After staying closed during winter for the first time in Tapawingo’s acclaimed 24 years, chef-owner Harlan “Pete” Peterson dove into the task of hiring a new chef for Tap’s much-awaited reopening in May.

I was lucky to get to join him at a test dinner with his top contender, Chef Raymond Kusmack, former chef d’cuisine at LochenHeath, on a cool March night last week. I made my way up the still snow-coated gravel road to Peterson’s tree-house-like home in the hills of Ellsworth, where Peterson had laid out crisp ivory linens at a table set for six.

Kusmack cooked with Peterson’s pots and pans, creating a dreamy tasting dinner to help Peterson make his final decision in appointing a new chef to carry on Tapawingo’s glowing reputation.  This culinary mecca of the Midwest was called “Michigan’s Northern Star in Bon Appetit magazine and raved about in Gourmet‘s American Dreams issue.

Kusmack presented the amuse bouche, a delicate tempura-fried oyster, its shell cradling ribbons of pickled cucumber and a yuzu sabayon, and the feast began.

Some of the astoundingly composed dishes were balanced and tempered (in the delicate maple cure on his grilled smoked trout with a refreshing lime-avocado aioli). Others danced in our mouths (with the intermezzo of vanilla passion fruit ice). For me, the dish of the evening was the lamb, which Kusmack bravely prepared three ways: crusted in Dijon and mint, crafted into fennel-spiced sausage studded with Leelanau Raclette, and, my favorite, braised to meltingly tender with Barolo wine and rosemary.

His menu spoke of spring, hinted at new beginnings, and, most excitingly, let us taste our favorite ingredients in surprising new ways. For the second course, he paired dill-flecked organic roasted beets and artichokes with a disk of almond-crusted warm chevre on a frisee salad dressed with brown butter-pancetta-lemon vinaigrette .

Peterson let me know yesterday that he did, indeed, name Kusmack as chef at Tapawingo, and said Chef Ray is already in the kitchen sourcing ingredients for their 25th season.

“After a very long and cold winter, I think finding Chef Ray, an extremely talented ‘Michigan guy,’ to head up the Tapawingo kitchen was great fortune, and, an omen of a good season ahead,” Peterson says. “Our new menu will reflect some of the early dishes that I developed, along with Ray’s contribution of creativity and experience. Our new menu will be a bit simpler, a bit more traditional, but assuredly, filled with the best ingredients we can find.

“Chef Ray, knowing Midwestern palates, local sources, and, just as importantly, the extreme seasonality of the local restaurant scene, is invaluable. And I, jaded old Pete, had my socks blown off by the test dinner Ray presented at my house for me and my friends. Hiring him was a no-brainer!”

Says Kusmack: “I really am thrilled to have this opportunity to work at one of Michigan’s premier restaurants for one of the best chefs in the state.”

Tapawingo opens for dinner service on Thursday, May 1, and then a regular schedule of Wednesday through Sundays, until mid-June when the restaurant expands the schedule to six days a week.

I can’t wait to cruise the winding road past fruit trees and barns to Ellsworth and our Northern Michigan star. Reservations needed. 886-588-7881,