By Michele Aversa
How does Grand Rapids top the proud distinctions of being named Beer City 2013 and of being one of the most philanthropic cities in the nation? To combine them into the Cool Brews. Hot Eats. beer promotion, that’s how!
Cool Brews. Hot Eats. has just concluded its second successful year. For the past two weeks, area restaurants have been using local beers to create exciting new menu items which showcase the chefs’ talents, highlight local breweries — and feed the hungry.
Executive chefs all around town have been unveiling new dishes which are either paired with a locally brewed ale or use a local beer as a featured ingredient. When one of these dishes was ordered, the restaurant donated a meal to Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank.
One of these culinary creators is Chef Elijah Lopez. Although he was born in Texas, Chef Lopez grew up in southwest Michigan. His fascination with cooking started around age 17 and, thankfully for Grand Rapids, has turned into a full blown passion. He has been the Executive Chef at CitySen Lounge in the City Flats Hotel since it opened on July 13, 2011. Prior to joining CitySen, Chef Lopez worked at other fine Grand Rapids eateries such as Martha’s Vineyard and most recently Six One Six.
When creating a new dish, Chef Lopez first gets to know more about the individual ingredients, where they come from, how they are grown or produced and then the ideas come flooding. One of the dishes he created for the Cool Brews. Hot Eats. promotion was the Boozehound Chicken Sandwich – a pecan-crusted chicken breast topped with tomato jam, creamy goat cheese, fennel and mixed green salad all tucked in the middle of a thick onion roll. The sandwich is served with crisp hand-cut chips and can be paired with Espresso Boozehound Brown, which is brewed by the Hideout Brewing Company on Plaza Drive in Grand Rapids.
Of the many aspects about being an executive chef, Chef Lopez most enjoys “getting a chance to teach people and show people what I’ve learned.” The staff at CitySen Lounge has an excellent foundation and Chef Lopez takes immense pride in developing their talents. He keeps a tasters spoon in his pocket, always ready to verify the quality of his team’s food.
Lopez depends on his talented crew to share the busy load that starts around Mother’s Day and continues all through the summer, with festivals such as Rock the Rapids, Celebration on the Grand, Restaurant Week and ArtPrize.
While the festivals keep the staff on their toes during tourist events, they are still plenty busy the rest of the time as well. Many of the lounge’s clientele are from the downtown area, looking for a place to unwind after a workday. CitySen has a solid happy hour, which includes weekly specials such as “Wind Down Wednesdays.” Why come to CitySen instead of some of the other bars in the area? “People come here for the laid back environment,” says Lopez. “We have a different atmosphere than most of the other restaurants.” Lopez gestures to walls around him. Beige bricks, warm wood and soft lights lend themselves to the perfect environment in which to unwind.
The CitySen Lounge is in the lobby of City Flats Hotel, which is in the former Fox Jewelers Building. The five-story hotel was renovated by repurposing bricks, wood beams and other materials already on the site. Even the Fox Jewelers sign was saved from the trash heap and hangs above the bar in a tribute to the building’s history. The Grand Rapids hotel, along with its sister location in Holland, is owned by Charter House Innovations (CHI), a furniture company that created a line of sustainable furniture products. CHI built all the furniture in both locations as another way to showcase the skills of southwest Michigan’s craftsmen.
Lopez wants to keep City Flats Hotel moving forward. He doesn’t know what the future holds, but he is excited to be a part of it.
If you are interested in visiting either the Grand Rapids or Holland locations of City Flats Hotel, visit www.cityflatshotel.com for more information. And if you are looking for a relaxing way to unwind after a busy workday, drop in at CitySen and say hello to Chef Elijah!