The circadian rhythm of The Cooks’ House, a Traverse City restaurant, begins with a curtain of morning light going up on polished plates and knives poised beside steel-banded cutting boards. Six small tables are set with silverware rolls and dishes of Fleur de Sel on crisp sheaves of brown paper. The day will take shape from tiny quail eggs dappled brown, bundles of salsify and a bag of nasturtium leaves, all awaiting their dialogue in a humming cooler case.
For chefs Eric Patterson and Jennifer Blakeslee, each day begins and ends with this stillness; the hours in between are a precise choreography of cutting, caramelizing and commingling the finest ingredients from local farms and forests into the inventive menus that have put the pair at the center of Traverse City’s food scene. Eric and Jen cooked together in Las Vegas at Andre Rochat’s two-star Michelin restaurant, André’s, before deciding to return to Jen’s native Traverse City and open an eatery of their own centered on local, sustainable cuisine. We followed the chefs from when they took their first sip of Oolong in the early morning till they turned the key in the lock at day’s end, along the way living a day in the life of this small and remarkable restaurant.
Pilot lights flicker on the small commercial range beside baskets of paper-skinned shallots, a leaky jar of local honey and the buck-toothed grin of a Sponge Bob Square Pants garlic bucket. Eric heats water for tea, updates The Cooks’ House blog, reads news and answers emails from patrons and vendors. “I use this time to catch up with the world,” Eric says, the silence of the unlit restaurant punctuated only by wet tires hissing along Front Street during the morning commute.
The Cooks’ House is kinetic with preparations as Eric’s wife, Theresa, and lunch cook, Jeremy Heisey, arrive. Music by ‘80s indie band, The Smiths, plays loudly on laptop speakers. Eric describes menu planning as an organic process determined by the ingredients at hand. Refrigerated storage is limited to one small case, so farmers and foragers show up almost daily with fresh produce. Tonight, Cooks’ House will host a private party of 22 young professionals for a seven-course tasting, and Eric improvises a menu from yesterday’s bounty: newly dug salsify roots to be blanched and sauteed, nasturtium leaves destined for a peppery puree in tonight’s gnocchi dish, and bunches of bok choy and braising greens to complement a pork belly course. Jeremy jots a shopping list on an old receipt, while Eric dashes out the door and returns minutes later with an armload of fragrant loaves from Bay Bread Company.
Oryana Food Cooperative is the first on this morning’s market run, where Eric picks up limes, tomatoes, corn tortillas, leeks, pepitas, Shetler’s milk and Leelanau herb cheese. He browses along a wall of bulk grains, their sweet, nutty aromas filling the aisle, and as he fills his shopping basket, he greets people he knows, pausing to answer queries on potato boiling, chatting with a local dairy farmer and talking about his new cookbook.
“I like to support Oryana’s organic and fair trade products,” Eric says. “It fits well with our philosophy at Cooks’ House.”
The Cooks’ House’s extemporaneous culinary style sends Eric to market twice a day. “We buy everything fresh and only what’s needed for each meal service,” he says. Next stop is Burritt’s Fresh Market. Standing before the gleaming fish counter, Eric chats with owner Ken Burritt about sourcing wild game, while he selects two opalescent walleye fillets and some electric-orange smoked salmon for today’s lunch menu. “Burritt’s can get anything,” the shopkeeper tells us.
A few minutes drive and Eric is navigating the bustle of commerce at Traverse City’s Saturday indoor farmers market. He palms a knobby squash, testing its heft, and pauses to huff the scents of nutmeg and buttery crust wafting off a table of Ralph Humes’s pies. Today’s market fails to yield the local apples and honey Eric was hoping to procure for tonight’s dessert, but the folks from 9 Bean Rows still have a few almond croissants left at their table, which Eric confesses are a personal weakness. The impulse to linger for a second croissant is stifled by the prospect of a big pork belly to braise and lunch is under way.
