Om Sweet Om: Son Returns to Take Over Cafe
Restaurant known for vegetarian, vegan fare gets makeover and new menu items, but stays true to macrobiotic roots.
These days, most people seem to know a little more about food.
Thanks to movies such as Food, Inc., food activist and writer Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser's bestselling Fast Food Nation, the anti-processed, vegetarian and slow food movements have entered the main stream.
When Colleen Smiley started Om Cafe in Ferndale, she was ahead of her time. In 1985, it was a little off the beaten path to omit meat from menus, choosing instead an array of homegrown fruits, vegetables and grains free of antibiotics, growth hormones and genetic modification.
Smiley's son, Jason Thibodeau calls his mother “a pioneer of sorts. She started this veggie/vegan cafe for the love of people and the love of food, not for business reasons.”
Her customers showed their appreciation and Smiley was able to provide for her two sons with the little cafe. For more than two decades, she offered macrobiotic options for her dedicated clientele. When she decided to close shop a few years ago to retire, there was an outcry from her regulars, who didn't want to be without the food they had seen as their medicine for so many years.
So, Smiley kept Om open on Fridays and by appointment. A few months ago, her son has taken the helm and has recreated Om with new hours, new menu items and the same attention to food, health and community his mother brought to the cafe for so many years.
The cafe is now open noon to 9 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and 4-9 p.m. Saturdays for dinner.
'We have the best customers'
Two months ago, Thibodeau moved back to Michigan after a 12-year absence. He has lived in California for eight of those years, and most recently sailed the East Coast for a year from Newport, R.I., down to the Florida Keys.
Upon his return, he said he was excited to continue the tradition his mother started. Thibodeau said he has never eaten red meat, and grew up with platefuls of the kind of fare Om Cafe is known for.
“I remember busing tables at 13,” he said. “When I came back, a lot of the same customers were here that watched me grow up. We have the best customers.”
Thibodeau said he enjoys sitting down and having conversations with them. Looking around the restaurant, he points out a few tables of longtime patrons, and a few that are new to Om.
“You can tell if someone has been here before by how they enter,” he said. The front door has long been blocked off by a kitchen expansion that fills the front of the restaurant, so make sure to enter from the back, he said.
Debra Jensen of Ferndale knew her way around. A longtime customer, she said she comes into Om frequently.
With a slew of allergies and sensitivities, Jensen said Thibodeau and Chef Jeff Johnson created some dishes that would be safe for her to eat, including soup. Jensen said two of the most difficult dietary restrictions she has are garlic and wheat.
“Jason and Jeff have been amazing,” she said. “I missed soup so much.”
Taking the helm
Thibodeau said his first mission was to find a great chef. He said he worked closely with the Culinary Institute of Arts in Novi and discovered Johnson. The chef had recently graduated but had experience as a restaurant owner and had earned recognition for his skill preparing Indian cuisine.
The two began to revamp the menu, putting new names and spins on some of Om's longtime favorites. Om still offers the popular Nori Roll and Tempeh Burger, as well as the newly named “Buddhist Priest Stir Fry,” which now includes add-ons, such as tofu, seitan, salmon or gluten-free fettuccine. Some newbies include a Seitan Taco, Barbecue Seitan Sandwich and Tofu Tacos.
“We'll continue to expand,” Thibodeau said, adding that Om now has its own wine and plans on selling bottles of homemade tahini dressing and salsa in the near future. In December, Johnson said a new “more refined” menu would be unveiled. But no need to worry, Johnson said he worked with Smiley extensively to learn how she kept her customers happy through the years.
“We have the same dishes with more options,” Thibodeau said. “We wanted to bring a new energy and focus to the menu.”
To further bring new energy to Om, Thibodeau has made some noticeable changes to the logo, the website and the interior design of the restaurant.
The bright green logo brings a modern twist, but includes the phrase “serving tasty health-conscious food since 1985.” Thibodeau says he has been busy adding new touches, yet keeping the heart of Om in tact.
His brother, Chris Thibodeau, an architect in Manhattan, helped in this mission by adding some new features to the inside of the cafe. Chris Thibodeau added a bright green color palate, new modern architectural features and new artistic elements to the cafe, such as the "pillow" installment near the hostess stand.
Jason Thibodeau said having great service is key to revamping the space, as well. He said he and Johnson have been recruiting students from the culinary institute with great success. The good news is, Thibodeau said, the team has a good starting out point.
“We have the luxury of having good food,” he said. “So if we provide great service, too, it's hard to top that.”
Johnson didn't mince words when it came to the importance of food. Quoting Hippocrates, he said a mantra of Om is: “Let thy food be the medicine and the medicine be thy food.”
He said he has seen first-hand how food can change lives, and even save them.
Working with the Michigan Child and Adult Care Food Program (MCACFP), he said he worked closely with an obese woman to take sugar out of her diet and make changes that allowed her to lose 80 pounds in 6 months.
Johnson said obesity is rampant because “we don't eat right.”
So, he takes careful consideration when choosing what he eats himself, and what he serves.
“I'm just passionate about what I put on the plate.”
It's important, he said, to pay attention to food that has been grown using genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and spoke candidly about the controversial role Monsanto has played in creating health threats to Americans by producing patent-protected food crops that are resistant to commercial herbicides or are able to produce pesticidal proteins from within the plant.
“Everything that comes out of our kitchen is free of GMOs,” he said.
The restaurant also takes pride in choosing healthy alternatives sugar, starch and meat. Johnson said the bread used for the Barbecue Seitan Sandwich, for example, was leavened using steam and is egg and sugar-free. Most of the desserts are sweetened with maple syrup -- with the exception of a chocolate "sweet tooth" dessert, which has just 1/2 cup of organic cane sugar for the entire cake, Johnson said.
Continuing the tradition of serving up food that will not only nourish but also heal, Johnson said he has already had memorable encounters with patrons.
He said he met a cancer survivor that told him she started eating macrobiotics at Om 15 years ago. She said she is now cancer-free and credits her dietary changes.
“It sends chills through me and I'm thrilled to be part of it,” Johnson said.
“It's amazing, the healing power of food,” Thibodeau added.