Executive chef Allie Lyttle is using her position to uplift other women in the kitchen of the popular Detroit brunch spot.
By Dorothy Hernandez
Photography by Viviana Pernot
When Allie Lyttle was about 4 years old and had a cold, she tried to turn Luden’s cherry cough drops into soup.
“I was mixing them in a margarine container with a metal spoon telling my mom I was making soup for everyone,” she says. “I tried to feed it to our dogs and tried to feed it to her.”
It may had not been a tasty soup (“I’m sure it was vile,” she says), but it sparked a lifelong love of food.
“Whatever I had around me, I was trying to turn into food, like Play-Doh,” Lyttle adds,” “I was trying to make into cupcakes or tacos.”
While food was always her passion (she often made lunches for her family and cooked with her grandmother), she started studying nursing in school to get a “real job.” But after getting a C+ in anatomy and physiology and working in a retirement home, she realized health wasn’t the field for her. At the same time, she got her first restaurant job. It was an a-ha moment: Being a chef could be her career.
At first, her mom was wary of this career path, and her parents made a deal with her: They would pay for culinary school if she got a four-year degree. She studied hotel and restaurant management at Eastern Michigan University and got a baking and pastry certificate at Schoolcraft College.
Today, Lyttle, 30, who grew up in Livingston County, is the executive chef at breakfast and lunch hot spot Parks & Rec Diner on Grand River in downtown Detroit, and has an impressive culinary resume, including working at the famed Zingerman’s Roadhouse and appearing on Food Network’s “Chopped.” Parks & Rec is an “aggressively scratch” restaurant. Her philosophy: Make everything from scratch unless someone else can do it better. For the winter menu, she bought only three things premade: corn tortillas, baloney and french fries. The menu changes frequently to mirror the seasons, and she buys local as much as she can, including sourcing produce from Recovery Park, Stone Coop and Blue Mitten, to name a few farms.
In her first few kitchen jobs, she was often the only woman. Today at Parks & Rec, where she’s been for almost two years, the kitchen has more women than men working the line, which is not the norm in most kitchens. The supportive environment started with the original executive chef of Republic Tavern, Kate Williams, who is now leading the kitchen at Lady of the House in Corktown. Sarah Welch then took over for Williams and has since departed for the upcoming Marrow restaurant in West Village. Now that Lyttle is the executive chef, she continues to foster that culture.
“Women feel comfortable coming to cook here,” she says. “I think in a lot of situations women don’t have that comfort level or ability to go to their chef and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been thinking about this idea. Will you let me make it for you?’ And I know I never had that opportunity.
“When I was in culinary school I had a pastry chef say to me very candidly, ‘You will have to work twice as hard as the best line cook in any kitchen to be considered half as good as the worst line cook.’ And that’s how I started, with that mindset of like, f*** you, you’re not gonna stop me, you’re not gonna hold me down and I’m gonna do what I have to do every single day.”
Lyttle says she hopes people are more aware about gender inequality in the kitchen, especially in light of the #MeToo movement. It’s not just sexual assault, but also microaggressions women experience every day.
She recently fired someone because of sexual harassment, and the predominantly women kitchen staff started sharing their own stories — and surprising a male server who couldn’t believe all of them had some kind of terrible experience.
While the awareness is a positive shift in the right direction, Lyttle says there’s still progress to be made when it comes to equality among male and female chefs. “I think it’s been nice to see the change, but I think it’s still something where locally, even when people put together chef demos, it’s like five or six male chefs to one female chef. And in this city, especially … there are amazing women chefs that deserve to be celebrated, but we usually come behind the poster boy male chefs that this city puts out, and so it’s frustrating. But it’s also a great fire in the belly … I’m just gonna keep pushing.”
Ceci and Toast Recipe
2 Spanish onions, small dice
½ cup roasted garlic
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
3 (28 oz. each) cans crushed tomatoes
1 equal can (28 oz.) of water
1 bunch parsley, chopped finely
Oregano, to taste
Thyme, to taste
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Spanish paprika, to taste
Cumin, to taste
Cayenne pepper, a very small amount
Cinnamon, a very small amount
3 (15 oz.) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
Coat the bottom of a pot with oil and add onions. Allow to cook until translucent and almost caramelized.
Add in roasted garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes. Deglaze the bottom of the pot with balsamic vinegar and allow to cook for another 1-2 minutes.
Add crushed tomatoes, water, spices and herbs to pot and allow to simmer for 15 minutes or so before adding in the drained chickpeas.
Allow entire mixture to cook together for 15-20 minutes and then adjust seasonings. Serve with toasted bread or naan.
Variations: In the warmer months, you can substitute fresh tomatoes for canned and have a lighter summer dish.
Watch SEEN in the Kitchen to see how to make the recipe:
Parks & Rec Diner
1942 Grand River, Detroit