Lunch patrons hunch over steaming bowls of red wine and white bean soup while Jeremy simultaneously prepares pulled pork sandwiches and walleye sandwiches, two of The Cooks’ House lunchtime signatures. “We brine the pork butt for nine hours and then roast it in the oven overnight,” Heisey explains. “The sauce is based on caramel then built on Asian flavors like soy, lime, fish sauce, coriander and star anise.” The smell is both high-toned sweet and deeply savory, like a barbecue sauce made by Buddha himself. The freshly purchased walleye fillets go through a quick masa dredge and then into hot oil, after which they are reborn crispy and delicious atop toasted ciabatta with roasted garlic spread and parsley salad.
With lunch service winding down at Cooks’ House, Jen heads over to the Wellington Street Market—which she and Eric also own in part—and begins to whisk up a batch of Ancho mayo. She melds fresh cilantro, oil, egg whites and chile puree to grace the market’s coveted chorizo, potato and egg burrito. Wellington Street’s larger kitchen serves as a test lab for Cooks’ House and offers its own casual menu of great sandwiches and ethnic take-out. Traverse City’s sole source for Tikka Masala and Mullagatawny, their heady essence of cardamom, ginger and curry hovers over every table. Wellington Street has garnered a loyal following of its own, and Jen says she feels fortunate to pursue her passion and have it supported by the community. Eric shows up with a dozen fresh farm eggs, and he and Jen finalize prep details for tonight’s tasting.
All six burners are firing on the range, and all six hands deftly pare, coarsely chop or finely dice in a tightly confined interplay of blades and elbows; nobody gets bumped, nobody gets cut. The Cooks’ House kitchen thrums with alt-rock and the active symbiosis of Eric, Jen and Jeremy prepping for the big dinner. Local acorn squashes for the soup are gutted, brushed with oil and slid into a hot oven beside a massive piece of pork belly braising in wine and onions, breathing its rich, salty vapor into the room. Walnuts for the salad caramelize in butter and sugar; cream simmers for patechou dough that Jeremy forms between two spoons into tiny quenelles that, after a quick bath in boiling salt water, end in airy gnocchi. The preparation process buzzes with economy of movement: knife strokes yield symmetrical piles of vegetables and their peelings become stock fodder for an eight-quart pot simmering on the back burner. When asked about his philosophy of cooking, Eric bluntly states, “It’s my personal quest to see how little I can do to food and still make it good.”
With preparations complete, the components of each course are staged together: a ramekin of dusty green pepitas sits beside a bowl of shiny glazed walnuts. A mound of sweetly fragrant pear slices sidles against pearly rectangles of whitefish. The kitchen is scrubbed and scoured until every surface shines. Candles are lit, linens smoothed, and the first guests to arrive find jazz vocalist, Madeline Peyroux, cooing from the stereo, while Eric and Jen smile, hospitable and nonchalant as if they’d been waiting for hours.
The guests sit, and the kitchen snaps into fluid motion. Eric and Theresa’s son, Carlos, rocks out to music playing on his iPod, his weaving silhouette framed by clouds of steam in the dish room. Carlos’s wife, Mary, stages plates with the swift precision of a blackjack dealer, while Eric passes hot food to Jen, who composes and garnishes: one hand works bright ribbons of nasturtium puree, while the other sprinkles crystalline pinches of Fleur de Sel. The day’s work is manifested in 22 faces of food rapture; the background jazz is replaced by a rhythm of dinner knives and forks.
First Course: Acorn Squash Soup
Second Course: Parisian Gnocchi with Nasturtium Leaf Puree and Salsify
Third Course: Sauteed Whitefish with Pears and Arugula
Fourth Course: Crispy Pork Belly with Quail Egg and North African Black-Eyed Peas
Fifth Course: Fresh Greens with Walnuts and Pumpkin Seeds
Sixth Course: Artisan Cheese Plate
Seventh Course: Apple Tart
The last fork tine comes to rest beside cobbler crumbs. Theresa whisks away empty coffee cups and bowls of sugar cubes as the guests slip into the evening, smiling and well fed. Carlos drains the dish sinks. Eric sharpens a knife, and Jen stacks sauté pans above the range. A few bars of Coltrane linger as the lights go down on a kitchen full of sharp knives, anticipating tomorrow. There is no grand finale or slapping of high fives but obvious contentment as the crew nods goodnight. Eric locks the door.
Tim Tebeau is the food editor for Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
[Try this Cooks’ House recipe for Apricots Poached With Ginger and Lime.]