A Relationship that Stands the Test of Thyme

Cass Community and Chef Matt Prentice continue building on years-long alliance

Detroiters and connoisseurs know Matt Prentice as the nationally renowned tastemaker who owned and operated numerous catering companies, along with standout restaurants Deli Unique (his first), Northern Lakes Seafood, Shiraz, Tavern on 13 and Morels, among others.

Many may even know about the $2 million lawsuit and five-year-long non-compete clause brought by a former partner that temporarily drove the chef from the restaurant industry. Or that in September, Prentice opened a new restaurant, called Three Cats, in Clawson, Michigan.

Matt Prentice prepares Cass Community Freight Farm arugula for salad prep
Chef Matt Prentice wears the Cass Community Social Services logo on his chef jacket while preparing Cass Community arugula salad in Three Cats kitchen, The salad of local pears, summer berries, goat cheese, lemon, honey is on both the lunch and dinner menu. Photo by Charlotte Smith

What many readers may not know about, however, are the many years Prentice has been working behind the scenes at Cass Community Social Services (CCSS), a Detroit-based nonprofit that provides housing, food, health services and workforce training to a community in dire need. They may also be unaware of how CCSS Executive Director Rev. Faith Fowler came to the chef's aid when he was down.

Their story shows the benefits of putting the Golden Rule in action.

The ingredients

Chef Matt Prentice had been in the restaurant business for four years when he partnered with angel investor and philanthropist Samuel Frankel.

Prentice, who was 24 at the time, didn't know Frankel, the real estate developer behind Somerset and Oakland malls in Troy, Michigan, was on a first-name basis with the state's largest power brokers.

"We had several restaurants together and he would call me in for meetings. Then he would suddenly yell to his secretary to get Max on the phone or get Henry on the phone. It wasn't until later that I realized he was talking about Max Fisher and Henry Ford II," said Prentice, 59, who is forthcoming about his successes and failures.

Mawby vinaigrette ladled over stack of roasted Michigan beets with house goat Boursin, basil from Cass Freight Farm in Three Cats kitchen. Photo by Charlotte Smith

When news came in 1979 that Orchestra Hall might be torn down, Frankel, who served on the board of governors for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, stepped in to help save the venue.

His plan included having Prentice open a restaurant next door to Orchestra Hall.

It was 1998 when Prentice, who had about a dozen restaurants at that point, collaborated with Frankel and developer Peter Cummings to open his first Detroit restaurant, Duet. In the midst of starting this new fine-dining venue, Prentice received a call from his publicist saying Rev. Fowler wanted to meet with him at CCSS.

"The neighborhood was called Cass Corridor then, and I expected I would meet a tough older minister," Prentice said. "But there sat soft-spoken Faith, who was about my age. It turned out that we had both grown up about a mile apart in Royal Oak."

Rev. Fowler's problem was typical of many missions-driven nonprofit organizations. There wasn't enough money to respond to the great need.

Prentice offered to help raise cash.

However, Fowler had another plan. She asked if the busy restaurateur would teach a cooking class in the church kitchen because the government would provide a grant if the agency helped get people off the street and teach them a trade.

"You just can't say no to her because she thinks differently. She's entrepreneurial," Prentice said of Rev. Fowler. "I have never seen another priest or rabbi think that way."

The first CCSS cooking class he taught there had about 12 young ladies, all homeless. They did well, and Prentice ended up hiring some of them at his restaurants.

Bigger vision, bigger needs

Rev. Fowler sought the chef's assistance a few more times over the years; but, her biggest request came in 2002, shortly after CCSS acquired the Scott Building.

In addition to potentially housing the agency's administrative offices, housing programs, warming center and more, Fowler envisioned creating a large commercial kitchen in the dark basement of the old building. However, CCSS didn't have money for the necessary renovations.

Rev. Fowler asked Prentice for help.

Arugula seedlings with two leaves under pink grow light
These arugula seedlings will yield two to three cuttings before the plant is too bitter to eat. The Cass Community Social Services Freight Farm also grows basil, which yields numerous harvests. Photo by Charlotte Smith

At the time, the business mogul was operating numerous restaurants, consulting with Fortune 500 companies and working with charitable agencies, such as Forgotten Harvest and Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan, through his nonprofit Variety Produce Resource Program.

Still, the chef accepted the challenge.

Rev. Fowler said Prentice convinced electricians, plumbers and others to donate their time. He even donated all the tile. As a result, she said, Prentice helped lower the cost to one-third of the original estimate.

"My best friend was a retired used-equipment guy and an equipment designer. He looked for equipment that he could get for nothing or next to nothing and donated all his time. Then, I asked my staff if they would volunteer," Prentice said. "Seventeen years later, the kitchen is still there and still looking relatively new."

Returning the favor

Around 2011, Prentice found himself in financial straits with unmanageable debt, a controlled foreclosure and personal bankruptcy, "because of a deal (he) got into with a friend," he said.

When he broke with business partner Stanley Dickson Jr., Prentice sought to open a new version of his successful Morels restaurant. But Dickson, who had filed a $2 million lawsuit to stop Prentice, also won a judgement ordering Prentice to uphold a five-year noncompete agreement he had previously signed.

Staff of Three Cats restaurant prepares for lunch last week. Photo by Charlotte Smith

While "on the sidelines," Prentice took care of his ailing mother. When she passed away, he needed a job. So, he called Rev. Fowler.

Rev. Fowler graciously made Prentice food services director of the commercial kitchen that he helped bring to life. And, with her support, he tried to make the kitchen more efficient.

"I believe passionately in what Cass is doing. I try to keep the kitchen entrepreneurial in keeping with Faith's style," said Prentice, who added a catering element to the kitchen. "It provides profits that pretty much take care of the food purchases they have to make."

In early September, CCSS catered a birthday party for a little boy who volunteered in the kitchen.

"I had shown him how to make macaroni and cheese, and he wanted macaroni and cheese at his birthday party," Prentice said.

The restaurateur has also taught children volunteers how to use knives to chop their produce, and he has taken them to the nonprofit's herb garden, where he teaches them how to harvest.

Cass Community Social Services chef pours Freight Farm arugula into bowl to make salad
Chef Will West works in Cass Community Social Services' Kitchen where arugula from the agency's Freight Farm becomes part of the day's healthy meal. Cass contracts with Three Cats to manage its kitchen. Photo by Charlotte Smith

Now that his "noncompete banishment" is over and he has opened Three Cats restaurant, Prentice has stopped being a CCSS employee and returned to being a volunteer.

"My sous-chefs take turns operating the soup kitchen," Prentice said. "They get to work in the fancy restaurant and then get a dose of reality in the soup kitchen, which requires them to make vastly larger quantities of food. It makes them better cooks."

The agency still pays for the chefs' time, but Rev. Fowler said the relationship provides the CCSS kitchen with professional chefs at "nonprofit rates."

Cass Community Social Services is also a Three Cats vendor. The restaurant is buying produce from the agency's freight farm.

"We want to keep the food local wherever possible," Prentice said. "Cass is just a natural fit."

Three Cats restaurant staff preparing a table for lunch seating. Photo by Charlotte Smith