The circadian rhythm of the Cooks’ House, a Traverse City restaurant, begins with a curtain of morning light going up on polished plates and knives poised beside steel-banded cutting boards. Six small tables are set with silverware rolls and dishes of Fleur de Sel on crisp sheaves of brown paper. The day will take shape from tiny quail eggs dappled brown, bundles of salsify and a bag of nasturtium leaves, all awaiting their dialogue in a humming cooler case.
For chefs Eric Patterson and Jennifer Blakeslee, each day begins and ends with this stillness; the hours in between are a precise choreography of cutting, caramelizing and commingling the finest ingredients from local farms and forests into the inventive menus that have put the pair at the center of Traverse City’s food scene. Eric and Jen cooked together in Las Vegas at Andre Rochat’s two-star Michelin restaurant, André’s, before deciding to return to Jen’s native Traverse City and open an eatery of their own centered on local, sustainable cuisine. We followed the chefs from when they took their firstsip of Oolong in the early morning till they turned the key in the lock at day’s end, along the way living a day in the life of this small and remarkable restaurant on Traverse City’s main street.
Pilot lights flicker on the small commercial range beside baskets of paper-skinned shallots, a leaky jar of local honey and the buck-toothed grin of a Sponge Bob Square Pants garlic bucket. Eric heats water for tea, updates the Cooks’ House blog, reads news and answers emails from patrons and vendors. “I use this time to catch up with the world,” Eric says, the silence of the unlit restaurant punctuated only by wet tires hissing along Front Street during the morning commute.
The Cooks’ House is kinetic with preparations as Eric’s wife, Theresa, and lunch cook, Jeremy Heisey, arrive. Music by ‘80sindie band, The Smiths, plays loudly on laptop speakers. Eric describes menu planning as an organic process determined by the ingredients at hand. Refrigerated storage is limited to one small case, so farmers and foragers show up almost daily with fresh produce. Tonight, Cooks’ House will host a private party of 22 young professionals for a seven-course tasting, and Eric improvises a menu from yesterday’s bounty: newly dug salsify roots to be blanched and sauteed, nasturtium leaves destined for a peppery puree in tonight’s gnocchi dish, and bunches of bok choy and braising greens to complement a pork belly course. Jeremy jots a shopping list on an old receipt, while Eric dashes out the door and returns minutes later with an armload of fragrant loaves from Bay Bread Company.
Oryana Food Cooperative is the first on this morning’s market run, where Eric picks up limes, tomatoes, corn tortillas, leeks, pepitas, Shetler’s milk and Leelanau herb cheese. He browses along a wall of bulk grains, their sweet, nutty aromas filling the aisle, and as he fills his shopping basket, he greets people he knows, pausing to answer queries on potato boiling, chatting with a local dairy farmer and talking about his new cookbook.
“I like to support Oryana’s organic and fair trade products,” Eric says. “It fits well with our philosophy at Cooks’ House.” TheCooks’ House’s extemporaneous culinary style sends Eric to market twice a day. “We buy everything fresh and only what’s
needed for each meal service,” he says. Next stop is Burritt’s Fresh Market. Standing before the gleaming fish counter, Ericchats with owner Ken Burritt about sourcing wild game, while he selects two opalescent walleye fillets and some electric-orange smoked salmon for today’s lunch menu. “Burritt’s can get anything,” the shopkeeper tells us.
A few minutes drive and Eric is navigating the bustle of commerce at Traverse City’s Saturday indoor farmers market. Hepalms a knobby squash, testing its heft, and pauses to huff the scents of nutmeg and buttery crust wafting off a table of Ralph Humes’s pies. Today’s market fails to yield the local apples and honey Eric was hoping to procure for tonight’s dessert, but the folks from Nine Bean Rows still have a few almond croissants left at their table, which Eric confesses are a personal weakness. The impulse to linger for a second croissant is stifled by the prospect of a big pork belly to braise and lunch is under way.