In our inaugural year of the Tastemakers of the Year awards, we celebrate six innovators who are changing the food and beverage conversation in Northern Michigan. More than 150 industry members were nominated by their peers, 18 became finalists, and now, here are your final six 2022 Traverse Tastemaker winners.

This article first appeared in Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine. Find this article and more when you explore our digital issue library. Want Traverse Magazine delivered to your door or inbox monthly? View our print subscription and digital subscription options.

Forty years ago, Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine was a nascent title sending its eighth issue to the printer. The editorial team was writing about Bernie Rink, Ed O’Keefe, Jr., Larry Mawby and Bruce Simpson—all of whom had recently planted the region’s first wine grapes. Pete Peterson hadn’t opened Tapawingo yet—he was working at Wes Westhoven’s The Rowe Inn. Westhoven, a pioneer in incorporating Up North ingredients into fine dining, famously referred to the region prior to his arrival as a “culinary wasteland.” Thanks to the work of these visionaries and many who followed, Northern Michigan has long since shed that moniker.

Beginning in 2009, Traverse City was deemed a food destination by various national titles, including Midwest Living, USA TODAY and Bon Appétit. More recently, Food & Wine included the region as a viticulture area worth visiting in 2021, and Farm Club was one of 12 national winners in Bon Appétit’s most recent annual awards issue. While it will forever be the woods and the water that call us to this still-rural region, the ability to also eat and drink well is welcome, and there has never been a better moment to more officially recognize the remarkable humans who make that possible.

Months ago, Traverse reached out to food and beverage personalities throughout the state and beyond, asking which Northern Michigan culinary innovators they most respect. We wanted to hear who was outstanding not only at making chocolate or distilling spirits (to us, excellence in a core craft was a prerequisite), but also—beyond that—who was changing the conversation. We wondered who was poised to usher in Northern Michigan’s next culinary chapter while still honoring its past. We heard about chefs, winemakers, bartenders, farmers, baristas, grocers and maître d’s. After months of research, countless due diligence interviews and oh-so-many meals, it is a joy to share our winners. Below you will meet a Traverse City baker who’s rethinking the way people in hospitality are paid, a Mackinaw City grocer who moved north to address Native food sovereignty and a Falmouth artisan who is setting a new bar for Michigan cheesemaking. You’ll hear about a Marquette brewer who bravely brought complex Saison-style beers to the North, a certified-organic farmer in Petoskey who has big ideas for a more sustainable future and a talented Traverse City chef who spends as much time supporting the progress of the area’s rising stars as she spends on her own impressive career.

Without further ado, these are your 2022 Traverse Tastemakers.

Photo by Michael Poehlman

Jennifer Blakeslee, Chef & Mentor in Chief

The Cooks’ House | Traverse City | By: Allison Jarrell

As a Michigan native, early champion of the farm-to-fork movement in this region and one of the most adept chefs in our state, some might see The Cooks’ House Chef and Co-owner Jennifer Blakeslee as more of a queen of northern cuisine than a rising innovator—but they’d be overlooking the vital platforms she’s creating for both peers and protégés to change the conversation.

After falling in love with the intense seasonality of food while working at a high-mountain ranch in Colorado in the mid-’90s, Blakeslee went on to work in Las Vegas under celebrated chef André Rochat, whose Andre’s restaurant earned its first Michelin star during her tenure. In 2006 she returned to Traverse City, a single mom ready to work, only to be told, “women don’t belong in the kitchen.” “It was crazy to me, but that was just the culture of it,” she recalls.

Photo by Michael Poehlman

So, in true pioneering fashion, Blakeslee opened her own restaurant, The Cooks’ House, with Las Vegas colleague and fellow talent Eric Patterson. Fourteen years and two locations later, a meal in their petite 26-seat restaurant is as exciting as ever. Blakeslee’s commitment to using and crediting area farmers, and her respect for ingredients from regional fields and fisheries are alone worth celebrating.

But, it’s Blakeslee’s vision for mentoring rising chefs and fostering collaboration that makes her even more extraordinary. The annual Young Chefs Dinner series at The Cooks’ House gives this region’s rising stars an opportunity to present menu items of their own to a sold-out audience of serious foodies. Many participating cooks walk away from the event poised to open businesses of their own. Alliance, Rose and Fern, Sugar 2 Salt and forthcoming new openings Modern Bird and Conifer have all emerged from this series. And both an underground chefs-only potluck series that Blakeslee spearheads as well as a networking group called Northern Michigan Women In Hospitality that she helps steer, create social opportunities for back- and front-of-the-house players to collaborate, share notes and network.

