Near Suttons Bay at Black Star Farms, Chef Jonathan Dayton deploys the luscious bounty of Black Star Farms to fulfill a vision of full-circle seasonal cuisine at Northern Michigan’s premier agritourism destination. Find the original spread in the July 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
At Black Star Farms, July’s vibrant geometry manifests in clusters of sweet black Heidels bending cherry tree limbs in fragrant parabolas. Cabernet Franc vines spiral along trellises, while the juicy spheres of early tomatoes ripen in hoop houses. Sheep, goats and cattle graze on a green plane of pasture.
Amid these shapes of summer at Northern Michigan’s premier agritourism destination is the blurred outline of executive chef Jonathan Dayton as he ricochets between his office and two onsite kitchens curating the furious interplay of outdoor fish boils, catered luncheons, wedding receptions, elaborate harvest dinners and daily meal service for farm guests. Every morsel that Dayton designs is informed by the hyper-seasonal immediacy of his ingredients, as much of the food eaten here is grown on Black Star’s 160 rolling acres of fertile field and orchard land. With another glorious Leelanau growing season underway, we follow Chef Jonathan through his summer rituals to explore the farm that feeds his full-circle approach to seasonal cuisine and harnesses the flavors of the North’s signature fruit, the cherry.
With intense morning light washing over the floor tiles and revealing the inn’s bucolic vista of bright red barns set among green pasture and terraced vineyards, Chef Jonathan Dayton greets guests as they filter into a breakfast parlor scented with the aromas of freshly baked pastries, cherry preserves, smoky house-cured breakfast meats from last year’s hogs and riesling-basted farm eggs gathered that morning. “I’m lucky to work on a pristine property that creates all of this agriculture to sustain itself, and have the creative freedom, time and thought to dedicate to each individual season,” Dayton says.
Moving to Traverse City with his family in the early ’80s, Dayton earned his creative freedom through a 25-year career in local kitchens, including at the Grand Traverse Resort, Boathouse Restaurant, Leland Lodge and Amical before taking up the executive toque at Black Star Farms in 2008. “When I started here seven years ago this was a little wine-country bed and breakfast, and now it’s a big company with multiple outlets that has shown everyone the potential for world-class agritourism in this area.”
Black Star Farms’ evolution toward agritourism began with its vineyards and orchards supplying the company’s winery and craft distillery programs. The second chapter was harnessing the property as an incubator for artisan agri-businesses like Leelanau Cheese and Nine Bean Rows. The culture of creative synergy and careful stewardship encouraged by co-founder Don Coe has caused Black Star Farms to blossom into a uniquely closed-circuit food nirvana that is both revelatory and rewarding for a chef like Dayton: “Everything here is farm fresh, from daily breakfast at the inn to hundred-guest wedding receptions, everything we put out is a harvest meal.”
Four years ago, Black Star Farms averaged five to 10 destination weddings per year utilizing off-site caterers; this season Dayton and his culinary team of eight will execute over 100 events in total between Black Star’s Suttons Bay and Old Mission properties, all of which will be fed exclusively with ingredients grown on site or sourced through Cherry Capital Foods’ network of local farmers. “Don’t get me wrong; occasionally I miss working with papaya or avocados or North Atlantic seafood,” Dayton says, “but we’ve fully committed to this approach, and the quality and variety of what this farm and this region can provide is second to none.”
Dayton’s pristine provisions are cultivated in staggering array. A flock of 100 chickens supplies thousands of eggs for croissant dough and hollandaise. Six happy heritage hogs are artfully reincarnated as charcuterie.
There are pastured geese and turkeys to be roasted, cured and confited, beef cattle, goats and lambs. For flora, Dayton presides over an extensive herb garden, and the farm grows beans, beets, squash, potatoes, greens and myriad other fruits and vegetables to serve fresh, sautéed, pickled, preserved or stored in an extensive root cellar.
“We want to stay honest with our menus,” Dayton says, referring to the bounty at his disposal, “and we want to communicate to our guests the importance of taking care of what you grow and what you eat. Our produce is all cleanly and responsibly grown. Our animals are cared for, live a beautiful life, and then have one bad day. Who else can say that?”
It’s easy for Dayton and his team to cook honestly now in the height of summer as the cherry orchards hang heavy with fruit and the list of produce he orders from gets longer nearly by the day. “Almost nothing can match the excitement of cooking at this time of year,” he says. “We’ve cast off those winter doldrums and can bring bright colors to the plate with cherries, greens and even early tomatoes.”
Sweet black cherries, which are central to the Black Star Farms culinary program as well as its winery and distillery, are represented in seven distinct varieties planted on 30 acres of the site. “The cherry is this region’s iconic fruit, so we use it in everything,” Dayton explains. At their peak of freshness the Heidels, Fingens and Heavy Giants lend their immediate sweetness to chilled cherry gazpacho with fresh basil, get staged beside striated baby beets in a salad with fresh pea shoots, spiced nuts and fromage blanc, are ground into pork and duck sausage or chopped with piquant jalapeños as a fresh salsa or relish. “They (cherries) have incredible health benefits,” Dayton says, “and as a chef I like to manipulate them as savory accents outside of the traditional dessert applications.”
The winery produces a hard cherry cider that Dayton uses to brine pork loins, and cherry juice gets reduced with vinegar into a sweet and tangy gastrique that’s used to braise duck legs or sauce smoked rabbit. Fragrant, fiery cherry brandy crafted in Black Star’s copper pot stills spikes cherry chutneys or makes for dramatic flambés. “We are always trying to stretch the limits of everything we use,” Jonathan reflects. “The cherry’s interplay between sweet and tart allows us to go a lot of different directions.”
The cherries that are not eaten fresh or distilled into sweet red elixirs are pitted and cooked down into gallons of preserves to be smeared across crusty artisan loaves or reinvented as the building blocks of rich winter sauces. “Our reality is that there are at least three to four months where we don’t have access to fresh food,” Dayton explains, “so practicing good methods of preservation for your ingredients is as important as what you do with fresh ones. At the end of the summer and fall we’re canning like crazy so that we can relive these seasons in the cold months. We spend the winter breaking down the animals we harvested last year and brining or salt curing them for charcuterie.”
Long after the harvest, when winter’s cold white stasis has reclaimed the hills around Black Star Farms, the inn’s hearth will house a warm fire, and its guests will channel July with black cherry chutney and smoked goose breast, but for now it’s summer: The herb beds are bursting at their edges, the livestock are living their happy lives, bushels of cherries are bound for the press, and Chef Jonathan Dayton is here, knife in hand, feeding his guests what the land provides.