The art of eating, Ann Arbor style
A native son and his team of restaurant craftspeople take humble food to new culinary heights
Restaurant kitchens and the front of the house, an apprenticeship in Paris, a degree in hospitality from Cornell, managing a restaurant granted four stars by the New York Times: Peter Roumanis’ resume seems like it should have a much older guy attached to it.
It helps that he virtually grew up in a restaurant — Ann Arbor favorite Mediterrano, owned by his father, John. Peter started helping out at the age of 12. By 16, he was ready for an internship at the Paris food temple Taillevent under the late, legendary chef Jean-Claude Vrinat. “It was all very strict, very silent,” says Peter. “And if Jean-Claude ever even glanced at you, it was a big deal. I told my staff that he would come daily to cut the fish, and then he’d wipe his bloody hands on my apron.” He smiles. “That was my claim to fame.”
After that, a culinary institute program would pale, so Peter instead majored in the hospitality program at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, which focuses on every aspect of owning and managing hotels and restaurants; he minored in European politics. A job managing Del Posto, Mario Battali’s Italian eatery in NYC that boasts a 4-star rating from the New York Times, followed. “After an almost militaristic experience at Taillevent, it was a real 180 to work for Mario, who’d show up in his clogs and ponytail and blast rock and roll,” says Peter.
Contrasts like that intrigue him, and they also inform Vellum, his new restaurant located in a former 19th century Ann Arbor printing business. Modern meets traditional, composed meets informal in both décor and menu: Vellum is all about finding balance between seeming polar opposites. “I love to use humble ingredients—things like brisket, bone marrow, lamb shoulder, half a chicken — and then give them an elaborate treatment,” says Peter. But, while passionate about the finest locally sourced ingredients, he’s not one to go to the farmers’ market and forage. “I’m not an improviser. It can take me six months to get a dish perfect.” In fact, the Vellum blog features a recent post that details why certain dishes were either deleted from the menu or tweaked. For instance, one pasta dish featured mussels, fennel fronds, lemon, and salmon roe. “We simply couldn’t get the balance correct and the guests were not excited about the dish,” states Peter. “Whenever the dish went out, the reactions were good at best. It was 86’d [removed] from the menu fast and efficiently.” On the other hand, local Michigan walleye proved to be a surprise hit, particularly after it was tweaked from being poached to pan-fried; it’s served alongside hand-pressed onion broth, shallot, brandade, and apple.
Far from being an old-fashioned, “people will eat what I tell them to eat!” restauranteur, Peter Roumanis belongs completely to a new school. A spirit of collaboration infuses Vellum’s atmosphere. Exhibit A: the innovative “Working Wednesdays” program, in which four Vellum staff members — two from the kitchen and two from the front of house — workshop new ideas after the restaurant closes at 11 p.m. A recent session included one staffer’s research on knives, another recreating a beloved recipe from his youth, and a third conjuring up “an extremely thoughtful beet salad,” in the words of Caroline J. Dunbar, director of service and marketing. Sessions are open to guests as well, provided they don’t mind the late hours.
Peter and his staff certainly don’t. There’s none of the customer-facing staff vs. the kitchen tension that invades many restaurants, at least not on display. That is in large part due to Peter’s equal passion for both sides. “I just love restaurants,” he says. “There’s a magic to the experience of having a great meal out, when there’s a seamless flow from the back to the front of the house. I have such respect for people who do a job so perfectly, like a server who can read a customer’s body language, or a chef who can make an incredible sauce.”
Then he heads into the kitchen.
It’s time to work.