Ryan Mercer got a very early start as a cook and says his early days in a kitchen were to help prevent him from cooking up trouble as a young teenager.
“I started when I was 13 years old flipping pizza for a store my mom used to manage and she would pay me under the table to help keep me out of trouble,” he says, with a smile. “There was a little corner store down the street from my house in Ypsilanti and they were building one of the new schools at the time. There were a lot of construction guys coming in for lunch and she really needed help so I would go there after school and she would put me to work. I don’t think she ever realized that I would make a career out of it.
“It took me a little time to get the hang of it, but once I did I really liked cooking. And people would only come at times I was making the pizzas. That’s how much they liked them. I really liked it.”
Mercer hasn’t moved very far geographically from the corner store in Ypsilanti, but he has moved up a million miles in terms of what he can do in a kitchen. And he no longer gets paid under the table.
Now the head chef at the popular Carson’s American Bistro in Ann Arbor, Mercer not only climbed the ladder in the restaurant business but paid his dues and learned different aspects of the restaurant business every step along the way – something successful people tend to do. During his journey to Plymouth Road, he worked at Quiznos, Hungry Howies and Noodles and Company.
“When I was 21 years old, I got a job at Outback Steak House and I really learned a lot there,” says Mercer, who spent 10 years at Outback.
He started off as the “salad guy.”
“Yeah, I was hired part-time to make salads,” he says, with another smile. “All day long I just made salads. I did that for about a year until I got moved up.”
He moved all the way up to a salaried kitchen manager at Outback before realizing just how much he wanted to be a chef. “It wasn’t what I wanted to do and there were standards in place that you had to do and that’s not what I wanted to be doing,” he says.
Mercer made it as far as orientation of culinary school, but was advised by a former manager, one who actually went to culinary school, that if you really want to be successful in this business get a job in a kitchen and learn how to do everything.
“And that’s what I did,” Mercer says, with a proud smile. “I started from the ground up. In 2014, I got a job with Mainstreet Ventures at Real Seafood. And on my second day, the chef threw me on the grill on a Friday night. While it was a different system, he trusted me and that meant a lot. I picked up things pretty quickly. I learned how to manage a kitchen at Outback, and I learned a lot about technique and things like that at Real Seafood. It was all a great learning experience.”
In February 2019, Mercer, just 33, became head chef at Carson’s.
His background and experience helped get him to where he is now but so has his work ethic, passion and vision.
I am a self-taught chef that got a job in a restaurant and worked my way up,” Mercer says. “From an early age my creative outlet has always been cooking. It’s come very natural to me. Growing up watching my grandparents, aunts and my mom cook, I learned a lot just from watching. I’m Italian so cooking has always been the center of family gatherings.
Mercer considers himself a “hands-on” chef and he feels his staff appreciates not only his passion but his willingness to do whatever it takes to get the meal done and the job done.
Mercer says there are a lot of different ingredients that go into making a kitchen run not only smoothly but efficiently. “Communication is very important,” he says. “So is being organized and keeping a good flow in the restaurant both in the kitchen and up front. It’s really a team effort here and it starts with the servers and everyone doing their jobs. From there, when it’s done right, everything flows smoothly.”
And it’s clearly done right at Carson’s American Bistro.
Being the one in charge, Mercer makes sure the lines of communication are always open and that everyone is on the same page, organized and prepared for whatever comes their way on any particular day.
“I think that anyone who has ever worked with me will tell you that I’m pretty calm back in the kitchen,” he says. “I think I’m pretty poised and cool and calm back there. It can be a high-stressed job and there is a lot of pressure.”
Carson’s has become known as the place to go for lunch, especially on the east side of Ann Arbor – where the parking is plentiful and free. And Mercer says part of earning that reputation is not only delivering excellent food but making sure it gets out fast because they are on the clock because their customers are on the clock.
“We know many people who come here for lunch need to get back to work so we want to turn the food around in 8-12 minutes,” he said. “Even when it gets busy like it does most days we can do that. And I think they appreciate that.”
The turnaround for dinner time and preparing some pretty special entrees is still pretty quick, 14-18 minutes. “I’m fortunate to have a really good team back there,” Mercer says. “They really work hard and even on busy nights can pull it off.”
And Mercer has really “pulled off” being the head chef of an extremely popular eclectic American restaurant like Carson’s.
“I’m sort of a laid back person and Ryan can be the fire when we need it and I really appreciate that about him,” says Sean Ryan, the general manager at Carson’s. “They all like him, but they also know that he’s responsible and has a job to do and he will make sure it’s getting done the best way possible.
“It’s not easy in this town to build a solid and reliable team and I think we have created that here. With so many restaurants in this area it can be difficult to find really good people who want to work in the back. We’ve been fortunate to find excellent line cooks and backline people and Ryan has found a team that wants to be here. And that’s special.”
And so is the head chef.