When Republican notables from across the country gather on Mackinac Island September 23-25 for the Biennial Republican Leadership Conference, many of them—including G.O.P. presidential hopefuls Rick Perry and Mitt Romney—will be dining at the Grand Hotel where Chef Hans Burtscher performs culinary magic on this Great Lakes' island that moves to a 19th-century pace.
Cooking is sans flame and food deliveries come by boat and horse-drawn dray, but somehow Chef Hans of Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel marshals his crew of 110 and serves elevated cuisine to a thousand diners a night all summer and into the fall.
Every evening at six o’clock the whitewashed high-backed chairs lining the world’s longest porch at the Grand Hotel lose their warm bodies and fragments of cocktail conversation. Martini glasses, empty save their bare olive picks, and tumblers pearled with the memory of gin and tonic preside over the exodus of hundreds of coats and ties and cocktail dresses. They’ve drifted off to queue up beneath gilded chandeliers in the lobby of Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel and wait for the dining room doors to swing open.
Thousands of pieces of silver service ware form glittering constellations across miles of linen-draped tabletops set with monogrammed charger plates and glassware. Postured wait staff in white gloves and tuxedos concentrically orbit the as-yet empty dining room checking reservation cards and tweaking place settings. The quick sonics of their Jamaican patois fill the hollow space. At 6:30 the doors open to a well-dressed surge of collective appetite. There are 950 dinner reservations on the books tonight, and behind the impossibly precise and gracious choreography of servers, bussers and sommeliers is Executive Chef Hans Burtscher and his kitchen crew of 110.
The team executes fine dining on a scale and under limitations seen few other places in the world. Chef Hans’s realm is the kitchen of the Grand Hotel, itself something of an island, where tonight 5,000 exquisite courses will be crafted in less than four hours from produce delivered this morning by horse-drawn carts.
Short and wiry, with close-cropped hair and infectious energy, Austrian-born Hans Burtscher is entering his 27th year as the culinary mastermind of the Grand Hotel. November through March he spends time at his home in Atlanta, Georgia, writing menus, researching his wine list and securing supply contracts for hundreds of tons of premium meat and produce that will be trucked to the ferry docks in Mackinaw City and Saint Ignace, floated across the Straits and delivered by horse and dray to the massive walk-in coolers and storage rooms beneath the Grand Hotel.
Chef Hans shows up on Mackinac Island the first week of April with five cooks and 70 maintenance staff. His kitchen crew, 95 percent of whom are new every season, are recruited from Jamaica, Thailand and the Philippines as well as domestic culinary schools. They arrive at the end of April for a brief and intense training, and by the middle of May they are producing 3,000 to 4,000 guest meals a day and feeding breakfast, lunch and dinner to 700 staff. With the exception of high volume breads, everything is made in house.
Given the enormity of his job and the weight of the Grand’s culinary reputation to shoulder, one might expect Chef Hans to be the cagey and furious stereotypical chef, flinging sauté pans, cursing in Austrian, and ruling by fear. But he is quite the opposite, greeting each of his crew by name, learning their histories and commanding their unwavering respect. “This is an island, we all need to work together,” he explains. “If I scream at the butcher and he walks away, there will be no one to cut meat tomorrow.”
Sensitive to food ethics and the value of local sourcing, Chef Hans works with Northern Michigan fisheries and produce consolidators whenever possible but is quick to point out his need for quality and consistency. “If I have to put out a thousand Caprese salads tonight and the tomatoes come in bruised or unripe, I can’t exactly run to the farm stand for more.” Bell’s Fishery in Mackinaw City supplies the Grand with lake trout and whitefish caught daily from the island’s surrounding waters. Lake trout, whether smoked, poached or baked and served with tomato compote and orange fennel slaw appears frequently on the lunch buffet and the dinner menu but is eclipsed by the deliciously ubiquitous whitefish of which Chef Hans’s kitchen will sometimes go through 200 pounds in a single night. “Midwesterners love their whitefish,” Chef Hans says. “This season we’ll be launching a new spicy ceviche preparation as well as serving it baked with mustard cabbage and a black truffle broth.” The black truffle broth, the shrimp and Dungeness crab bisque, and every ounce of stock out of thousands of gallons produced in the Grand’s kitchen each season are the products of five massive steam kettles that are central to the hotel’s culinary machine.
When I ask about the full array of kitchen equipment, Chef Hans shakes his head and laughs, still seemingly incredulous at the reality of his situation after nearly three decades. “Not a single gas line in this place,” he explains. That means no gas flames—the centerpiece of cooking technique in virtually every respected kitchen in the world. “Everything is done on electric flat tops. À la minute cooking is not an option; it took me 20 of my 27 years to figure out how to make this work.”
This fact alone speaks to Chef Hans’s improvised wizardry and heroic patience. Producing food at this level of volume and sophistication on electrically heated steel surfaces is the culinary equivalent of performing heart surgery with a snow shovel. “This morning my omelet cook had nine or 10 sauté pans going at once, not one of which can leave the cook top for more than a minute without completely cooling down. It keeps us on our toes.”
In the face of monumental logistical and procedural challenges, the irrepressible and perhaps even masochistic Chef Hans has added diet education to his list of missions. “With the opportunity for exposure we have here, I am working very hard to teach my staff and my guests that great food can also be healthy,” Hans explains. The chef himself lost over 50 pounds in the last year practicing metabolic dieting and by synthesizing modern nutritional science, molecular gastronomy and personal experimentation. He has gone to impressive lengths to cut down on the fats used in his kitchen, and the proof is in the proverbial pudding. Sauces are heavily reduced and thickened with arrowroot instead of flour, butter has been largely replaced in cooking by heart healthy olive or flax seed oils, and many dressings are thickened with guar gum instead of mayonnaise.
“Don’t get me wrong, butter makes food taste better,” Chef Hans concedes, “but there are lots of ways to focus flavor without adding fat.” His efforts at healthy haute cuisine have been recognized by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, which has co-sponsored the “live healthy, live grand,” initiative promoting heart-healthy menu offerings at the Grand Hotel. These noble efforts can be sweetly subverted when the dessert menu arrives, as there is no resistance or refuge from Tahitian vanilla flan with wild berry sorbet and fudge churros or chocolate cherry devil’s food cake with Michigan cherry compote; this is vacation after all.
As the last of the diners meander away from their five course culinary transcendence to the refuge of their rooms or to the star-pocked skies over Mackinac Island, 48 dishwashers furiously scrub against the clock, sous-chefs sharpen and sheathe their knives, wipe surfaces clean, and Chef Hans, arms crossed, has the look of a happy survivor. “It feels really good when you’ve just fed a thousand people and everything more or less went according to plan,” he says. When I ask how he can maintain this pace he says, “I know there’s an end, after October we lock the doors.” The Grand Hotel will close for the season. The guests will return to their lives. The cooks will return to their international diaspora. The whitefish will swim safely for a few months and Chef Hans, under the warm Atlanta sun, will be planning next summer’s menus. October, I remind him, is only 200,000 or 300,000 plates away from May.