Northern Michigan Food & Wine: A dull arch of winter sunlight plays out in shadows on the gleaming tile, empty chairs and bare tables of the American Spoon Café, today a silent space anticipating next summer’s diners. But while the dining room sleeps, the kitchen is alive with the creation of winter soups. From a copper sauce pan drifts the rich aroma of braising liquid that’s distilling to a glaze over beef short ribs; brilliant red borscht simmers on a back burner; the sharp whisper of a mandolin yields thin striated slices of baby beet.
Chef Chris Dettmer works with methodical purpose, rolling the cubed short ribs in their thickening glaze and laying out the colorful geometry of mise en place that will garnish each of his three purées. Asymmetrical, opaque pieces of whitefish and crispy bacon are staged beside perfect cubes of celeriac, disks of carrot and crescents of leek for smoked whitefish chowder, while the shockingly green Portugese Caldo Verde will be poured over crumbled chorizo, crispy kale leaves and squares of squash and apple.
Dettmer approaches soup as a sauce, a precise, deliberate extraction of essential flavors, never as a rustic repository of leftovers. “A chef I trained under always told me ‘everything is everything,’” Dettmer says. “A good soup requires good ingredients and attention to detail the same as any other dish.” As deep winter pulls at our metabolic appetite for hot and hearty fare, we team up with chef Chris Dettmer and dip our spoons into the philosophy and execution of artful winter soups.
Trained in the San Francisco Bay Area under virtuosic Michelin-starred chefs Daniel Humm and Christopher Kostow, Dettmer, an Ann Arbor native, was recruited by second-generation American Spoon executive Noah Marshall Rashid to come to Petoskey and launch the company’s first full-service restaurant. Accustomed to the agro-abundance of Northern California, Dettmer was delighted to find a Northern Michigan culture of small family farms eager to supply him with fresh local produce.
Working within the available spectrum of farmed and wild foods available from spring through fall, the American Spoon Café maintains a fluid menu that changes daily depending on what shows up at the kitchen door. Dettmer uses his soups as savory aggregates of the seasonal arch.
“In the height of summer we’ll focus on chilled soups like cucumber herb or yellow tomato gazpacho as a refreshing precursor, but I like winter soups to have heartier protein and vegetable garnishes that stand alone as a meal.” With that he swoops in to taste a cube of short rib slathered in its flavorful braising liquid that has been quickly reduced to glaze.
Acknowledging the inherent comfort found in a bowl of hot soup, Dettmer also appreciates its appeal as a stage for manifold flavors. “It allows you to blend things together in a homogenous way and convey a lot with one spoonful,” he says, slipping the skins from a bunch of roasted beets about to be puréed into bright purple borscht. “The key to harmony in soup, like anything, is a balance of ingredients. Soup should be like great wine: a progression of notes developing across your palate.”
The best showcase for this soulful complexity, he tells us, is the interplay of soup and garniture. Conventional one-pot wisdom encourages us to start with a stock and cook all our components ensemble, which is easy and often yields a good commingling of flavors but at the expense of texture. Tasting Dettmer’s Caldo Verde, with its rich, silky base of spinach, kale, potato and leek accented by pieces of perfectly fried fingerling potatoes, raw honeycrisp apple and buttery roasted squash, it’s clear that texture is a pillar that stands equal with flavor.
With texture perfection in mind, Dettmer prefers to create a purée for the base of every soup. “It allows you to reduce the stock more and extract the flavors without having to contend with overcooked vegetables.” The purée is then complemented by a variety of garnishes, either raw or individually cooked, so that each component maintains its integrity and makes each bite a delicious plurality of crunch and chew, richness and acidity.
While Dettmer’s process may require a few extra steps, there is payoff in both economy and depth of flavor; braising liquid from his beef short ribs makes up the base of the borscht for which some of the fresh beets are roasted and puréed, while others are reserved for shaving raw. Fully garnished in glazed bowls reflecting the winter light, Chris Dettmer’s soups represent a delicious intersection of cooking science and art. Most importantly, however, the soups are rooted in simple, classic techniques that don’t require exotic ingredients or culinary wizardry, just a cold winter afternoon, a bottle of wine, a loaf of fresh bread and a few well-spent hours in the kitchen.