From the planet’s best cookbooks, Amical’s Dave Denison has built an annual food series that, 20 years in, still surges with the inventive flavors and vitality that gave it birth.
This foodie feature is in the March 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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The restaurant business has never been one for the faint of heart. Not least of all when that particular restaurant sits in a single-stoplight village Up North, in the dead of winter, in 1992.
Back then, Northern Michigan wasn’t a lauded foodie destination. It had good food, sure—but innovative and outstanding only here and there, in random pockets around the region, the likes of which USA Today, Bon Appétit, and Midwest Living had yet to take notice. Most menus were dominated by steak and potatoes. Fried perch on Fridays. Pasta or pierogies for those feeling wild. But carnitas and tomatillo tamales? A pietanze of Pacific rockfish al cartoccio? Tuna chirashi with a side of wakame? Chashu bao buns? Good god, man—a baguette with marrow bone?
No, this was a time before year-round farmers markets. Before incubation kitchens. Long before a James Beard Award winner moved to downtown TC and a certain famous restauranteur saw fit to kick up his orange crocs in Northport every summer.
Back during that fateful winter of 1992, Hattie’s restaurant in Suttons Bay was, like most Up North restaurants when the temperature plummeted, limping through the snowy season, buoyed by a trickle of devoted regulars and the occasional influx of skiers and sled heads. Stripped of the heady and hectic pace of summer, the bustle of fall, chef and owner Jim Milliman found himself entertaining a fanciful idea: What if, for just a few nights, he cast aside Hattie’s menu for one devised entirely from another chef ’s cookbook, say, China Moon, penned by Barbara Tropp, aka the Julia Child of Chinese cooking?
Dave Denison, then chef of Hattie’s, liked the idea. And so the two set off on a small statewide odyssey to secure what they needed to make their Chinese menu come true. Remember, there was no Manila Asian Market on Traverse City’s Fourteenth Street, no Amazon to deliver Sichuan peppercorns and Mala sauce to your front porch. But with equal parts tenacity and creativity, the pair found what they needed. Milliman tried, tested, and finessed. And for a few exciting and exotic nights, the patrons of Hattie’s were transported to another world inside 111 N. St. Joseph’s Street.
The event was a huge success with the diners, says Denison. But, truth be told, it had been an exhausting endeavor. And it had cost the restaurant a small fortune. Yet the next winter, they did it again: Another cookbook. Another odyssey. Another small fortune spent. And, as Denison remembers it, the catalyst for Milliman’s much more sensible plan regarding the next winter’s cookbook dinner: “We’re not doing that sh** again.” Milliman remained true to his word. But about four years after Milliman stuck his proverbial fork in the event at Hattie’s, Denison had a hankering for the old excitement of their cookbook dinner adventure. He called up Milliman and asked if his old partner would mind if he tried the idea at Denison’s new restaurant in Traverse City, Amical.
Milliman gave his blessing and wished Denison luck. For a few a wintry nights in 1997, Denison unveiled a menu from Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook, and the results were, well … not totally unpredictable. “It was a disaster,” says Denison. “Financially, it was bad.” Maybe it was a marketing problem. Maybe the weather. Whatever the reason, he says, Amical’s first cookbook dinner opened with a whimper, not a bang: “Not enough people came.” But those that did … ? “They liked it,” he says. “They liked it a lot.”
For the food-obsessed—folks whose passion is cooking, preparing, sharing, eating food—sometimes a little suffering is worth the eventual pleasure. Like a bit of char on an otherwise perfect, piping-hot piece of buttery toast, you simply scrape the bad bits aside, savor the close-eyed bliss of the moment when taste meets bud, and remember to lower the temperature next time. So it was with Amical’s Cookbook Dinner Series.
After a few years spent refining and shining, Denison and staff are celebrating the event’s 20th season this winter. No longer a few unique nights shaking up a long winter’s nap, the series is an anxiously awaited affair that unveils an entirely new cookbook and menu for one week every month, November through May.
Though perhaps still somewhat of an exhausting odyssey for its chefs and staff—albeit less so, thanks to the rise of Amazon and other purveyors of previously hard-to-find ingredients—Amical’s Cookbook Dinner Series has become a true winter tradition in Traverse City. It’s a rite of passage for new transplants to the area. And it continues to be a revelation for countless dedicated patrons who, month after month, tromp their snowy boots past the restaurant’s roaring fire, tuck in at one of its black-and-white checkered tablecloths, and venture—via new spices, sauces, cuts, and creative concoctions they might otherwise never taste—to the southern United States, France, Italy, Poland, Pakistan, and countless other destinations of gastronomic delight.
