This profile is part of Destination Ann Arbor’s Great Minds Think a Lot series, highlighting influential leaders in Washtenaw County who make a positive impact within our community.
One of Ann Arbor’s most esteemed chefs, Eve Aronoff Fernandez, has been a little busy lately.
In addition to overseeing the original (and wildly popular) Frita Batidos on Washington St. – a casual eatery that’s been serving delicious Cuban-inspired fare since 2010 – Aronoff Fernandez has got a one year old daughter at home; and earlier this month, she launched a second Frita Batidos in Detroit, near the Fox Theatre. So … busy might be an understatement.
Even so, Aronoff – who appeared as a contestant on “Top Chef” in 2009, earned diplomas from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and graduated from high school in East Lansing – took a long enough break to answer questions about her work, her life, and her longtime hometown of choice, Ann Arbor.
Q. It sounds like you were fascinated with cooking from a young age. How was the seed planted so early on? And what were some of the first things you learned to cook?
A. I grew up in a family where pretty much everything revolved around food – cooking and eating together. I was always in the kitchen with my Mom – more so as a taster than helper until I was a little bit older. My Mom is a really wonderful cook, and she is very free-spirited in her cooking. She would never follow a recipe, and was always substituting ingredients when she did start with a recipe. I think that was a really great example for me – to develop the confidence of just paying attention to the flavors and textures of different ingredients and how they came together.
My best friend of 45 years has shown me letters I wrote to her when I was away at summer camp, all describing, in painstaking detail, everything I ate throughout the day – which you could imagine, at a summer camp, wasn’t a very exciting menu, so I guess I was pretty into food.
I fell in love with cooking when I was about 12 years old. My mom gave me a copy of the New York Times International Cookbook, and I started making dishes from around the world. I would prepare elaborate dinner parties for my parents’ friends, and I think my parents still have all of the detailed notes I would take, planning each menu. I would make French baked rice, Asian cucumber salad, Peruvian avocado soup, etc.
Q. How did your parents respond to your early interest?
A. They embraced it. My mom always said I would ruin my appetite for supper if I kept tasting so much, but I never did. I was lucky my parents were very passionate about their careers. They were professors of psychology and sociology, and they always encouraged me and my brother to do whatever we were most interested in and passionate about. When my friends were advancing in their careers, starting families of their own, etc., I was just excited to be cooking in a restaurant on the line, and my parents would come to the restaurants where I was working, and they were just always super supportive of me following my passion.
Q. Many kids are picky and gravitate to bland flavors and foods. Were you one of those rare kids who was game to try any food?
A. I think I was very open to tasting most food, with the exception of mushrooms, liver, and buckwheat, which I wasn’t a fan of.
Q. What is it about Ann Arbor that makes you want to live and work here? What makes this town special?
A. I love that Ann Arbor draws people from so many different cultures. I love that it feels like a place that appreciates things that are made with care, and I love that it just felt natural for me to grow here.
Q. Who and what in this community inspires you?
A. People who are passionate about doing something special and put their hearts and soul into that. I love that there are still so many personal places here.
I love the bread and pastry and most everything about White Lotus Farm. I love Durham's Tracklements’ smoked salmon. I love places (like Biercamp, Downtown Home and Garden, Morgan and York, Spencer, El Harissa Cafe, Poke Fish, First Bite, Ann Arbor State Bank) that are run by people who care so much about what they are doing.
I love that you can reach out to people in the community for help. We are refurbishing an Airstream for Frita, and I was connected with Frank (Fejeran) of Ricewood. Instead of feeling at all competitive about our project, he was incredibly giving of his time and knowledge. He answered all of our questions so openly, and brainstormed with me for hours about how to be most successful.
I love that you can have personal relationships with people who are passionate about what they do. That Amy and Frank of Zingerman's Bakehouse were open to baking our brioche for us at Frita, using the recipe we developed; and that Steve and Matthew of Zingerman's Coffee Company spent probably close to a hundred hours with us, developing our coffee roast blend – and that I have so many great memories of those sessions where we were delirious from caffeine, but couldn't stop tasting until we were in love with what we were working on.
I love that when I injured my back, as we were opening Frita, and felt it would be difficult to continue with the original (restaurant) eve, (Zingerman’s co-founder) Paul Saginaw, who I didn't know at the time, walked over to Frita to talk to me personally about being interested in leasing the space, and wanted to make sure it was good for me, and didn't want to step on my toes by pursuing the space with the landlord.
