Housed in an 1880’s lumber baron’s retreat on orchard-and-vineyard-sprawled Old Mission Peninsula, Traverse City’s Bowers Harbor Inn is destination dining at its best. Owners Jon Carlson and Greg Lobdell purchased the waterside property in 2006 to preserve the significant historic site as an award-winning restaurant. They recently lured Chef Paul Olson home to the Third Coast—Michigan—after 18 years out east.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Olson honed his skills in French restaurants such as La Cite and Café Luxembourg in Manhattan. Olson has crafted dishes for the Tribute to Billy Joel in 1990, the Aspen Food & Wine Classic in 1995 and the James Beard Foundation Dinner in 1991.

Even with Bowers Harbor Inn’s gorgeous Grand Traverse Bay views, area residents and wine-country tourists come to this elegant spot for what’s on the plate—Olson’s French-inflected bistro cuisine that’s both fresh and refined.

We caught up with Chef Olson for an off-the-cuff chat while he was on his drive home down the winding scenic road to the Inn.

What excites you most about returning to Michigan?

We’ve been going to Glen Arbor for 15 years for summer vacation. To live where you vacation is pretty special. And also, I’m a huge Red Wings fan, so it’s been great to be home.

What is one part of your New York experience that you’ve brought Up North?

After graduating from the CIA in ’91, I worked at restaurants in Manhattan. Three of the four were French. Here at Bowers, we’ll do that same kind of simple food with really good ingredients—still interesting, but not seven diffrerent flavors with a piece of fish. Also, Café Luxembourg in Manhattan was really low key—lots of celebrities ate there because they wouldn’t be noticed. My wife had me start collecting silverware from famous people, so I brought that with me too…

I see locally-raised buffalo from Oleson’s farm on the menu. Any chef tricks to cooking successfully with this ultra-lean protein?

I braise buffalo short ribs after a nice sear with a little flour. I braise with lots of wine and little vinegar and I like to put an anchovy in. For buffalo, I like to use a little red and a little white wine, chicken stock and veal stock and braise it real slow in a 250 degrees oven for 3 hours. The meat falls off the bone. That’s cooking to me…

What are some other delicious, exciting ways you will be featuring our regional delicacies?

In May we’ll cook with Norconk asparagus straight out of the ground. It’s so purple and beautiful. We’ll make asparagus soup, asparagus-morel risotto, grilled asparagus with poached eggs. Also ramps. I pick them off Day Forest Road, after it rains, and pickle them. I can use them for a month or two depending on how many I pick—in a little vegetable or pototo sauté for chicken or poussin. People taste the pickled ramp—vinegary and kind of sweet—and say, wow, what it that. Ramps are a great garnish for a fish, too, or mixed with asparagus in a saute.

Join Chef Paul Olson of Bowers Harbor Inn for a wine dinner event on April 23rd, 2009 to celebrate Michigan Wine Month. Spencer Stegenga, owner of Bowers Harbor Vineyards (also on Old Mission Peninsula in Traverse City) selected Michigan wine pairings for the 6-courses.

Take a peek at the locally-inspired menu and more details.

The Bowers Harbor Inn is located at 13512 Peninsula Drive on the Old Mission Peninsula in Traverse City, 231-223-4222. 

Photo(s) by Al Parker