How do you prepare 20,000 meals over three days during the Detroit Grand Prix?
Joe Vicari Restaurant Group in Warren is on call around the clock during the Detroit Grand Prix, including cooks, servers, and cleaning staff as well as repair and mechanical teams.
What kind of person can lead the preparation of 20,000 meals in a three-day period, all while operating from a make-shift kitchen on Belle Isle during the Detroit Grand Prix (June 1-3 this year)? If the task sounds more fitting for a Marine than a chef, Jim Oppat is the man for the job.
The 46-year-old Warren native, who has been cooking professionally since he was a teen, really wanted to become a United States Marine, but a back issue closed off that opportunity. Even so, it seems Oppat applied the spirit of a Marine to a different and tastier career path at Joe Vicari Restaurant Group in Warren.
The company consists of top brand-name establishments Joe Muer, Andiamo, and Brownie’s on the Lake. A little over a decade ago, Joe Vicari — who co-owns the company with his wife, Rosalie — was looking for a corporate chef who could cook on the line and take the organization to a higher level of operational quality.
Vicari met Oppat, a chef for Nieman Marcus at the Somerset Collection in Troy, at a variety of community events. Over several months, he tried to interest Oppat in coming on board. Finally, in 2007, Oppat agreed to take the top spot at the Andiamo Ristorante location in Dearborn. Oppat says he finally agreed to the offer because he knew it was a tryout for something bigger.
“They hired an outside consultant who came in and wrote a business model and a plan for them, and part of the plan was hiring a corporate chef, someone who could take the restaurant to the next level,” Oppat recalls. “I was using that as a stepping stone. I wasn’t interested in coming in and running one of his restaurants. I’d done that all my life. Joe and Rosalie were looking for someone who could run multiple locations.”
When Oppat took over the Dearborn location, he quickly realized that things like food and labor costs could be improved, and noticed that negotiations with vendors weren’t being handled in a way that could bring about optimal results. “The chef was doing a good job and they were getting rave reviews, but they were struggling on the fiscal side,” Oppat says.
His response was to do a deep dive into the operational details of the restaurant, instituting a variety of new policies and procedures. He also placed a higher set of expectations on the people around him. Three months later, the company held a meeting at the Dearborn location. Before anyone saw the numbers that measured Oppat’s performance, they knew things were different.
“Everybody walked through the kitchen and saw the organization and the discipline, and people were like, ‘Holy cow,’ ” Oppat says. Once the new procedures had been in place for a year, Joe and Rosalie were confident they had found their corporate chef.
“We had the best food costs, the best labor costs,” Oppat recalls. “(The Vicaris) had chefs who’d been with them for 20 years who were vying for the corporate chef position, and when they made the announcement, guys around the table were like, ‘I can’t argue.’ ”
Joe Vicari Restaurant Group has never looked back, and Rosalie Vicari thinks Oppat deserves more recognition than he gets for what he’s accomplished in the past decade.
“I think he’s probably the most underrecognized chef in the Detroit market,” Rosalie says. “You have all these young guns that are coming in that get so much press, and they’re all very good at what they do, but what he does for us is unbelievable. When you go to Belle Isle and watch him set up an entire remote kitchen in the middle of Belle Isle and serve 20,000 meals in that weekend (June 1-3), that’s amazing. It takes my breath away every year, and he executes it flawlessly.”
The challenge of catering the Grand Prix event, which Joe Vicari Restaurant Group inherited from Big Boy Restaurants International in Warren, would be enough to take most people’s breath away. It’s the astonishing challenge of preparing filet mignon, pork ribs, chicken, fish, pasta, side dishes, and desserts for the Motor City’s movers and shakers, while also serving 150 cases of wine, 1,000 cases of beer, and 50 cases of various liquors. Oppat admits it didn’t come naturally.
“My training has been a la carte, fine-dining restaurants, so catering and event management has never been my forte,” he says. “That’s where you kind of rely on your instincts and your team. My team is everything to me.”
Oppat met with Big Boy representatives to learn how they had handled the event, only to come away feeling that what he’d been told didn’t make sense for what he wanted to accomplish. The alternative was to revamp everything, largely on the fly.
“The first year was an absolute struggle,” he says. “I’ve got my 10 best guys, colleagues I’ve known for years, the 10 most trusted people in my life there saying to me, ‘What do you need?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know what the heck I need.’ ”
Faced with the prospect of operating in a landlocked environment, Oppat says he approached it like a heavyweight fighter who’d been backed into a corner. He just kept fighting.
The biggest decision was to coordinate what had been five different cooking stations into one, with all the chefs working together under Oppat’s leadership in a 9,600-square-foot tent and a neighboring 3,200-square-foot prep tent. It made the most sense for quality control, and it put him in the best position to make sure everything that was served was top-quality.
“It’s a tremendously difficult event, but now we approach it with a lot of confidence,” Oppat says. “We’re much more organized, with better policies and procedures in place. We’ve been able to improve the quality of the food every year.”
To transport prepared food from the cooking and prep tents to their final destination during the Detroit Grand Prix, Joe Vicari Restaurant Group operates a small fleet of refrigerated trucks and golf carts equipped with heated hot boxes.
Oppat gives credit to Sheila Brown, a member of his staff who spends 100 percent of her time — all year — working on preparations for the Detroit Grand Prix, including strategizing how to serve food and drinks to dozens of corporate chalets, the Grand Prixmiere charity event, race teams, first responders including the U.S. Coast Guard, media, volunteers, entertainers, and the operations team.
Rosalie Vicari says that’s typical of Oppat’s approach to leading and lifting up his team. “Jim is the kind of guy who likes to enjoy success in the background,” she says. “He would rather push everybody into the front, for them to shine.”
It’s not all that different from the philosophy of a Marine leader who makes looking out for his troops an absolute top priority. It’s probably the type of Marine Oppat would have been, and it’s certainly the type of chef and corporate leader he has become.
“He’s tireless in what he does,” Rosalie says. “He’s the first guy in the kitchen and he’s the last guy to leave, and he teaches everybody, through his example, what they’re supposed to do.”
For Oppat, a hard work ethic is his nature. He took classes briefly at Albion College, and graduated from culinary school at Schoolcraft College in Livonia under the tutelage of Master Chef Jeff Gabriel, whom he credits for much of what he’s taken into his career.
But what drives a person is usually what was in him all along. “Every day I learn, I grow, and I get smarter,” Oppat says. “I’m a better cook than I was yesterday, and that’s the benchmark. I’m burning every day, and I live it.”