Although he was born in California, chef Zane Vicknair considers Lansing his home and is no stranger to the local food scene. He and his team create unique and exciting options for greater Lansing foodies, with his food truck-turned restaurant called Street Kitchen, inspired by in-season produce and childhood memories.
How did you get into the restaurant business?
I started when I was 13. I needed a job, as all 13 year olds need a job. I showed up at the neighborhood Italian restaurant and I asked the owner if I could work for him and he said, ‘get out of here kid, you’re too young.’ But I was persistent. Within six months I was cooking. It was something that I loved doing, I loved the pace of the kitchen, I liked the intensity, I like taking care of people, I wasn’t afraid to work. I’ve been in the restaurant business ever since.
You aren’t new to Lansing’s restaurant scene – didn’t you used to own Golden Harvest?
I was at Golden Harvest for about 15 years. Best experience of my life.
When I was younger, I worked for Kerry Heffernan in San Francisco. I did an apprenticeship and she sent me to work at fancy restaurants and fancy hotels to develop technique and get a lot of experience. What I loved was that I could take that fine dining experience and bring it to the shelter meals. I liked to pay meticulous attention and detail in creating meals and dishes for people who were without.
It was the same thing at Harvest. I had a lot of farmers who provided us with beautiful produce that was picked that day or picked the day before and we could offer that beautiful produce without charging an arm and a leg because we were in a casual setting. We tried to keep things comfortable and casual and not pretentious.
It’s a fantastic place, best thing that’s ever happened to me. And we’ve been able to carry over a lot of that casual attitude over here. I mean we’re eating at a picnic table in an abandoned office building.
What brought you to Michigan?
I worked in San Francisco from the time I was 18-21. At 21, I left San Francisco. I gave away my possessions and was going to hitchhike to New York, some friends of mine were involved with the housing riots on the lower east side of New York so I was actually going out to do that. And I met my wife, my ex-wife. We ended up being inseparable for 21 years. It was a really good journey with her. Her family is all from out here so we stayed here. We have two children together, this is where they grew up, this is where they were born, so yeah, it’s a special place for us. I love Lansing. She still runs Golden Harvest.
When did this project start for you and what are Street Kitchen’s plans for the future?
We’ve only been open as a food truck for about eight months. We opened in August and we tried to predict how busy we would be, we tried to predict how much space we would require. We thought three picnic tables would be fine, but we quickly outgrew that. So right now we are looking at turning this into a full-service restaurant inside. We’re working with the planning department on getting approval so that we can go ahead and make plans to do that.
Why the name Street Kitchen?
Street Kitchen’s are the most accessible food throughout the world. If you go to Bangkok, there are areas where there are markets and then along the way of the markets, there are all of these vendors. It’s a guy with a folding card table and a little hibachi, cooking for you. Same idea here. We’re in a truck on the side of the road, but we’re not just doing burgers and fries, we have a full commercial kitchen, and we have the skills and the ability to really just make almost anything that you can get inside a restaurant.
It also ties into, in the 60s, on the corner of Cedar Street and Michigan Avenue, there was a restaurant called The People’s Kitchen. And I did some research and it was very much the neighborhood diner where you could go in for a couple bucks and get a square meal and a coffee and it wasn’t pretentious. It was open for everyone, right in the middle of skid row. It made me recall the very first shelter program that I ever worked with in California in San Luis Obispo, and it was called People’s Kitchen. That was something that, as a teenager, stuck with me. So I’m going to call this part of the project People’s Kitchen, the restaurant. And knowing that the food truck was going to be like phase one of it, I named it StreetKitchen.
Your menu is quite dynamic offering ingredients that are new to the area like Tempeh and Cashew Cheese. What is your inspiration in your dishes and the business as a whole?
We definitely try to use what’s available seasonally. So my farmer just brought me the very first vegetable that he’s grown all year, he brought me some spinach today so we put that on the menu. I’m inspired by what is seasonally available, I’m inspired by what I see at the farmers market. After working with these farmers for 18 years, they send me texts, [saying] ‘the peppers look amazing this week, these are the best peppers ever,’ and I try to write a dish or a few dishes that are based around those peppers. My process is usually, I find one or two ingredients and try to find ways to showcase those ingredients. I want the food to be comfortable, unless it’s like childhood memories or something like that. Something that is fun and delicious, but also simple.
So, while you do offer lots of vegan, vegetarian and dairy free options, you also do work with meat and dairy products, correct?
Right. And we take a lot of pride in the tempeh and other products that we use because they’re made in Michigan at a local manufacturer. But we also do like, pork belly, braised pork shoulder. Right now we have this Korean brisket sandwich that’s on Stone Circle focaccia with this amazing fennel and lime slaw and a sesame mayonnaise. And it’s huge, it’s so big that we called it tiny hands because you can’t tell if the sandwich is so big or if you just have tiny hands. We try to have fun with it.
This restaurant has the same, laid-back, arts-y feel that you find whexn you go to Golden Harvest. Would you say that that is something you are trying to create with this restaurant?
I think, it’s more about, a reflection of the people who come in here and make a space for this. You know? It’s just community, and that’s what I want it to be. I want everyone to come in here and feel comfortable here and comfortable to be themselves. It doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, this is your table, this is your home too. If you give people room to be themselves, then I think you get a lot more from each experience. That’s what I would like.