Detroit’s Eastside, November, 1980. Catering season was in full swing and I had just put stuffed artichokes in the oven when the doorbell rang. It was Arvid, the health food store owner from across the street, announcing that there were some people in the store he thought I should meet. This was my first encounter with John Armstrong, Maggie O’Meara and Norman Turner.
They described their idea for a vegetarian restaurant in Royal Oak with barn wood walls, antique tables and a menu inspired by the food of Greektown, Mexican Village and other places of Detroit’s culinary heritage. Their vision was reminiscent of places I had seen many times before in the 1970s and sounded like a good fit for Royal Oak. However, due to my other commitments, I couldn’t join the team. I wished the earthy-looking threesome the best of luck and went back to my cooking.
Detroit’s Eastside, January, 1981. The catering business was down to a trickle and I was looking for other things. Out of the blue, I received a phone call from Maggie asking when I wanted to start. The next day we met at the café. As I entered, Maggie’s father was working on the leaded glass front door and others were nailing up the barn wood and installing kitchen equipment. On the wall, a mural was beginning to take shape full of carrot people, broccoli trees, mushroom gnomes and mystically shaped clouds.
It turned out to be a meeting of destiny and with two weeks to go before opening, I took the job as head chef. My first day on the job I was asked for a good recipe for spaghetti sauce and within the next few days Maggie and I put together recipes to create an entire menu. Some of her recipes remain on the menu today as Inn Season classics. The details came together and we opened to a full house February 24, 1981. For months, each day was busier than the one before, and it was obvious to us that we had filled a void in Metro Detroit.
After a year and a half at Inn Season Café, I accepted a position as chef and manager at a friend’s place in Montreal. Quebec was a marvelous combination of Old World culture and modern community, as exemplified in neighborhood restaurants that embraced rich traditions. Inspired by my experiences, I returned to Inn Season Café in 1984 as head chef, ready to take the restaurant to the next level.
“Quality of food is synonymous with quality of life”
That was the unspoken motto of Inn Season Café during my tenure as chef/proprietor which began after I purchased the restaurant in 1985. Everything from ingredients to cooking methods to ambiance was tailored for the customer’s optimum health and utmost enjoyment.
The restaurant was a comforting place where guests could depend on a flavorful, yet surprisingly healthy dining experience. Regular patrons became active participants in the Inn Season revolution and created a contagious enthusiasm that resonated throughout the community. Twenty percent of our clientele were visiting us for the first time on any given day. Many vegetarians came from all over the country, making Inn Season Café a mandatory stop in the Detroit area.
Since the beginning of Detroit’s 300 year history, immigrants have infused the area with their treasured cuisines. James Beard, legendary chef and food writer, noted that Detroit was one of the great food cities of the U.S. because of its multitude of ethnic cuisines. The original Inn Season Café menu contained our versions of dishes served in Detroit’s Greektown, Mexican Village, Polish Hamtramck and Middle Eastern Dearborn. Over the years we would add theme dinners, as well as individual dishes, reflecting Detroit’s diversity. My passion for history taught me the importance of creating community through maintaining culinary traditions. I would occasionally invite people from different nationalities into the kitchen to teach us their vegetarian recipes.
We served fish at the Café for a number of years, all the while going to great lengths to separate it from pure vegetarian products. We offered it to attract customers who otherwise might never have come. The media began running stories of polluted waters and the depletion of the fish population. Even the fish farm industry was suspect, with relatively few farms attending to bacterial issues. Fish became the weak link in the Inn Season food chain. When we finally flushed it from the menu, we were able to focus our energies completely on the vegetarian fare, bringing us to new levels in service, flavor and vitality. Ironically, business boomed as a result of this change. Removing fish was also a big relief because of the issues relating to the classic struggle of ethics between man and animal.
Bonding with the Community
By taking Inn Season Café on the road, we supported many community events. For nine years, we were the primary food provider for the annual Stepping Out Aids Walk, serving our corn bread and chili to about 2,000 people. The Taste of Royal Oak was a local restaurant association event at which nearly 4,000 people could experience our Tuscan pizza.
The primary community interface for more than 20 years was through the Royal Oak Farmers Market. Every week during the growing season we would roll flatbed carts loaded with hundreds of pounds of produce through the market. Inn Season Café also sponsored an organic growers’ booth that initiated a permanent presence for organic farmers at the market. Shopping at the market was a social event where I would meet patrons, farmers and community leaders. Often, some of the farmers would deliver their surplus to the back door of the restaurant after the market closed. Truckloads of corn, all kinds of squash, beets, tomatoes, zucchini, etc. would be channeled through the kitchen with extras going to customers, employees and local soup kitchens.
Outreach programs were also very successful. A small restaurant can only work with so many charitable programs and still make an impact, so we chose the “Empty Bowls Project.” It was a grassroots-level template created to bring families, students, local artists and restaurants together to organize funds for feeding the poor. The students or local artists made the ceramic bowls and the families or restaurants supplied the soup to fill the bowls. The program has since been embraced nationwide, and we had the good fortune to be involved almost from the inception of the Empty Bowls Project in Southeast Michigan. The largest event we participated in was the National Service Learning Conference of 1996 in Detroit. Working with a local Royal Oak high school environmental club, I cooked 100 gallons of soup with the students assisting. We served 1000 people at the conference in bowls made at a number of local schools. A few years later the founders of Empty Bowls, John Hartom and Lisa Blackburn, honored my efforts as one of “the heroes of the Empty Bowls movement.”
Passing the Torch
Exponential growth is one of the indicators of a popular restaurant. We experienced it for many years, thus enabling us to blaze new trails in vegetarian cuisine, while we rode out the ups and downs of the economy. After almost two decades as chef/owner of Inn Season Café, I wanted to spend more time teaching and writing. Fortunately, our former sous chef Thomas Lasher stepped in as chef, ensuring the continuation of Inn Season Café‘s commitment to quality and fine cuisine.
Developing this cuisine has not been a matter of arbitrary decisions or whimsical taste. It is but a part of a culinary revolution embraced by those who wish to find the relevance in food through both good health and meaningful connections. This book, a labor of love, is an offering to all who wish to participate in this revolution.
This poem was written by my father Spyros Vutetakis in 1990. “Mr. V,” as he was known, passed away November 27, 2009, leaving all of us who knew him with lasting memories. During my tenure at Inn Season Café, he could be found pulling weeds, planting flowers, shoveling snow, running errands, helping as a handyman or, most significantly, gracing the dining room with his good humor and kind gestures. He could coax a smile out of most people with his gentle wit and one line compliments. He appreciated beauty in all forms, especially the individual humanity in each of us.
He honored what we did at Inn Season Café with his persona and poetry, we now honor him with an online memorial at: