A Conversation with Brandon Johns

A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to talk to Brandon Johns. For those who do not know, Brandon is the Chef and a founder of Grange Kitchen & Bar on Liberty Street in Ann Arbor. I see Brandon frequently on Saturdays at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and have eaten in both the dining room and the bar at Grange, so I wanted to find out more about Brandon’s motivation to bring farm to table eating to the local restaurant scene.

Brandon grew up in Benton Harbor, Michigan, an area known for the local production of fruits and vegetables. He came to Ann Arbor in 1983, intending to play football for the University of Michigan. Ultimately, he started working at Brandy’s Restaurant and Bar on Main Street (the current location of Gratzi). He started bussing tables and ended up tending bar before moving across the street to Real Seafood Company.

During the eight years that Brandon spent working at Real Seafood Company, he worked in both the front of the house and the back. Once he started cooking, he moved quickly to the position of sous chef. After spending six months in that role, he became the chef, even though he was entirely self-taught.

Upon leaving Real Seafood Company, Brandon made his way to New York City. There he attended the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), a culinary school that is known for small, hands-on classes with distinguished Chef Instructors and for placing students in externships that allow them to get experience in some of America’s top restaurants. Brandon completed his externship at the Park Avenue Café, working under celebrity chef David Burke. After one year at the Park Avenue Café, Brandon spent a year at Burke’s Park Avenue Outpost in Chicago.

Brandon’s return to the Ann Arbor area took him to Mac’s Acadian Seafood Shack in Saline. While there he worked to open the Right Side Cellar. At the Right Side Cellar, Brandon was able to cook more using seasonal ingredients. This was also the time when he came up with the idea of Grange. After a few years, Brandon became the Executive Chef at Chop House in Ann Arbor, where he spent six years. He had spent a brief time as Head Chef at Vinology when he learned that the Bella Ciao restaurant was closing and was able to see his idea for Grange become a reality in August of 2009.

When asked about what motivated him to create Grange, Brandon recalled his time growing up in an old farmhouse that was surrounded by lots of fruits (berries, apples, peaches and grapes). During those formative years, he learned to appreciate the taste of locally grown foods that were eaten in season. That appreciation led him to enjoy the idea of cooking seasonally because in season food tastes better.

Brandon pointed out that only California exceeds Michigan in terms of diversity of agriculture. Such diversity allows him to be creative and cook food that tastes its best. He also pointed out that he doesn’t buy anything not from Michigan except for a few circumstances in the middle of winter and that it is much easier to source ingredients locally due to the availability of meat and produce at farmers markets. Brandon noted that cooking seasonally is more challenging than buying whatever he wants whenever he wants it, but it is also more fun.

In addition to the seasonal cooking of produce, Brandon sources the meat he prepares locally and strives to use the entire animals as much as is possible. He is self-taught in butchery and makes several types of charcuterie in house, including bacon (as well as bacon jam), duck confit, coppa and lardo.

I concluded our conversation by asking Brandon why he chose Ann Arbor as the location for Grange. He responded that he started working in restaurants here by circumstance and after spending 12 years here in the business he had made many relationships in Ann Arbor. Brandon said that having Grange be in Ann Arbor is important because he can, “Do something different and cook for real.” He came back because it is good to be near people you know.

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