How to stay zen when you run the hottest restaurant in Detroit and then it burns down.
The Detroit Free Press is the largest daily newspaper in Detroit and an absolute authority on local cuisine. On February 9th, 2017, the Free Press chose a Thai-fusion project named Katoi for the #1 spot on its yearly list of Best New Restaurants. On February 15th, Katoi became the only restaurant in Michigan named as a James Beard Best New Restaurant Semifinalist. Two days later, in the early morning hours of February 17th, Katoi burned to the ground.
Katoi encapsulated everything great about Detroit's ambitious food scene, one where low costs allow adventurous creatives like Katoi's three founders—Courtney Henriette, Phillip Kafka and Chef Brad Greenhill—to experiment in ways that would be impossible in bigger cities with higher rents. From the fish sauce to the ambiance, Katoi reeked of Detroit funk. "Distressed cinder-block walls of the old garage...plates brimming with Midwestern ingredients." The Rust Belt's answer to coastal fusion landmarks like Pok Pok and Night+Market.
Things like this happen in Detroit. And the people in Detroit, because they are people in Detroit, seem to take it in stride. We spoke with Katoi co-creator Courtney Henriette about the catastrophe and how she's staying remarkably zen while moving forward.
So what was your personal experience of the fire?
Well, my personal experience was, you know it’s funny, I don't usually stay so late at the restaurant. I generally leave at like ten or something. But that Thursday night, I happened to be there until two, just doing work. When I left it was just the bartenders and the security guards left. And I remember explicitly saying, "are you guys good to shut down?" And they're like, "yeah, yeah." I remember I hugged both of them.
How did you receive the news?
So I live in a quonset hut with these sort of metal and polycarbonate walls, and…
Wait, a what?
A quonset hut.
They were originally used for barns. They're these circular type buildings, like half circles. My business partner, Phillip, is very much into architecture and he's building a quonset hut village called True North with the architect Edwin Chan. So, there’s this village which is about to open and I live in the test hut. It’s this funny little structure in Detroit.
Anyway, so it’s like 7 o'clock in the morning and there’s a knock on the door. And in the hut, when you knock loud enough the whole thing shakes. So, here I am at 7 in the morning, thinking my hut's being robbed. But it’s the sous chefs and they’re like, "It's gone, Courtney, it's gone! Get up, get up, get up. Katoi is gone!" I’m like, "what are you talking about?" They're like, "there was a fire." So we go there, and sure enough all the firefighters were just leaving.
So what happened?
What we think happened is that somebody broke in, probably just to steal some booze, because they didn’t steal anything else of value. We think that maybe they thought they were on camera so they lit a fire.
So you’re sure it’s not someone with some sort of vendetta against you? I’ve definitely fantasized about burning down certain places, if you know what I mean.
No, because you know what? We had been broken into before. Detroit is a desperate, poor city. It's interesting, I talked to this firefighter afterwards and he's like, "you know in some cities, you steal a car, you strip it, you leave it. In Detroit, you steal a car, you strip it, you light it on fire." So, I think these are some of the realities that make this place different than other places.
But, on the other hand, the day after this happened people were already mobilized for us without us even asking. That’s the other side of Detroit. They were like, raising money for our front of house staff, which is amazing, right? We had a lot of displaced hourly workers. So I think there’s room for a really critical, larger conversation about the city and some of the underlying issues, way beyond Katoi.
"In some cities, you steal a car, you strip it, you leave it. In Detroit, you steal a car, you strip it, you light it on fire."
You mean about poverty?
Yeah. People would come up to me and be like, "well who did it?" And quite frankly it doesn't matter who did it because there's ten other guys that might do the same thing.
When you saw this creation of yours burned to the ground, what were you thinking?
Well, you know, there really was no time to react. For a minute, I was alone with the police officer. And then my boyfriend showed up. Of course there was this moment of fear because my one business partner was in Dallas, my other business partner was in Thailand, so I had to figure all of this out in that moment by myself. Which would have been really scary except for that, even though this is very early in the morning, all of our staff kept hearing about it and they were driving by to see what was going on. They were coming to help. So, suddenly, I was surrounded by everyone. They were like, "okay, what do we do?” More than anything, and this sounds so crazy, I was really overwhelmed with the compassion and the fact that we made this team and that we were all together.
So what did you do next?
For the next two days we were still all together. We met up in Phillip’s hut, another quonset hut, and talked about how we could move forward as a team. Which I think was the biggest gift to all of this, realizing that you've created a group of 30 some people, who continue to be united after their building goes up in flames.
Do you think that Detroit breeds that kind of solidarity?
Detroit, it's so small. Say I go to a coffee shop. Doesn't matter who I am, I'm going to be nice to the person working there because you know, it's Detroit. This person who's running a coffee shop could also be running an art gallery and like, be putting together something I’m a fan of. Everyone has something else going on, so everybody is sort of in it together in a very real way.
Does it feel like us versus them though? Like the wealthier people creating stuff versus the people who are so desperate that they have to steal it?
No, I don't think it does. I mean, there are so many different people in Detroit and I think the beauty is that you can still reach out and connect. For instance, there is this project called Bandhu Gardens out of Hamtramck. It’s this network of Bangladeshi women and they all have these amazing backyard gardens. If you went to their neighborhood, you wouldn't even realize because everything is behind the houses. They grow produce for their families. Throughout the winter, they have these deep chest freezers. Long beans, in the summer you can see them spreading out chilis to dry in their lawns. It's really beautiful.
They sell their surplus to restaurants. The Sunday before the building burned down, Minara, the woman who organizes it, was scheduled to have a pop-up at Katoi. Obviously we couldn't have it at Katoi because the building burned down, so we hosted it at Phillip's hut. So, we had a dinner at this quonset hut with these Bangladeshi women. It was incredible. I think more than anything we have a sort of duty to put forth the effort to get to know our neighbors.
So there was insurance right? What happens next logistically?
So, we have a staff of maybe ten people that we keep on. We're doing pop-ups and we're doing events. We’re all planning for Katoi 2.0. We are tweaking the design a little bit. We are hoping in four months we can re-open, better.
Do you want to catch the people who did it?
You know, I don't know if it's bad to say, but I don't know what good it would do, really. Because, I mean, like I said, I don't know who this is, I mean they're probably in some sort of desperate situation. I don't think they meant to light our restaurant on fire. I think they probably meant to light a security camera on fire and it got out of control. I don't think we will catch them, and I don't know what benefit would come from it if we did.