Inside the Kitchen

How one chef balanced interests in a restaurant, a banquet center, and a catering operation, and launched food and beverage services at the Hotel St. Regis — all while constrained by a pandemic.
Bobby Nahra in kitchen
A Chef’s Kitchen: Chef Bobby Nahra found new revenue sources after stay-at-home orders went into effect in March. // Photographs by Matthew LaVere

Heading into 2020, Chef Bobby Nahra was looking at his best year on record since he began cooking at age 6 alongside his late mother at his family’s banquet hall. It was there that he learned a chef must use all of their senses to prepare oysters Rockefeller, linguini with clam sauce, or New England clam chowder.

“‘Stick with the classics,’ she would always say,” Nahra recalls. “She could walk through the kitchen and she could see, feel, and hear if everything was being done properly. She could tell if a pan was properly heated just by the sound a filet would make when it started cooking. She made sure a classic dish was a classic, because she said that’s what people wanted.”

Today, at 49, Nahra is well-known for his Sunday morning appearances cooking at tailgates on Fox 2 before Detroit Lions games. With an interest in four establishments, including Encore by Chef Bobby, a 560-person banquet center in St. Clair Shores, a $200,000 Freightliner (restaurant-grade kitchen on wheels), a visible role in major charitable events, numerous TV spots, and dozens of catering contracts, he also is eyeing a cookbook and listening to offers to star in a nationally syndicated cooking show.

Then COVID-19 hit in early March, and his big year quickly turned into a bust. “It wasn’t an overnight bust, but in a matter of a few weeks I lost almost all of my business. I was never more stressed out,” he admits.

And with good reason. Apart from all of his regular accounts, from catering weddings to partnering on all of the culinary operations at Freedom Hill in Sterling Heights, which had 85 weddings on the books this summer and fall, he was taking on major accounts with the Detroit Grand Prix and the North American International Auto Show.

That all disappeared. Even funerals didn’t produce business, because no one was allowed to have one. Due to state restrictions, he closed all of his restaurants. It was a punch in the gut for a chef whose career was (and still is) ascendant.

Once the pandemic set in, Nahra was determined to keep as much of his team together as possible. “My culinary staff never left my side,” he says. “None of them ever went on the stay-at-home incentive (unemployment).”

Rather than sulk and search for pity, Nahra dug in. Even though his catering, banquet, and dine-in restaurant business was virtually nonexistent, he switched gears and saw an opportunity for providing individually prepared and wrapped meals for hospital workers. It was a very different proposition from the activity that had made Nahra’s reputation.

“We worked from 5 in the morning to 11 at night, five to six days a week,” Nahra says. “We had to compartmentalize. Everything had to be individually wrapped and boxed. It’s not like doing a big buffet. It’s tedious to make individual meals for everybody.”

He also had to deal with the scarcity of everything from plastic forks to containers, as the food industry took a hit and deliveries were difficult to get on time. But Nahra found solutions.

“I worked with local vendors at Eastern Market, Del Bene Produce, and other suppliers,” he says. “They literally went out of their way to make sure my deliveries were on time, which we needed. I was having orders come in at noon and people wanted the food right away. When you treat everyone as your business partner, it helps when things start going bad.”

Bobby Nahra cooking
Signature Dish: Nahra prepares what he calls a julienne medley of summer vegetables inside the kitchen of his banquet center.

The hard work paid off, too. When hospital activity began to wane in mid-May, as the first wave of the virus passed through Michigan, Nahra switched his business model again and began offering prepared meals to the fitness community. The volume wasn’t the same as it was with the hospitals, but there were some pleasant surprises in store.

“I gave out samples of my food to all the body-builders, and I’ve got to be honest with you, it was depressing,” Nahra says. “This is what I’ve been reduced to? I’m giving away free samples? But you swallow your pride and drive forward. Then a guy walks up and says, ‘I’ll order 18 meals every other day.’ ”

It was followed by a few more sizeable, and steady, orders. All this was enough to keep Nahra’s kitchen staff busy. That wasn’t necessarily the case with his wait staff, many of whom took unemployment benefits. He couldn’t retain everyone, especially with private dining restrictions.

But Nahra is, first and foremost, a chef — and he’s grateful that his kitchen staff stuck around. In order to keep them together and maintain his overall financial stability, Nahra relied heavily on his wife, Nadia. A banking professional, Nadia made sure plenty of savings were on hand just in case there was a major need. She also helped her husband through the process of applying for a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program.

Even before he received the PPP money, Nahra dug into his own pockets to make sure his culinary team was taken care of. He says he’ll never regret it. “In a few years that won’t even feel significant, and really it will pay off in building goodwill and loyalty,” he says. “It hurts now, but that’s just a short-term thing.”

So are the COVID-induced difficulties, Nahra insists, explaining that he continues to approach his business with optimism and ambition. After all, his parents got by with much less. His Lebanese-American father had established a catering business on Detroit’s east side, but it was his Italian-American mother who taught him to cook.

