Gates Lodge in Grayling has a set of new owners and a fly fishing chef who bring a fresh era of flavors to trout eating and trout fishing at Gates AuSable Lodge. Find the original spread in the April 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
An April sun above the cedars shines down on opening day of trout season in Grayling’s Au Sable River Valley ringing a riparian breakfast bell that’s heard above and below the riffles.
Warming water lights the river’s metabolic fuse and sets little black stonefly nymphs swimming toward the bank where they are intercepted by speckled vectors of brook and brown trout. The waft of buttermilk flapjacks and corned beef hash beckons hungry anglers from their cabins and truck cabs to fill the dining room at Gates AuSable Lodge. Fish and fly fishermen alike pack in the calories for the months-long melee of loops and leaps that begins this Saturday and doesn’t end until shelf ice and sub-zero howling send both back into hiding at year’s end.
Wielding a flat spatula with the grace and speed of a five-weight fly rod, Gates Lodge’s fisherman-chef Matt Haley flips signature bacon and chocolate chip pancakes, whisks egg yolks for a Tanker omelet and ladles savory Southern-style sausage gravy over fresh biscuits. There’s a line forming out the door, and Haley and his crew expect to feed a hundred hungry trout bums before the action breaks and they can start prepping for lunch.
Gates is fast becoming a pilgrimage for foodies as well as fishermen as Chef Haley and owners Josh and Katy Greenberg write the next chapter in the history of this angling Valhalla, which began when they bought the lodge after the passing of its iconic steward, Rusty Gates, in 2009. Follow us through the swinging door as we delve into the new paradigm of flavors and trout flies that defines this legendary Northern Michigan lodge at the start of a new angling season.
With breakfast winding down, Haley and his cooks begin pulling apart smoked pork shoulders and staging housemade kimchee for the midday chow. “Good food has always been part of the culture at Gates,” Matt says. “Our focus is to use fresh, quality Michigan ingredients and make everything we possibly can from scratch.” Adjacent to Haley’s work station, a stack of crusty Stonehouse loaves from Traverse City await their reincarnation as one of 40-plus signature sandwiches the lodge serves in its dining room and through the newly launched fisherman’s pick-up window. Matt makes a mean Michigan Reuben with Detroit corned beef, small 4 batch kraut and Swiss cheese melted on both sides of the bread. The lunchtime nomenclature is easily as tantalizing as the two-handed sandwiches with names like Ganh Fishin, Gates’s riff on a Vietnamese Banh Mi, The Articulated Club, a massive homage to meaty streamer flies, and, for vegetarians, the Spicy Ripe Hippy.
Before he set foot in the kitchen at Gates, Haley, a native of Edinburgh, Pennsylvania, came to know the Au Sable through his uncle, who purchased a fishing cabin in the early aughts. “I would spend all of my free time up here while I was cheffing at the Ritz Carlton in Cleveland,” Haley recounts. He did not realize that the next phase of his culinary career was taking shape between backcasts during floats with then-guide Josh Greenberg, an Ohio trout bum who had moved to Grayling after graduate school in New Zealand to fish and take over management of the Gates Lodge fly shop when Rusty Gates was diagnosed with cancer. Gates passed away in December of 2009, and Josh spent the next year running the lodge alongside Rusty’s widow, Julie, before he and wife, Katy, arranged to buy the property in 2011. “It required a big leap of faith to take this on and make it work,” Greenberg says. “We immediately had to look at new ways to grow the business in order to survive.”
An obvious avenue of growth was to reimagine the lodge’s 30-seat dining room. Greenberg called his friend Haley in Cleveland and offered him a job and the chance to fish every day. “Having guided Matt and his uncle, I knew he had a connection to this place and the river,” Josh says. “It was exciting to have him come in and change the way we ran it.”
“Our first order of business was in redesigning the menu,” Haley says, “This has always been an amenity to lodge guests but we’re looking to reach beyond that and make it a destination for everybody.” The focus of Haley’s new menu was to harness the hearty essence of Up North lodge food and creatively execute it with technique and artistry pulled from his fine dining background. More than anything, Haley and his wife, Emily Waldron, herself a trained chef who handles pastry and helps run the sandwich program, are intensely focused on hyper-fresh, ingredient-driven preparations from Michigan purveyors. “This place has a big freezer, and the only thing we use it for is French fries,” Haley proudly proclaims, as he plates a jaw-stretching offering of his proprietary Kim Jong BBQ, a smokey pulled pork and pepper jack sandwich with kimchee, peppers and housemade Korean barbecue sauce.
