Chef Phil Jones: From Motown to Grow Town

COLORS has become a hub of the revitalizing Detroit food scene.
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As the executive chef at Detroit's COLORS restaurant, a not-for-profit run by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC), Phil Jones not only has a chance to indulge in his lifelong love of preparing healthy food, but he also gets to help bring sustainable food culture back to Central Detroit.

"One of our suppliers brings us salad greens on his bike in his backpack," Jones says. "Our sunflower-sprout and pea-shoot people are also delivery. I did a dinner last night, and I picked up the kale on the way over. I have friends who bring me special things like duck eggs. Even our tofu is locally made. We have customers who love local food that much."

Jones has been cooking professionally since he was 18 years old, having worked in every type of restaurant from McDonald's to hotel-based fine dining. And he lives in Detroit, on the far southwest edge, the city's most diverse neighborhood, so he knows all the city's flavors, from African-American to Latin to Middle Eastern. "The food market I use, it's basically Mexican, Arabic and black customers," he says. "And my ingredients reflect that." A COLORS' customer can order chicken shawarma and za'atar-rubbed salmon, whatever's fresh that day and whatever emerges from Jones' multicolored imagination. His sweet potato wontons combine a staple of the African-American diet with a classic from the Chinese table. It's not fusion cuisine, exactly, but more like food born from a genuinely multicultural environment.

"The food that I create here comes from all around the world," he says. "Last night I created braised lamb shanks, and some of our folks had never had lamb cooked like that. We did a salmon with a rich tomato sauce and put it on polenta. They recognized it because it looked like grits."

Jones is in charge of the kitchen, but COLORS' main purpose is to give front-of-the-house training, and then later provide jobs to people who really need the help, from recovering drug addicts to ex-cons to troubled teens. This population comprises COLORS' waitstaff and bartending staff. It's tough work getting them ready. "A lot of people have not seen anything better in their lifetime," Jones says. "They've never been exposed to loving, supportive, empathetic, caring compassion. These folks have never seen anything better, and we've got a system that keeps them there."

COLORS has become a hub of the revitalizing Detroit food scene, a source of local pride and jobs. Jones says he could do something else for a living, but this is his mission. He wants to be the man who helps feed Detroit.

"It's about the results, not about the money," he says. "I could make this amount of money and only work two or three months out of the year. But what's a thousand dollars for me compared with 900 bucks for nine other people? It's hard to be happy and satisfied when everything around me is misery. I'm a sensitive guy. I still cry at Charlotte's Web. If I look around me and my neighborhood's not doing well, then I'm not doing well."

This video from Dark Rye was produced by Caitlin Riley and edited by Nathan Downing.