The Homestead’s Chef John Piombo Makes Us Hungry For Summer

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Grill your own steaks, dine al fresco and more this summer at The Homestead in Glen Arbor.

It’s a blustery March day in Glen Arbor, and The Homestead—the stunning Lake Michigan resort located here on Sleeping Bay—has just entered its early spring hiatus that will last until it reopens at the end of April. Finally, Chef John Piombo, who in-season races around the sprawling resort multi-tasking a million to-dos, has a chance to relax and chat in Cavanaugh’s Grocerant, the most casual of the resort’s four eateries (think pizza and homestyle to-go items like lasagna). The other three restaurants include the petite, waterfront Café Manitou, Whiskers with its classic tavern fare and Nonna’s, known for its relaxed farmhouse setting and Italian food; the last two located in the resort’s Mountain Village at the base of the ski slopes.

Wearing a Miami Cane’s cap and a Homestead hoodie, Piombo leans against a wooden beam and into a subject we both adore: food and cooking. Given Piombo’s Mediterranean DNA (his father is Italian, his mother Spanish), his conversations are always animated and can move from despair to hope like a Verdi opera. This past year, of course, despair has been spelled out in all that the pandemic wrought, including putting the food he has so lovingly created into to-go containers; a shaky supply chain; labor shortage; an ongoing need for guests to social distance and not being able to open his beloved Nonna’s—the intimate restaurant with its crackling fireplaces is just a bit too intimate to open until the pandemic is over.

But Piombo’s résumé includes infinite resourcefulness and creativity. For guests at The Homestead this summer, that will translate into another season of culinary brilliance. Here’s a snapshot of what Piombo’s free-range mind is planning.

First, let’s backtrack a bit. Given the pandemic you’ve had more downtime than you’ve probably had in years. How did you use it?

I was home more at night so I cooked more with my kids, Giovanna (16) and Alessya (14). I have a gazillion cookbooks [when pressed on the exact number Piombo says his collection is about 200], and I have a map in my home office. So, I told the kids, go in and point at a country and we will make something from that country. We hung out a lot in North Africa and Turkey. We did couscous and kebab-type things.

Mediterranean food is my favorite. It is at the crossroads of the old empires—the Roman, the Persian and the Ottoman Empire. All the tribes. The crossroads of civilizations that came in there, bam bam bam, with all their exotic spices and ingredients. And their meals are all so communal. I love that.

We [the girls and I] also started being super rustic and cooking meat over the fire on a stick. You know, the fact that you are cooking outside makes it that much better.

The pandemic required so many pivots for people in the food and beverage industry. Most of yours involved moving dining and drinking outside. How did that work?

We basically turned the area outside of Whiskers into a food court. We had the grill going and the outside bar, fire pits and our two outdoor fireplaces. Plus our outdoor Celebration Table [a table shaped like a series of s’s so people can converse better than sitting in a straight line] worked great for groups. We are blessed at The Homestead to have lots of outdoor room.

People are happy to be outside, away from a larger city. We are promoting the Up North experience. The fireplace, the s’mores …

That outdoor food court idea worked out so well and created such a fun atmosphere! Will we see more of a good thing?

Yes, we are going to gear the menu at Whiskers to even more outdoor cooking—things like letting guests cook their own meat over the fire. It will be very experiential.

So, it will be a riff for your guests on what you did at home with your daughters during the Covid-19 lockdown?

Sure, that translated into my thinking here. I thought, “Hey, people want to be outside. What can we do outside that gives that communal feeling of fiery, smokiness.”

That sounds very cool! But where are guests going to be able to order up your homemade pasta, bread and other high-end dishes since Nonna’s will stay closed?

That will happen at Cafe Manitou where we will have outside dining. You go to Whiskers and have burgers and maybe a steak kebab you cook on a stick. The next night you go to Cafe Manitou for a really fine dining experience. During the day Cafe Manitou will still do to-go food.

Any changes coming to Cavanaugh’s?

We are putting emphasis on our house-made New York-style pizza. I am also thinking about bringing in some fresh-cut steaks, fresh chicken and fresh fish so people can cook in their condos if they want to. I’d also like to create a farm market-type atmosphere in Cavanaugh’s. I have a guy, Alan, I call him the godfather of Kaleva [a small town in nearby Manistee County]. We sold his Christmas trees in the winter. Next Christmas I want to do more with that idea and create a winter wonderland with lights and hot chocolate. In the summer Alan goes around to all the farms in the area and collects fresh berries, greens, wild mushrooms and whatever to sell. I’ll tell him, “Bring me what you have and we’ll set it out.”

Last spring, after the lockdown started, you started cooking classes via Facebook videos. They were brilliant. Given all the horrible uncertainty back then, it was so comforting to watch you making Italian food! You have some downtime now before re-opening, are you planning to do another series?

Yes. Starting in April. We’re going to focus on tricks and tips for the kitchen. Things like how to truss a chicken. Or let’s say you went to Costco and bought a filet—I’ll show you how to trim it. We’ll even cover microwave tips. You know how everyone believes you can’t put aluminum in a microwave? I’ll dispel that rumor. We are going to film them in the loft over Nonna’s. There’s a kitchen in there and it feels very homey.

In a nutshell (or better yet, a cannoli shell!), how do you see this summer playing out?

At the end of the day, I believe that our summer season will be amazing! We have learned a lot in a year. The uncertainty of who, what, when, how … is now something that we have faced and our guests have seen us do it. Furthermore, we have done it … SAFELY. I cannot stress how much being outside is going to come into play, but, what better place than in Northern Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and The Homestead.

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