‘It’s been hard on a lot of chefs’
Chef Ralph Humes isn’t wondering what to make. It’s a dash of where? But mostly, why?
Like many people who have survived the COVID economy, there are unanswered questions, questions that may not have been asked 20 months ago. Questions about career paths and resetting a work-life balance.
For some, questions can be like new ingredients to use in a kitchen, out of which comes answers like a new menu.
For Humes, they are work and life questions he has cooked up before.
His answers have left questions for others, like his loyal fanbase in the greater Kalamazoo area when his immensely popular R. Stanley’s – led by Hume’s Southern standards, soul food, and fabulous desserts in the current One Well Brewing location on Portage Street – suddenly closed in 2008.
In the dozen years since, he’s focused on his own health, then cooked for Taylor Swift and other massive concert tours throughout the country, and for a year began to settle back into a local kitchen in his hometown of Three Rivers.
Then the pandemic added too much uncertainty for Venue 45 to re-open after the initial shutdown in March 2020.
A year later, a pop-up version of R. Stanley’s opened in that same hometown space and then others, including in Vicksburg. And fans were thrilled with his answer – and his menu.
When his old customers heard about the venture on Facebook, they posted things like: “Oh GOSH MY LIST: RIB TIPS, FRIED MUSHROOMS, RED BEANS AND RICE , PINK LADY, BOURBON PECAN PIE. … OKAY I AM CRYING I CAN’T WAIT.”
By definition, a pop-up is temporary, like life.
“I want to continue to cook. I’m able to run a restaurant, but I don’t want to work 60 hours a week. I want to have a beer with my buddies or have a Saturday where I can take my wife out,” Humes said. “So, I’m doing a lot of meditating and thinking. It’s hard to find what is going to make you happy. I’m not really 100 percent sure what that is going to look like yet.”
Recuperating and Resetting
Humes recalls his Kalamazoo days fondly. The excitement of not just his restaurant, but the food scene in general. He runs through a list of the chefs he worked with: Will Canter at Fandango, Shawn and Terry Hagen at Bravo!, Ryan Soule at Oakwood Bistro, John Tsui at Chinn Chinn.
“I definitely miss the glory days of Kalamazoo, the hustle and the bustle. Those were fun restaurants, great times, and I had an awesome team,” he said. “It’s funny how things change. Your role in the game changes and you can never go back and recreate the magic. You can’t do it. You can create new magic, but you can’t recreate the old magic.
“Certain things have to be in the right place, the right people. The timing was right.”
Humes was coming off a 20-year career in art and sales when he moved back from Atlanta in late 2001, after the attacks by al-Qaida.
The son of a father who was a chef and a mother who was an amazing home cook, he decided to give the restaurant business a try. He opened an R. Stanley’s in Three Rivers before opening in Kalamazoo.
“It was a time kind of like now with COVID. Everything just stopped. Sometimes when things stop, it gives you a chance to reset.”
Sometimes it’s not a national tragedy that causes you to reset, sometimes it’s a personal challenge — like a heart condition — that resets your life.
Customers were shocked and disheartened when the award-winning chef suddenly closed R. Stanley’s in 2008.
Among the issues that contributed to the closure of the restaurant was Humes’ health. He was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle that affects the heart’s ability to pump blood through the body. At one point doctors told him he wouldn’t cook any more — his body could not deal with the stress. But, Humes said, he wasn’t buying it.
“At no time when they were giving me the news did I feel I was done. I felt alien to what they were telling me,” he said. “Let’s face it, the medical field doesn’t have all the answers. You can have the best docs in the world, who are able to save your life, but they don’t get involved in telling you how to live. You have to figure that out.”
Today, sitting in Angels’ Crossing, sipping a beer, he looks incredibly fit and healthy, with only the gray in his eyebrows and that small soul patch under his lip hinting at the fact that he turned 60 in August. He is still a charming and smooth storyteller, who waxes eloquently about a thrilling meal of fresh pasta in Italy or the joy to be found in a perfectly fried chicken breast.
Hitting the Road
After closing R. Stanley’s, Humes moved to Traverse City, where he worked at several restaurants including Blackstar Farms, a winery with a farm-to-table restaurant, and Centre Street Cafe. He also opened his own eateries including Soul Hole and Mana.
Then in 2015, on vacation in Mexico with his girlfriend – now wife – Dawn Campbell Humes, his cooking career took another turn. He made friends with a man who made his living as a touring chef — cooking for performers on the road.
Back in the States, the friend soon called him for a gig at The Palace in Auburn Hills, and Humes got the chance to cook for Neil Diamond. After adding that to his resume, he got a call to join the Cirque du Soleil “Avatar” tour.
Eventually, he joined an Ohio firm called Concert Kitchens. As a touring chef for them, he cooked for everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Bob Dylan to Mavis Staples. He followed that up with a stint with a Nashville company, which led to a string of assignments with some of the biggest names in country music: Garth Brooks, Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
His last big tour was the biggest stadium tour in U.S. history: Taylor Swift’’s “Reputation” stadium tour in 2018, which grossed $266 million.
“It was a lot of work but it was a lot of fun,” Humes said. The crew of chefs were responsible for feeding breakfast, lunch, and dinner to an average of 350 people a day. “It’s almost surgical. Everybody knows what they’re doing. You’re not having to carry anyone. You’re just having fun.”
The tour work is still out there — this September he cooked for the Harry Styles concert in Detroit — and is leading to some new and interesting possibilities. He recently got a call from a management firm looking for a personal chef for rapper Megan Thee Stallion.
“They thought I was a Miami-based chef. I had to say, sorry, I’m a Michigan-based chef.” He adds with a laugh, “My wife looked at some of her pictures and said, ‘She could probably use a grandfather on tour.'”
If it’s not Megan Thee Stallion, then what’s next?
Humes isn’t sure.
It won’t be opening a restaurant — especially right now with the labor challenges facing restaurants as they deal with the after effects of the pandemic.
“It was a tough summer. It was impossible to get good help. I can’t tell you all of the things I had to deal with. Someone put a salad in the warmer,” Humes said, shaking his head. “I don’t even know how to teach you not to do that. I don’t know the thought process that brings you to where you think that is a good idea. It’s been hard on a lot of chefs.”
He has kept fans salivating with his R. Stanley’s classics like candied bacon, mac and cheese, meatloaf, fried chicken, and candied yams. But coming out of COVID, he wants to re-evaluate and think about where to insert himself in the industry.
He’s been contacted by a Chicago firm about the possibility of being a private chef. He’s working on launching a line of gourmet cookies with his daughter Kaylen, 28, and son Tre, 24, and one of Tre’s professors at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. He still loves to cook, although nowadays, he’s more drawn to the idea of creating an exclusive wine dinner for a few diners rather than trying to feed 100 or 300 on a busy night in a restaurant.
“I think a lot of people coming out of COVID are asking themselves these questions: Why was I doing it that way? Can I think of a better way to do it? Can I do something completely different?”