Eric Patterson, one half of The Cooks’ House duo, pours oolong tea into an impossibly delicate teacup. His ponytail holds a few streaks of gray and a sharp vintage-inspired suit covers a plethora of tattoos. Jen Blakeslee nonchalantly sits on the counter interjecting now and again, finishing Patterson’s sentences while embodying a business partnership that has spanned a decade. Her passion for their work, his no-nonsense approach and their focus on community-minded food has put The Cooks’ House at the forefront of northern Michigan’s burgeoning culinary scene.
Driven by the same perspective that causes them to source the vast majority of their ingredients locally, The Cooks’ House duo approaches their popular wine and beer dinner pairing events very intentionally, celebrating the fact that they live in the middle of wine and, more recently, beer country. Where most restaurants would source their beer and wine from national distributors or standard wine regions like California, Oregon and France, The Cooks’ House is focused on staying local.
“It is a great way to experience the winemakers (and breweries) up here, because dammit, these guys are getting really good!” says Patterson, delving into the nuanced idea of terroir or the character of the region. “You can’t get these northern Michigan wines anywhere else, because it is the soil that is here, the climate that is here. In the old world, the food and the wine has grown up together, and that is what is happening here.” Blakeslee nods her head at Patterson and adds, “It’s like your saying: what grows together goes together.”
The Cooks’ House dinner pairings offer an evening-long experience for an intimate 24 seats. Their limited size becomes one of their largest advantages as local wineries are able to dig into their libraries and offer limited and rare vintages they wouldn’t be able to offer at larger events.
Big believers in underselling the description and overselling the dish, Blakeslee admits the duo approaches the menu simply “as a suggestion.” The important thing is that the pairing enables the chefs and their sommelier to share ideas with the winemaker or brew master and to discuss nuances like the level of acidity and the fattiness of the ingredients.
“We use the wine as an ingredient and the dish as another ingredient, then we bring them together as a whole,” Patterson says. Where most other restaurant pairings will have a chef that writes a menu and gives it to the winemaker, The Cooks’ House does it reverse, bringing the winemaker or brew master to them and offering them a large stake in helping to create the menu. “It is more challenging, but it’s more fun and gets us out of our box!” says Blakeslee. “What’s amazing about it is the wine makers or brew masters usually participate in the dinner themselves,” she continues. A recent October dinner-pairing event featured Bell’s Brewery, and saw Larry Bell participate, regaling guests with stories of how he got started with a $200 loan from his mother and just three brews set up on a card table. While dinners with Sean O’Keefe (Villa Mari Vineyards) often include fascinating literature and food correlations, Larry Mawby‘s signature bubbly is highlighted by the popular vintner’s charisma and free-thinking. “That’s what makes our small venue so fun. It’s not stuffy,” says Patterson. No matter the drink or the personas involved, each dinner experience becomes unique, organic and community-minded: all signature Cooks’ House.
That concerted effort to raise the bar both on sophistication and collaboration is paramount in The Cooks’ House Guest Chef Series which features eight chefs from cities like LA, NYC, and Chicago. Invited to simply take over The Cook’s House kitchen, these prominent names also include chefs at the forefront of metro Detroit’s food renaissance—Andy Hollyday from Seldon Standard as well as Kate Williams from Republic, who is making waves with her new project, Lady of the House. Incidentally, Williams will be the next Guest Chef at The Cooks’ House on November 14.
A throwback video with Chefs Jen and Eric.