It’s that time of year: the birds are singing, a few buds have ventured forth, and the gray skies are finally losing ground to expansive blue. It all means that blossoming chefs will soon find themselves in The Cooks’ House kitchen for the fourth annual Young Chef’s Dinner. These five up-and-coming area chefs have experience ranging from multi-national to line cooks and have been hand selected by Jenn Blakeslee and Eric Patterson, the visionaries behind one of Traverse City’s most popular sustainable fare destinations. Snag a ticket to one of the two seatings on April 24 (5:30 or 8:30) for an unforgettable taste of Northern Michigan’s culinary future.
The 5 Young Chefs Serving The 5-course Dinner:
Matt Anderson: Chef de Cuisine at Bistro Foufou in Traverse City and Guillaume’s right hand man.
RJ Karsnick: Sous Chef at Trattoria Stella in Traverse City, whose passion is sparked through the creativity and love he can put into each dish, drawing people and cultures together.
Scott Steger: Sous Chef at Siren Hall in Elk Rapids, who thrives off the adrenaline rush and gratification of successfully executing a fresh menu to hundreds of happy patrons a night.
Devin Shaw: Sous Chef at Mission Table on Old Mission Peninsula, who is practically Jenn Blakeslee’s stepson and a Great Lakes Culinary Institute graduate.
Kathryn Thurston: Baker at 9 Bean Rows in Leelanau County who cooks with Kim Ryan on occasion and can’t wait to put on what she calls a “five-course show” that promises to spotlight the personalities and intertwined stories of the chefs involved.
Here’s how it goes:
Each Young Chef is responsible for the creation and production of their own course—start to finish, which includes food costs and procuring ingredients (they each pocket $10/ticket). The Cooks’ House assists in lining the chefs up with local farmers as needed. True to house modus operandi, the menu serves as merely a suggestion. Each chef has full ownership over their agreed-upon course, including prep, cooking, and plating—though the camaraderie invariably means that they all end up helping each other.
Patterson will introduce each Young Chef who will then present their course to their patrons—a step Blakeslee acknowledges causes some amount of angst and is probably a first in their burgeoning careers. Cue celebrity-style selfies from salivating gourmands.
Why The Cooks’ House does it:
You both have been very intentional from the beginning to build and foster a spirit of creativity and a passionate community among local chefs. You share ideas, share chefs, and invite each other into your kitchens. Why is that so important to you?
Patterson: Cooking at its core is about bringing people together. Go back thousands of years—from the very beginning cooks have been the people that have brought people together. There is a good healthy competition … we’re all egotistical assholes by nature … but at the same time we want to help each other out. If we want TC to have a great food scene, the chefs have to get along. It always boils down to a sense of community. If we can get them started young, to have respect for each other as they grow in stature—it creates a better environment for everyone.
Blakeslee: Nobody took us seriously when we first moved up here. We had a hard time landing jobs. Black Star Farm’s Chef Cory invited us to do a dinner with them, which finally gave us a chance to show people what we can do.
Patterson: We spent years toiling away on the line under other chefs, never having a say. Over and over and over again … practicing technique but never cooking your own food.
Blakeslee: [This event] gives them the opportunity to present their dish with a lot of support and the opportunity to network with each other—some nice relationships have been established over the last few years, which is great … and [the event] gives them the chance to be supported by their own course.
The Cooks’ House has become an icon in TC’s culinary scene, and you have even referred to yourselves as “some of the old people.” [Though in the next breath that attribution is vehemently denied.] What kind of experience and lessons-learned are you passionate now about sharing with the up-and-comers?
Patterson: As you grow older as a chef, you are able to look back and see where you went wrong. We want to pass that knowledge on … give them a heads up. I have made my fair amount of mistakes and trip-ups; if I can save a couple people from that I would feel redeemed. I think it is something we feel we owe the community.
This is your fourth year putting on this event, so you have some experience. What is something you have learned from watching these young chefs in your kitchen?
Blakeslee: There are some very talented, motivated young people in the area. And a lot of these people have gone other places and are back in town.
Patterson: These young kids coming up … man, when they take over in 15 years …! We’re excited that the scene is going to not only continue but get even better. We’re looking ahead a generation. But we’re not dying yet—don’t make us sound like we’ve got one foot in the grave!
You are both passionate about the place you’ve held “on the ground floor” as it were, here in TC. Tell me about what you hope to see come out of the foundation you have laid?
Patterson: We have a lot of good stuff going on [in Traverse City], but we have a long way to go. We need some ethnic diversity food-wise up here. We need to continue to improve our quality—not become satisfied with just becoming good. I’d love to see us as a world-wide food destination. I’d love to see us taken seriously alongside places in Europe, California, and NYC. We have all the ingredients necessary, but it’s going to take time to make that happen. There is no reason we can’t become known as a great food destination. The affordable housing issue is huge though; there’s a big cook shortage in town. If we keep going along these lines, we’re going to die as a region. No one will be able to afford to live up here. We might be looking at the peak of TC food right now.
The Cooks’ House exemplifies locally sourced intentionality and camaraderie: from the Guest Chef Series and the Young Chef Series to unique dinner pairing offerings. You always have a lot going on in your tiny kitchen and out-of-the-box thinking is clearly a staple ingredient. What can your fans look forward to in 2017?
Patterson: We’re going to be open seven days a week through the summer months; employing more people. The Guest Chef Series is expanding: we had six different chefs last year and will have eight this year.
Blakeslee: Yeah, a lot of these chefs—you can’t even get reservations at their restaurants for months, but they are coming up here and experiencing this. It spans the state and into Chicago and more. The networking is really cool and allows different people to work together.
Patterson: We’re always striving to refine and improve what we’re doing. We prefer to focus on making the restaurant here as good as possible rather than spreading ourselves too thin. This is what we love. We don’t want to lose that quaint intimacy.