Notwithstanding the underutilized freezer, Haley’s à la minute methodology is necessarily dictated by the limited storage and tight kitchen quarters at Gates, a far cry from the Five Diamond factory he was used to at the Cleveland Ritz. “The workspace here keeps me honest,” Haley says. “I can store enough product for two days and then I have to buy more. With such a compressed season we also can’t afford to have any waste, so even though the menu seems huge, we work to cross-utilize a lot of our ingredients.” Cross-utilization tastes good, as evidenced by local roast beef piled on sandwiches like the blue cheese–bedecked Bruised Ego. Cross-utilization also finds its way into a crisped medley of potatoes and onions nested under expertly fried eggs in Haley’s sublimely hearty roast beef hash.
Having tamed the parade of hungry troutsmen at breakfast and lunch, Matt Haley and his mighty crew of two tackle an improvised mise en place for dinner service, where families, fishermen and traveling foodies can watch the river slip by and feast on Medjool dates stuffed with chorizo, smokey trout chowder with braised leeks, a deftly brined bone-in pork chop with creamed cabbage and pickled mustard seeds, or classic Trout Hemingway. Anglers en route to the evening rise chow al fresco at one of the lodge’s picnic tables keeping an eye on the treetops for clouds of mayfly spinners whilst wolfing down The Wildfire Burger: local Circle M Ranch beef cooked to order and piled with peppered bacon, spicy relish, incendiary ghost pepper cheese and Sriracha mayo.
The draw of Haley’s food, the lodge’s limited seating and its necessarily civilized hours (service ends at eight so the chef has time to wet a line before the hatch subsides) demand that diners reserve their table several days ahead in peak season. Walk-ins willing to wait, however, can peruse the well-stocked adjacent fly shop, a curated fantasia of masterfully balanced rods, every conceivable accessory in the angling ensemble and, of course, flies. Thousands of flies swarm tightly in a massive grid of sub-divided bins. Built of striated hackle feathers, hare’s foot and iridescent synthetic fibers, the flies are hand-tied mimicries of the Au Sable’s aquatic ecosystem. The juxtaposition is a satisfying one: next door, Chef Haley aims to please humans and their spectrum of terrestrial appetites; the fly shop menu offers a re-creation of everything a trout might think to eat.
Since it is opening weekend, today’s benthic zone shop chatter is about the Hendricksons, ephemerella subvaria, and the fickle grayish harbinger of all the hatches to come. “We sell a lot of Hendrickson imitations,” Greenberg says matter-of-factly. The Michigan Fly Fishing Club, here for its annual opening fête, shared bloody Marys this morning before pawing through the brimming boxes of nymphs, emergers, cripples and comparaduns. The apparent need was to festoon the fleece patches on their vests with every iteration of mysterious insect that may or may not appear this afternoon. After all, when a specific bug rises and sends the river’s hungry trout into a roiling frenzy, an angler must be prepared to match the hatch.
Though the flies-only, catch-and-release restrictions on the Au Sable’s Holy Waters and most of its adjacent branches offer year-round fishing opportunities, Gates opens its dining room the third Friday in April, and the official opening weekend that follows still holds ritual significance for scores of fly fishermen who journey here to tangle with the river’s wily finned denizens. “This is a special weekend for a lot of fishermen,” Greenberg reflects. “We used to have a guy who would stand on the riverbank and announce the season with a set of bagpipes, and we have an older generation of guests that have stayed here this weekend since before the Gates family started in 1970.”
While Gates AuSable Lodge continues to hone its food program, source new product lines for the fly shop and incrementally improve its 16 riverside motel rooms, the weight of its legacy is forever on the proprietors’ minds. “This place is just as sacred to us as it is to our customers,” Josh says. “There are always a few people who are going to want things to be exactly the way they used to be. Katy and I are pouring everything we possibly can back into this business to sustain it and move it forward, and the reception has been overwhelmingly positive.”
“People come here and are grateful,” Chef Haley says, smiling. “My reward is seeing people looking out at this river and loving the food we put in front of them. Even as we experiment and try things, eggs over easy will always be eggs over easy.”
Greenberg and Haley’s experimentation for the forthcoming season includes an expanded carry-out dinner program in response to demand following last year’s wildly successful fishermen’s sandwich window and an expanded line of rods from Selle, an artisan rod builder in Pennsylvania turning out some of the industry’s finest graphite and fiberglass blanks to tempt the cravings of the Au Sable’s anglers and their quarry.
