Three Cats Cafe Honors Legacy of Late Head Chef Matt Prentice

By: Aaron B. Cohen | July 23, 2021

Three Cats Cafe

This past April, Chevy in the D planned to highlight one of downtown Clawson’s hottest restaurants, Three Cats Cafe. But just days prior to publication, tragedy struck. Head Chef Matt Prentice — known throughout the community as one of Metro Detroit’s most exceptional restaurateurs — passed away suddenly due to complications from cancer.

Following the news, many questioned whether Three Cats could bounce back. After all, the challenges of the past year had already proven too great for many of the region’s favorite dining establishments.

But after a conversation with Mary Liz Curtin — who along with Three Cats owns and operates the adjacent furniture, clothing and lifestyle retailer, Leon and Lulu — it appears that the show will, indeed, go on. As the restaurant pushes forward in the wake of unimaginable loss, the legacy of Chef Prentice lives on. And, so too, does the cuisine he leaves behind.

Matt Prentice was a veteran of Detroit’s culinary community. A graduate of Shrine High School, few would have suspected that at twenty years old – after dropping out of the Culinary Institute of America – he would own and operate his own Jewish Deli and within years, emerge as one of the city’s premier restaurateurs and caterers. Amongst countless others, Prentice helmed the ship at Coach Insignia, Northern Lakes Seafood, No. VI Chophouse, Deli Unique, Morels, Shiraz and Plaza Deli. After a brief hiatus from the scene following financial troubles, he returned in 2019, eager to re-establish himself as a true culinary force. As Curtin described it, “[Three Cats] became the first expedition of his rebirth.”

“The original vision was for more retail and a little café up in the front,” Curtin explained. “Coffee, pastries. It was delicious, but nothing with the majesty and breadth of a Matt Prentice menu.”

Curtin was well aware of Prentice’s work when she learned that he was seeking a new opportunity. “I’d admired him for years”, she remembered. “When my kids were little, I would take them shopping and we’d go to Sebastian’s at Somerset. His staff was so well-trained to be nice to a woman with two crazy kids. It was wonderful.”

After being formally introduced by a mutual friend, Detroit News food writer Kate Lawson, Curtin decided it was time to level up.

“If you’re from Detroit and you can work with Prentice, how do you say no? You don’t.”

And thus began the immensely fruitful, yet tragically brief partnership that would usher in a new era of Clawson cuisine.  

The menu features fresh, local ingredients. Staples like Prentice’s legendary mushroom bisque and deli-style Rueben sandwiches continue to satisfy diners in the chef’s absence, but the focus was always and continues to skew toward what’s in season right now.

Curtin elaborated, “He adored mushrooms. He adored duck. You’d always find those on his menus. But other things change. It’s very seasonal. What can we get today? He was very locally oriented and had been since before ‘farm-to-table was a common phrase.”

In the wake of Prentice’s passing, other members of the team have stepped up to build upon the monumental legacy he leaves behind. While the chef kept his terminal diagnosis quietly under wraps, he took great care to prepare his staff for a time when he might not be around to run the kitchen himself.

Unfortunately for the entire Metro Detroit community, that day came sooner than expected. But as a result of his teaching, Three Cats continues to push the envelope in a city eager to establish itself as a culinary destination.

“It’s exciting to see,” said Curtin. “They have been capable of keeping Matt’s legacy alive while modernizing the menu.”

As the next generation takes the future into their own hands, Curtin recognizes the support from customers who continue to frequent the restaurant and embrace the change in leadership.

“It’s wonderful to see the loyalty that food brings. Customers coming in and continuing to tell us how much they love Matt Prentice. Happy to see his name still alive. It’s nice to know that food can provide a legacy.