“She knew about the culinary arts through her family, so I had this Old World training they don’t teach in the culinary schools,” he says. “She would give me a dish and, as I was eating it, I would describe what I thought was in it. Over time, I was able to figure out how to prepare a dish just by tasting it. That has served me well over the years.”

His business ventures are numerous. He’s a 50-percent partner at Freedom Hill Banquet Center in Sterling Heights, and he’s also a partner at Port O Call restaurant in Algonac, which reopened right before the July 4th holiday weekend. Along with business partner Christos Moisides, he also runs the Boulevard Restaurant and Lounge, a 400-person banquet hall, and hospitality and catering offerings at the Hotel St. Regis in Detroit, which, as of press time, was scheduled to open in August.

“Would you believe over the July 4th weekend our business was up 12 percent over last year at Port O Call, and we were at 50-percent (seating) capacity due to the state rules? That was really gratifying because you work so hard to build up your brand, and then the virus hits and you’re almost back at square one,” he says.

Overcoming obstacles is nothing new for Nahra.

“In 2006, I was kind of in a rut with my father and I needed to grow, and my dad was content just to maintain the status quo,” Nahra recalls. “I wasn’t that guy. So I found a banquet hall location in St. Clair Shores and I leveraged everything I had to acquire it. I didn’t take a dime from my father. I gutted the building in less than 90 days. As we were gutting it, (it became obvious that) the building was really debilitated. And I didn’t have a lot of resources.”

Ora King Salmon
Final Touch: Nahra prepares a dish of Ora King salmon. “At the banquet hall, every dish is like what you would order in a restaurant,” he says.

Nahra was determined to make it happen. He took out several hundred thousand dollars in unsecured credit cards. “It worked out,” Nahra says of Encore by Chef Bobby. “In the first month we had $17,000 in business on the books, and we cleared $850,000 in less than seven months.”

Nahra grew the business through repeat business, referrals, and networking — and he invested heavily in local charities.

“I went to every fundraiser,” he says. “I donated constantly to charities. I never told anybody, but I got involved. Detroit wasn’t booming yet, but I surrounded myself with hard-working people — people who were up-and-coming.”

Eventually he was noticed by Dario Bergamo, an automotive equipment representative who had helped develop an annual fundraising event called Cars and Cigars. The gathering serves as a fundraiser for more than 30 charities, including the Celani Family Foundation. Overall, Cars and Cigars supports the fight against hunger and serves the needs of youth.

Bergamo knew there was an opportunity coming up at Freedom Hill for a new chef to oversee all of the prepared food for concerts, including entertainers and VIP ticket-holders, along with weddings, family reunions, and festivals. He arranged for a meeting between Nahra and Freedom Hill owner Tom Celani.

“I put him and Tom together for the Freedom Hill venture, which I thought was a really good thing,” Bergamo says. “It worked out really well from day one. Bobby had this laborious product under control. He knows how to run the catering business and his food always tastes terrific.”

Celani knew of Nahra’s reputation through his charity work and Encore by Chef Bobby, but he wasn’t sold right off the bat. “I wanted to make sure, as a partner, he had the time to do it and give the 110 percent he gives to everything else he does,” Celani says. “He cooked for me. He said, ‘Let me show you.’ ”

A few days later, as a test, Nahra explored what Celani and his wife, Vicki, had in their pantry, fridge, and freezer, and proceeded to whip up two dinners on the fly. There was no trip to the local market. “If he could pull that off, it was a sign that he’s resourceful and creative,” Celani reasoned.

Soon after, Nahra visited Celani at his office. The dinners he had prepared had gone well, he thought, but he says Celani “kept his cards close to his vest.” Nahra settled into a conference room and Celani appeared a few minutes later and tossed him a set of keys, saying, “We’re partners now.”

With that, Nahra gained not only a partner, but a mentor. “Tom’s so diversified, and he keeps all these businesses going,” Nahra says. “He inspired me to be more like him, more ambitious, telling me, ‘Grow your brand. Don’t be scared. You’re a young man. Don’t settle for just two businesses. Get 10 or 20.’ ”

While Nahra was grateful for the shot of confidence and the new account, Celani reveals he was the beneficiary of the arrangement. “He made it turnkey for me,” he says. “I don’t have a worry about the hall. He hires the people. He trains them. I don’t have to worry about anything.”

Bobby Nahra garnishing Ora King Salmon

Nahra’s television debut was another step into the unknown. “I was working at Red Crown for the Cotton family — as a 30-percent partner at the Red Crown Restaurant in Grosse Pointe Park — and I got a phone call from Fox 2 asking, ‘How would you like to be on TV?’ ” Nahra says. “One of the producers came and ate there, and they were impressed with the food.”

