Chef Chris Nixon is considering the mound of dirt that has been brought from his kitchen. “That’s beer dirt,” he says, amused at my perplexed reaction. He pinches the granules between his fingers and brings them to his lips. He pauses, considering their taste, then nods his head in approval.
Nixon is overseeing the preparation for a night at his two-month-old venture, Element 112, the high-minded yet approachable dining experience he fine-tunes 90 hours a week. A cook brings a prepared dish of dirt to the table — a bowl of creamy buttermilk that looks dressed in earth, with one carrot and one radish emerging as if they had sprouted from it. It isn’t made from soil, but from Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Edmund Fitzgerald Porter.
“The dish is from Noma,” Nixon explains. “We tried to recreate it here, because everyone had been talking about me working there, so we wanted to show them something.”
Noma, a restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark, is widely considered the best in the world at the moment. Nixon peppers his conversation with culinary references like this, not namedropping so much as explaining his resume, which is full of illustrious highlights, from training at the French Culinary Institute to tours of duty not only at Noma, but also at Bravo Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio’s Craft in Manhattan. He was also the proprietor of a well-received restaurant, The Boathouse, on Coldwater Lake, Michigan, which, as it happens, is the reason he came to be creating beer dirt at this new venture.
“I never saw [the opportunity] coming,” he says. At the time he was exploring locations with a Toledo real estate agent in the hopes of starting a business back in his hometown, away from the seasonal dining restrictions in Coldwater. That real estate agent brought a group to Michigan to experience Nixon’s craft; they instantly became his investors, stopping in the middle of their dinner to offer him the opportunity.
The investors gave Nixon carte blanche — “beyond what I thought they would trust a 27-year-old to do,” he muses — and under, his perfectionism, Element 112 is thriving. The kitchen, well appointed with high-tech equipment, is a study in cooking as a science: a sous-vide tool sits in the corner, where steaks are packed and prepped in water before searing, to achieve a perfectly even level of “doneness.” His cooks (including the energetic Justin Thomas, formerly of The Bistro at Maumee Wines) butcher huge salmon that were, up until yesterday, swimming happily in the Atlantic.
He is a believer in intensity. For example: he is so devoted to buying local, he has concocted a way to eliminate outsourcing vinegar (beakers of Element 112’s red wine vinegar sit fermenting on a book shelf, near copies of cookbooks by the likes of Thomas Keller). He forages with his staff for local herbs and mushrooms, and uses Nature’s Bounty farm in Hillsdale, Michigan almost exclusively for his produce. “The whole desire is to be intensely Midwest,” Nixon says. “And we’re trying to basically redefine what farm to table is. It’s not because we bought one carrot from a farm and put it on the plate; it’s because everything on that plate was from that same, local farm. And we know the farm, and we know the farmer’s kids.”
Nixon could’ve taken his cuisine — with dishes like seared diver scallops with caramelized brussel sprouts and jerusalem artichoke puree, or farm fresh beet salad with goat cheese nitro — and stayed in Manhattan, a playground for chefs of his caliber. Why come home?
‘My mom always told me ‘If you’re good, they’ll find you,’” he says. “We’re hoping that mentality still pays off.”
Element 112, 5735 N. Main St., downtown Sylvania. Open Tues. thru Thurs., 5-9pm; Fri. & Sat., 5-10pm. 419-517-1104. www.element112restaurant.com