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World-Class Cuisine, Kalamazoo Comfort

Chef Jason | KzooConnect

It’s a late Thursday morning in the rustic loft restaurant Café ’36. The rough sawn, reclaimed wood walls, stainless accents and plush booth seating give way to a cosmopolitan vibe, offset by bright orange votive candle holders and the colorful artwork. For those not aware- it’s the newest addition to the country’s oldest family-owned natural food store, Sawall Health Foods located on the upper level.

Chef Jason Tilmann rushes through.

“A lot of things are getting ready to go down,” Chef announces, as he energetically hops down to the deli area to grab a coffee.

This is the Kalamazoo version of the fast-paced life for our area’s newest cooking sensation - a television celebrity, a man who’s traveled the world and trained with some of its most famous chefs: James Beard, Iron Chef Morimoto and David Burke, to name a few.

Chef was born and raised in Ann Arbor, and started cooking at home as a kid. He studied formally in culinary school and later through an exquisite chain of cooking mentors. Chef describes his years of culinary training as “Jedi-like,” a system of learning from the best of the best, but sometimes only understanding later why his teachers did what they did.

After cooking professionally on the East Coast for over 15 years, Chef and his wife Marija decided it was time to head back to their roots in the Midwest to raise their small boys, J.R. and John. The Tilmann’s relocation plans lined up with Mark Sawall’s plans to partner with a unique and talented chef to open a restaurant in a loft above his health food store. The two connected online, and Café ’36 was underway.

To Sawall’s market, Tilmann brought a lifetime of culinary training, plus a passion for food, and he works hard to pass this influence to his team.

“I love anything cooked with soul,” Chef says. “I can teach you how to cut carrots, but I can’t teach you to have passion for what you do. I can’t teach you how to be proud of it.”

Sawall and Tilmann worked collaboratively to open Café ’36 in August of 2017. The restaurant was built from the kitchen out, in a flow style. With the kitchen located downstairs, food is moved upstairs to diners, like in high end establishments in New York City or San Francisco.

The menu provides guests the comfort of good quality food, with options that provide variety for any group of diners. It’s seasonal, modern, American cuisine. Chef is lucky enough to have access to the fresh, local, organic and natural choices offered onsite at Sawall’s. The menu changes regularly, with sides lightening or becoming heartier to reflect the seasons.

He describes the modern component like this: “Modern is vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, celiac options - "you lose customers if you don’t put real thought into these options on your menu.”

The “American” element of the cuisine means we take complex food from all over the world and adapt it to our young country and region.

Chef has an excellent fish purveyor, and his fish choices are some of the most popular on the menu. Other favorites are the authentic dry-aged ribeye steaks, sourced from a Grand Rapids “mom and pop” butcher. People familiar with Sawall’s reputation for quality might already have an image of Café ’36’s menu - "treats like tuna sashimi, Bolognese pasta and Bacon on the Bone.

“We’re a little unique, but not too far outside the box. Simple touches, like tomato bisque that’s vegan, gluten-free, flavorful, served with falafel grilled cheese, poured table-side, nice presentation,” Chef says. Another example of a typical menu “show” item might be pot pie with turkey and all the traditional goodies served in a bowl, then topped table-side with gravy, with puff pastry placed on top.

“Kalamazoo clientele are intelligent and they know what quality is,” says Tilmann. “That’s why they shop here.”

Make sure to add Café 36 to your restaurant itinerary as part of Kalamazoo’s unique culinary treats to experience!

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