The call came on a Wednesday evening. Fox 2 wanted Nahra on set at 6 a.m. the following morning.

“So I bring the whole menu of food,” Nahra says. “I came in heavy. I’m with Jay Towers and Amy Andrews, my first time on live TV cooking. Jay destroys my name, calling me Chef Nash on TV. I don’t correct him, and I nailed the cooking segment.”

Apparently Fox 2 agreed, because they had him back several weeks later, this time for a segment on barbecue tips for Memorial Day. “I set up a beautiful buffet for TV,” Nahra says. “And they said, ‘You’re a natural. You haven’t done any TV?’ ”

While it’s easy to get caught up by the starry lights, Nahra remains grounded.

“He helps feed 600 to 800 people a week that nobody knows about,” Bergamo says. “He moves that food over to Macomb Feeding the Need. It’s a lot of people that he feeds, and it’s crazy. He does it for Children’s Hospital, for us — I don’t know where he finds the time. He’s one of the hardest-working guys around.”

As part of Nahra’s work with Cars and Cigars, he allows himself to be auctioned off for a VIP dinner, drawing bids as high as $35,000. “Bobby is very giving of his time and donates a lot to charities,” Celani says. “I learned about him and his reputation through his charity network.”

While some may believe Nahra is so focused that he scripts his daily routine like a drill sergeant, the reality is he takes what comes and looks for opportunity.

“No two days are the same,” says Kelly Engel, Nahra’s longtime assistant. “You’ll never get burned out or bored, because every day’s a new experience. You never know what the upcoming event is going to be, or what our next plan or goal is.”

Nahra’s reputation as a hard-charging, run-on-all-cylinders chef netted him the opportunity to do something he long dreamed of — run a restaurant on the water.

Pete Beauregard Sr., owner of the Algonac Harbor Club, was impressed when Nahra came out and ran an invitation-only event he sponsored a few years back. It got him thinking about making a change at an underperforming restaurant called Port O Call that’s adjacent to the marina.

Bobby Nahra and Jon Zube in their food truck
On The Road: Nahra, along with Chef Jon Zube, wasn’t content fashioning a food truck from a service vehicle. Rather, he revamped a Freightliner Truck into a commercial kitchen. “It’s a restaurant on wheels that got greater use during COVID-19,” he says.

“I had leased out the restaurant space, and the lease was coming up in fall 2017,” Beauregard says. One thing led to another, and Beauregard told Nahra he was looking for someone who had a good reputation and could give him good guidance to take over the restaurant.

“He said, ‘I can definitely help you there,’”   Beauregard recalls. “Then Bobby started making appearances at the restaurant. Not only would he go in the kitchen and whip something up, he would come out and work the floor and start talking to the people, and they would want to take pictures with him.”

Nahra says the Algonac opportunity was a challenge, but also a natural for him. “You’d have 400 boat wells filled, but no one was going into the restaurant,” Nahra says. “I’m always working the front and the back of the house, that’s just the way I am.”

It doesn’t take much time talking to Nahra to recognize that he’s a Type A, high-energy person who relishes a challenge and enjoys a friendly conversation. “I start at 5 in the morning,” he says. “That’s my quiet time. I get e-mails knocked out, send a punch list to my staff, and by 6 a.m. I’m on my way out to the gym.”

He’s convinced that working out and living a clean lifestyle are keys to his success, and keep him strong for Nadia and their two daughters. “Without exercise I couldn’t do the work I do,” Nahra admits. “Too many chefs get hooked on opioids, nicotine, marijuana. I don’t mess with any of that. Life is too short.”

So will the story of Chef Bobby Nahra soon be known nationwide? A Los Angeles-based production company is considering a documentary series starring Nahra, and was tentatively planning to shoot sizzle footage for a pilot last spring. Then COVID-19 put the project on hold until it becomes safe to hire a film crew.

“We’re exploring a documentary series about Chef Bobby,” says Stephanie Buxbaum, executive producer and owner of Sunday Brunch Productions Inc. in Winnetka, Calif., northwest of Los Angeles. “In the last year or so, Chef Bobby and I have been developing a great series in the food space. He has a great personality, a circle of friends who are amazing, and a very nice family.”

Those who know him believe the nation will be impressed.

“His knowledge of food is unbelievable,” Beauregard says. “The chefs I know that have talked to him say nothing but praise about him, so the guy knows his business. And he can adapt to any type of market. He can go high-end, he can go sports-type food. It can be anything. He just whips it up so fast.”

Nahra is the first to say it’s the people he’s connected with along the way who have made it possible for him to turn his talent and his energy into success.

“I learned the hard way,” Nahra says. “I partnered up with the wrong people a couple of times, and either you win or you learn. Then I partnered up with people like Tom Celani over at Freedom Hill, and that’s been a great experience. I’ve taken it to the next level. That’s all you want to do in business, take it to the next level. If you stand pat, someone will come and pass you by.”