and those who win its awards. Jones has been a leading voice in that charge.
“Phil’s commitment to improving communities through food is symbiotic with the James Beard Foundation’s Impact Programs, which began to take shape around that lunch table at COLORS,” Davis says. “As an organization, we are committed to improving the sustainability of the food system, supporting gender equality and diversity in restaurants, and training chefs to be advocates for food policy change. We’ve built these programs with the input and inspiration from our chef community of which Phil is both a leader and an inspiration.”
Michael Layne snaps a photo of chef Phil Jones at the Make Food Not Waste event in Detroit’s Eastern Market on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. Layne’s public relations firm, Marx Layne & Company, provided Make Food Not Waste with pro-bono PR to help spread the word about the event. (Photo: Mark Kurlyandchik, Detroit Free Press)
The work continues
With this year’s Make Food Not Waste behind him, Jones can finally focus on his next big project, a project with Kwaku Osei and Islam Kolouda called Farmacy Food, which Jones describes as a casual restaurant concept using food as medicine.
A woman in the neighborhood recently gifted Jones a 1,500-square-foot building at 16th & Ferry Park where he wants to install an educational community space/grocer that uses biometrics and data to tailor menus for health-based outcomes. But that could also go into the old Thrifty Scot Supermarket at Joy & Dexter. Much is in the air, including money, which has been a little hard to come by lately.
“The research begins and I morph again,” he says. “Someone asked me yesterday when I was going to slow down and I said I don’t know because the more work I do, the more work I see needs to be done.”
As our interview at Avalon ends, I offer Jones a ride home. He gave up his car to save money during these recent lean times. But, of course, he’s not going home. And can I instead drop him off at the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm in the North End? There’s a big community event there Saturday and Jones is cooking.
The work continues.
Send your dining tips to Free Press Restaurant Critic Mark Kurlyandchik at 313-222-5026 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MKurlyandchik and Instagram @curlyhandshake. Read more restaurant news and reviews and sign up for our Food and Dining newsletter.