One brisk morning in mid-October, three Amical chefs are prepping for their culinary journey to a neighborhood north of London’s Piccadilly Circus, Nopi, whose name inspired both Yotam Ottolenghi’s restaurant and his cookbook—the latter of which will serve as Amical’s first Cookbook Dinner for the season running November 2016–May 2017. Gathered around a corner table inside Traverse City’s Towne Plaza are Amical’s executive chef Ben Hoxie, sous chef Jabe Dalzell, and prep chef Tim Griffith. The trio’s mission: to whittle down, from the 120 options Nopi’s Middle-East-meets-Far-East tome presents, just 16 recipes for Amical’s November Cookbook menu.Each is prepared to present his choices and, if need be, defend them. Dalzell, whose sleeveless vest and short-sleeve polo reveal the ladder of burns striping his wrists and forearms, opens a black notebook. Tim sets down his coffee cup and folds his hands on the table. “All right,” says Hoxie. “Soup.” They tackle artichoke vs. pea. “Might be trouble getting artichoke in November,” says Griffith. Hoxie nods. “It’s straight up opposite season.” But within minutes the lure of Jerusalem artichoke soup and its surface scroll of hazelnut spinach pesto prove too much to resist. It’s in.
They move to appetizers, their conversation an occupational shorthand that reveals the well-oiled familiarity of men accustomed to orchestrating order amid frenzy. “Pig cheek. I put it in the apps, now I wish it was entree. Plus, I never worked with it before.” “I had it as entree. But shoulder made it.” “I went belly … because all the squash and stuff.”
The conversation meanders through the merits of delicata over butternut—“It might be more conducive,” advises Griffith—then Hoxie shares his vision for its plating, the squash splayed out as rings, encircling ginger tomatoes dressed in lime yogurt, at center. All three nod thoughtfully. Butternut it is. “Let’s get back to the pork cheek.” “This one is braised and glazed.” “I chose cheek too.” “The belly fad is dying out.” “How hard is [cheek] to get?” “No problem. It’s the cleaning you have to take into consideration.” “Is cheek the same as jowl?” “Yup.” “OK. Cheek. What about vegetarian?” “I would love those blue cheese puff things.” “I went blood orange buratta.” “Those are available for, like, five minutes.” “I also feel those are kind of a cop out—throwing a couple orange slices on a plate.” Pause. “I agree with that.” Another pause. “So, blue cheese?”
Like a game of catch between major leaguers, the three quickly lob the pros and cons of ingredient availability, potential consistency issues, cost, personal and patron preference, and logistics—is the dish held in the stove or is it coming off the sham, for instance?—of each pitched dish. Their words move fast, but their voices, and their reasoning, remain ever calm and measured. To this outside observer, a non-chef whose dinner party’s one main dish and two well-disguised Sam’s Club sides bring her ever nearer to a nervous breakdown, the combo of the chefs’ Zen-like demeanor and decisiveness is disconcerting. But it’s also reassuring. This kind of exchange is what happens when you marry passion and vision with skill. It’s what happens when you hire talented people and then get out of their way. There’s not time to dwell on that though. They’ve already moved on to dessert.
The Amical Cookbook Dinner Series process, it seems, is part art, part math, part science. You can’t simply multiply a recipe times 10, after all. You have to scale up more slowly on spices than on main ingredients. You must consider ratios and serving size. You’ve got to deconstruct each recipe for line assembly, account for equipment available and needed, and stay within the restaurant’s price points while considering its margins. (Note to Cookbook Series fans: There will be no French Laundry, no Mexico From the Inside Out. And for that your wallet will be grateful.) But most important, when the need presents itself, says Denison, “You’ve got to Amical-ize things.” As the success of the series hit its stride, Denison says, “We thought we could do any book, and people would come. But we learned that wasn’t true.