A synchronicity of clanging silver forks and sipping trout signal the arrival of evening at Gates AuSable Lodge as the April light fades into the tree line and windows begin to glow up and down the river. The dining rooms plates have all but cleaned themselves of flash-fried perch fillets and white truffle–infused Alfredo. Locking the doors and turning off the lights, Josh Greenberg and Matt Haley contemplate a few casts to the wing dams and bubble lines just below Stephan’s Bridge, where the brown trout, like the new stewards of Gates Lodge, find their place in the current and anticipate the season ahead.
Trout Hemingway, a Strong and True Notion?
When we asked Chef Matt Haley for a trout recipe, we thought we were going to get, you know, a trout recipe. But instead we received a trout recipe and a sort of essay thing as a side. Thanks, Chef.
Recipe with backstory, by Chef Matt Haley:
I’m not entirely sure how to do this; our version, although simple, is meant to be a plated entrée—our recipe isn’t interesting to anybody, it’s just well cooked and seasoned properly; things few recipes can duplicate. There are some green beans involved. There is beurre blanc. There are mashed potatoes. Recipes for these things would take up a whole page and everybody already knows how to make them. The following is some background and a recipe.
“Pan Fried Trout” has been on the menu at Gates since Hemingway’s first taste of rum, and I’m confident I’d be publicly flogged with a boat pole for taking it, or any other form of trout, off the menu. Our first season we dusted it with corn meal and served it with roasted green beans, lardons, and an apple cider gastrique with toasted almonds.
Trout almondine, Lodge style. Flippin’ classic, right?
Without a second thought I was confident that I would be honored in a ceremonious display of swords and bamboo rods for liberating a tired, ill-prepared dish from its shackles. Grown men from Toledo would speak my name lustfully while speculating about my abilities as an angler: “I heard that dude throws 12-inch loops 85 feet … every time.” Or “…saw him during an Adams spinner fall with a bottle of Fernet in one hand, a 24-inch brown in the other … at noon … on the East Branch.” Or … “I’m pretty sure I heard he traveled back in time to teach Norm Maclean how to shadow cast …baaad asss.”
And nobody liked it! Especially the people who won’t eat perfectly crispy skin because it’s skin, and skin is gross even if it’s perfectly crispy. They wanted it the old way.
They wanted everything the old way.
Problems arise and Josh suggests we do Trout Hemingway, which he quickly explained was bacon-wrapped trout and just the name looks great on a menu. Red blooded ’merican males don’t need to know much after they see the words “wrapped” and “smoked pork product.”
So after three minutes of research on Wikipedia, it was clear to me that Papa was a true trutta glutton and in fact a connoisseur of all forms of trout flesh.
One could call the classic French dish Trout au Bleu “Trout Hemingway,” even though it is poached in court bouillon and is made a crazy shade of blue on account of the acidic broth. Trout Meunière is Trout Hemingway. Buffalo Style Trout Nuggets can be called Trout Hemingway … as long as you take a long and thoughtful pull from a bottle of brown water after you use your dirty index finger to extract the remaining essence of Ken’s bleu cheese dressing from a small plastic cup.
Other sources indicate that the first trout recipe that a young Papa wandering in Michigan truly loved was of the corn meal dusted variety. Cooked over a campfire. With a cast iron pan.
Every time a person kills and honors a trout by cooking it properly, it’s Trout Hemingway.
We here at Gates Lodge are staunch advocates of catch and release, so this recipe is for any kind of trout-sized vertebrates that can be wrapped in cured pork products.
I told you it would be wordy. Let me know if you need anything else.
Recipe: Trout Hemingway
1 whole fish, dressed and butterflied
3 tablespoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1/2 lemon, sliced
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1/4 cup freshly chopped parsley
3 cloves garlic crushed whole
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 bunch green onion sliced thick
5 slices high quality bacon (thin cut)
3 tablespoons oil
Season the fish inside and out liberally with salt and pepper allowing excess salt to fall off. Let rest 30 minutes. Preheat pan on medium-low, preferably cast iron. Dry fish thoroughly with paper towels. Stuff fish with lemon, herbs, garlic, butter and onion. Wrap whole fish in bacon, trimming excess overlap (too much bacon means soggy bacon and soggy skin). Add oil to pan and cook trout slowly rendering fat from the bacon until crispy on each side, about 8 minutes each. Serve with aioli and lemon wedges.