By Ben Falik
Photography by Ben Falik
This is a story about Matt Prentice and the people he feeds. I’m one of those people, as far as back as my non-unique children’s menu orders at the Deli Unique, as momentous as the mashed potato martini bar at my wedding, as recent as last week.
For the past four years, Matt Prentice has been serving 1,000 meals a day. His patrons are not deli diners with exacting specifications for their soup or symphony subscribers or business travelers taking in views from the 72nd floor of the Renaissance Center.
Matt Prentice feeds the shelter residents, area homeless and food insecure neighbors of Cass Community Social Services.
This is not an Aaron Sorkin legal drama. That would quote directly from depositions, discovery and the 50-page Oakland County Circuit Court judgment against Matt Prentice for $2 million in damages and enforcement of a 5-year non-compete clause that expired late last year.
This is not a parable of atonement, altruism or asceticism. Like others, Matt Prentice’s work and world are different than they were before the recession. He flew too close to the sun on wings of pastrami. After the lawsuit, Prentice took his turn among the siblings taking care of their mom.
Then he went to Cass Community Social Services for the same reason others go to Cass Community Social Services — he needed a job and a place to live. Now he stays in an apartment above Cass Community United Methodist Church. There is a communal bathroom that out-of-town volunteer groups use when they are staying at the church. He takes the Q-Line to check out new restaurants. He alternates between cigarettes and Altoids.
This is not a flashback episode. If it were, it would cut back to Matt Prentice working in a kitchen at 12 years old, starting as a chef at 16, enrolling at the Culinary Institute of America and experiencing hunger over the weekend, having relied entirely on his classes for food. That story would include Danny Raskin, without whom Prentice thinks his first restaurant would have failed:
PROBABLY THE greatest change in any restaurant almost anywhere is that of Deli Unique (formerly Northgate) at Greenfield and 10½ Mile … It’s an entirely all-new ballgame … and clean as a whistle now.
Big reason is the new ownership … youthful, ambitious, so-eager-to-please Matt Prentice, whose 80-hours-a-week of creativity is beginning to pay off.
It’s now a gourmet delicatessen, if there is such a thing … and Matt’s Culinary Institute of New York, Fox & Hounds, Belanger House, etc., expertise shows some very fine colors.
Nor is this an episode of Ice Road Truckers. There were vans — or van, after one of them broke down — arriving at Gleaners Community Food Bank before the sun came up and anything had disrupted the sheet of ice that formed overnight and caused another day of school closures.
I meet Matt there to pick up the government surplus food he had ordered and to look through the pallets of rescued food for ingredients: milk, peppers, carrots, kumatos.
As the ice sheets break apart over the course of the morning, the Windstar carries us to Restaurant Depot, a trek to Troy but cheaper than Cass’ old Sysco contract; to KFC for a regular donation through America’s Second Harvest; and to a church to retrieve catering equipment from a post-funeral luncheon. Since the end of Prentice’s non-compete last fall, revenues from Cass catering have covered the agency’s entire food budget.
As we drive around, he tells me what he’s planning for his new restaurant — small plates, big tables, new-style partnership with old-style service — but won’t say where. When we pass Leon and Lulu in Clawson, I ask if it’s something like that. He nods without taking his eyes off the road.
But this is not the comeback saga of an irrepressible entrepreneur. The entrepreneur, according to Matt Prentice, is Rev. Faith Fowler. Fowler first reached out to Prentice in the late 1990s when he was debuting Duet at Orchestra Hall. She was looking for ways to serve the marginalized members of the Cass Corridor and recruited him to teach a cooking class to sex workers.
In the 20 years since, Fowler has built one social enterprise on top of another, including mud mats made from illegally dumped tires; the Ford Freight Farm, a 40-foot shipping container that grows hydroponic vegetables; and a village of tiny homes down the street.
When Cass bought the Crittenton Maternity Home on Woodrow Wilson and Elmhurst, Prentice designed the kitchen and tapped some of the hundreds of people who worked for him to build it out. He runs that kitchen now and is looking for his successor.
This is not an inspirational story about the redemptive power of children, though Prentice opened the kitchen, formerly off limits, to kids served by Cass and swapped out cold cereal for hot breakfast. He and I served bacon, eggs, waffles and hash browns there on Sunday.
The kids are shy. They clean their plates and clear them when they are done eating.
The story of Matt Prentice is the story of the benefit and cost of food, of living to eat and of eating to live.
It is his story and it’s ours. It’s just desserts, pain quotidian and — as my mother-in-law says — it’s no one’s last meal.
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