On that note, Paul has become my personal and professional mentor over the years, as well as a very dear friend, and he is probably the person I admire most. I always go to him when I have any kind of professional challenge or ethical dilemma, and he makes time to think things through with me, no matter how much he has going on. He has really changed my life for the better, through sharing his knowledge so openly and being so supportive of me in so many ways. He truly is a rare and special person who finds joy in helping people in any way he can. He is a role model who is endlessly inspiring to me, sincerely.
Q. Where can we find you enjoying Ann Arbor on a night out? Where are your favorite spots to relax or grab a bite to eat, or enjoy the outdoors?
A. I don't get out too often these days, with opening Frita in Detroit and the new babe at home. My favorite thing is getting to know the different parks/woods and areas along the Huron River. I love going for walks with family, and the baby gives me a good excuse to do so more often.
Q. Cuban cuisine is a big inspiration for your food. What is it about that culture and its food that excites you?
A. Cuban cuisine is the primary influence in my food at Frita, but I have always been drawn to different and exotic cultures. I have always loved learning about different ingredients and techniques, but I love learning about history and culture also. I was a comparative literature major in college [at Brandeis University in Boston], and I realized that it is all related. Reading about different cultures feels like it transports you there, and it is the same with reading about, cooking, and tasting food from different cultures.
I lived in Jerusalem when I was little, and my favorite place was the old city market. When I went to culinary school in Paris, I spent most of my time exploring the Middle Eastern and North African spice markets. My grandmother lived in Miami, and my favorite thing to do was to go to Calle Ocho in Little Havana. My husband's family and my immediate community here is from Mexico, and spending time in their pueblo in Mexico is just incredibly special and inspiring. Waking up to the sound of roosters; smelling wood fires burning and tortillas being cooked over those fires; jovial music wafting through the windows at the crack of dawn; someone walking through the village selling tamales and calling out over a megaphone – all before 7 a.m. (I am not a morning person, but it is just the best.) When I am there, I never want to leave.
There is just an intangible feeling of warmth and excitement in those places, and in those memories for me – something I connected to in my own personality – so as I became a chef and developed my own style of cooking, those experiences were very influential.
Q. During your time in Boston, you sold hot dogs outside of Fenway Park – not something you normally see on an accomplished chef’s resumé. What did you take from that experience?
A. I think I related to the culture of the vendors around Fenway park the same way I was drawn to the exotic ingredients in the markets in the places I lived and visited. It was just an extremely warm and vibrant environment. I felt at home right away and just loved the spirit of the culture. The vending culture is really its own world. It was very fast-paced and exhilarating, which I think is something a lot of chefs are drawn to. Until I opened Frita, that was my favorite job of all time, and it was very influential for me in creating Frita Batidos. I wanted to combine the passion and attention to detail of the much more formal culinary experiences I had had by that point with the “anything goes,” warm and convivial spirit I loved so much.
Q. What are the comfort foods you turn to when you’re too busy or exhausted to cook for yourself at home?
A. The first thing I learned to cook was eggs, from my grandmother, and I still love cooking all kinds of breakfast food at any time of day or night. I have a long-standing back injury, which has taken me away from working in the kitchen the way I had for the first 25 years of my career, and so I actually have the opportunity to cook more at home now than I have since I can remember, and I am really loving it.
Q. Now, ten years removed, how do you view your brief time on “ Top Chef”?
A. I got a lot of perspective on myself through the experience, which is always good. I know I love cooking in a more organic/free-spirited way, and that the environment just really wasn't my cup of tea. … Now it just seems like I was ignoring a huge red flag from the universe and have a funny story to tell of my adventure/misadventure.
Q. What are you most proud of, professionally? What’s your favorite part of your work, and what are the biggest challenges?
A. I think they are all the same thing. I am honestly proudest of the community we have within Frita, with our staff and key managers. I had to do a lot of personal growth to learn to trust other people (being more of a control freak by nature). My back injury eventually forced me to step back from things I used to want to have 100% influence over. I am not a completely different person now, but we have built an amazing, very mutual support system, which I think is really special. I have gotten to see people I care about grow and flourish, and we depend on each other in a really nice way at this point. It sounds cheesy, but we are definitely stronger and better together.