We thought we could do White Trash Cooking [Ernie Mickler’s 1986 ode to dishes like Tutti’s Fancy Fruited Porkettes, Mock-Cooter Stew, and Oven-Baked Possum],” he says, shaking his head. “Nope.” Because no matter how adventurous, fans of Amical are, at heart, fans of Amical. If the restaurant delivers them too far from expectations, disappointment reigns. Too close, and well … might as well have ordered off the regular menu. And therein lies the art of Amical-izing: exploring another region without ever losing sight of home. If a cookbook recipe calls for, say, grouper, Amical might sub in whitefish instead. Asparagus in February? A good chance chef will skip it if he can’t confidently source it, and opt instead for a dish showcasing what’s tasty now. There was a time when Denison struggled with the improvisation issue. In the interest of local and seasonal, were they diminishing the integrity of the very recipes they intended to honor?
When he got the chance, he posed the question to Mario Batali, author of one of the cookbooks Amical featured: “He told me, ‘As long as you’re using proper cooking fundamentals and treating the food properly, I’m good with it.’” Amical-izing, officially absolved.
Opening night of November’s Cookbook Dinner Series, dedicated to Nopi, is just a few hours from starting. About 23 Amical staff (triple that in peak season) are gathered elbow to elbow in the restaurant’s dining room to taste test, learn, and decide how to best interpret the chefs’ interpretations of Nopi for their patrons. Their education begins with Jeffrey Libman, General Manager, who goes over the evening’s wines, offers tastings, and explains a few price adjustments—some up, some down. Each table is served the evening’s amuse-bouche (uh-MOOZ-boosh), the single, bite-sized hors d’œuvre fine restaurants serve gratis. In lieu of Amical’s traditional olive medley, tonight’s amuse is a burnt green olive dip with pita.
There’s a brief break in the hum of chatter as the staff digs in, then the questions and comments come rapid fire: “What makes it burnt?” “Is this how much we’re serving to the table?” “I taste the char.” And, reliably, “Is it gluten free?” While answers fly back in return, the amuse is quickly exchanged for appetizers as Denison peppers the munching staff with a quiz. “What cookbook season is this?” (The 20th.) “What are the names of the people who come every year?” (Bob and Kay Stehouwer.) “Who was our most popular cookbook author? (Jamie Oliver.)
Just a few feet from the servers, behind a low glass partition, the kitchen staff shifts and shimmies among steam and sizzle, moving around each other in a fast but fluid dance. Their predominant step seems to be the continuous churning out of plates for tasting: Asian-braised beef, a lentil and pickled-shallot salad with African spices, chickpea patties dressed in a coconut-curry lime paste, a cured and crispy slow-roasted duck leg, a miso-marinated hanger steak with a sweet, caramelized shiitake ketchup. The pig cheeks are present. And, much to everyone’s delight, the pig cheeks are also delicious.
Dessert—a baked chocolate ganache with spicy hazelnuts, orange oil, and crème fraîche, made much prettier on the plate than in Nopi’s own interpretation—seems to come too soon. Some servers are still savoring their entree samples. Others scoot out from their seats, tying on aprons as they rise. A few hunch over small notepads, jotting thoughts on flavors and textures and toppings to guide themselves and their guests more smoothly through the night. Outside, the afternoon is fading fast. Guests will begin arriving, maybe in droves, maybe not. Regardless, in less than an hour, the 20th season of Amical’s Cookbook Dinner Series begins. The world outside 229 E. Front Street will look exactly the same. But inside, tonight, the world inside becomes a restaurant in a little neighborhood of north London, where Far East and Middle East inspiration meet, and Northern Michigan is lucky enough to get a taste.
The 2016–’17 Amical Cookbook Series
- November: Nopi Middle East to Far East, Ramael Scully and Yotam Ottolenghi
- December: Bistronomy Recipes from new Paris bistros, Jane Sigal
- January: Korea Town Korean-American cuisine, Deuki Hong & Matt Rodbard
- February: The Mozza Cookbook Dishes from famous Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, Nancy Silverton
- March 6–12: Persiana From the southern and eastern shores of Mediterranean Sea, Sabrina Ghayour
- April 3–9: Down South Exploring the micro-cuisines of the South, Donald Link
- May 1–7: Dos Caminos Mexican Street Food Legit indigenous Mexican dishes, Ivy Stark
Lynda Twardowski Wheatley, a Traverse City–based writer, is a former travel editor and associate editor of Traverse. firstname.lastname@example.org | Jon-Paul Allgaier is a photographer based in Traverse City. greyscalegroup.net