All three of these initiatives, Blakeslee says, have created platforms for an array of conversations—from sourcing food to managing a restaurant. “I think we have a really healthy culture here right now with the cooks and restaurants,” she says. “It’s changed drastically since I first got here.” Her peers agree. It has changed—and will continue to change—thanks in large part to Blakeslee herself.

Photo by Michael Poehlman

Get to Know Jennifer Blakeslee

HOMETOWN | Traverse City, Michigan
WHERE SHE GOT HER CULINARY DEGREE | Johnson & Wales, Denver
FAVORITE RESTAURANTS WHEN SHE’S OFF THE CLOCK | Wren, Samsara and Forrest, a Food Studio
A MEMORABLE MEAL | Goat stew with homemade tortillas at a construction site in Mexico
IN HER FRIDGE AT HOME | Bread, butter, Bubbie’s Bagels and condiments. “I would say three-quarters of the fridge is condiments,” Blakeslee says.
MOST USED COOKBOOK | “The Flavor Bible” (Little, Brown and Company, 2008) by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
ADVICE FOR RISING STARS | “Read a lot, travel a lot, collaborate a lot and love what you do.”

Brian Bates, Organic Farmer and Forthright Philosopher

Bear Creek Organic Farm | Petoskey | By: Carly Simpson

Brian Bates is an open book. Want to know which tomato variety will grow best in your garden? Curious about soil health and pH levels? Together with his wife, Anne, Bates operates Bear Creek Organic Farm, which is not only the first B Corp-certified farm in the state, but also one of the most transparent farms we know. Customers (and peers throughout the Midwest) leave Bates’ gorgeous, newly opened market with more than just leafy greens, plump broccoli and suggestions for how to cook them. They also go home with vegetable plants, and the knowledge needed to grow them.

Photo by Michael Poehlman

Bates graduated from Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College with a degree in geography and environmental studies, and as a result chose to become a farmer. “Our desire to get involved with food production stemmed directly from our concern about the impacts of climate change,” says Bates. A native of Virginia, he visited 40 states before choosing to put down roots here in 2013. Thanks to its latitude and abundance of fresh water, Northern Michigan is a “more climate-resilient community,” says Bates, who was Petoskey’s first 100 percent USDA Certified Organic farmer.

Even in this climate-cushioned part of the country, Bates has ideas for a more responsible—and affordable—future. And, true to form, he’s happy to wax poetic about his vision while you’re picking out your potatoes. “I think growers are going to need to carve out niches. Somebody is going to need to get pretty dog-gone good at beets, radishes, carrots … somebody else is good at leafy greens,” he explains. “Then, they’re able to find a sweet spot where they don’t need infrastructure and equipment for every type of crop, and as marketers, they’re able to focus on selling similar crops with similar seasonality.” In Bates’ mind this would, in turn, allow small, regional farmers to achieve efficiency and economies of scale that could create an opportunity to reduce prices. A farmer who wants to make local, organic produce accessible and affordable? That’s someone we can all celebrate.

Get to Know More About Brian Bates

HOMETOWN | Herndon, Virginia
FAVORITE COOKBOOK | “Scandinavian Comfort Food” (Quadrille Publishing, 2016) by Trine Hahnemann
FARMERS HE RESPECTS | Paul and Sandy Arnold of Pleasant Valley Farm in Argyle, New York
FAVORITE VEGETABLE & HOW HE EATS IT | Cherry tomatoes, which he and his wife Anne halve, pair with micro basil and mozzarella pearls and eat with a spoon.
FAVORITE TRADE MAGAZINE | Favorite trade magazine: Growing for Market
CHANGE HE’D LOVE TO SEE | “A lot of food marketing is about what it isn’t. No GMO, no fat, no carbs,” says Bates, who wants to celebrate what it is. “It is hyper-local. It is grown with love. It is nutrient-dense. It is certified organic.”

Jason Gollan, Baker and Employer Extraordinaire

Common Good BakeryTraverse City | By: Stacey Brugeman

Jason Gollan grew up “eating real, crusty bread” from a French baker in his small New England hometown. Four decades later, he is turning out some of the best crusty bread in Northern Michigan. Common Good Bakery—beloved for its morning buns and naturally leavened pain au levain (known to Gollan’s faithful following as “French Peasant”)—was born out of Gollan’s many years toggling back and forth between desk jobs and bakeries, including Wild Oats in Boulder, Noe Valley Bakery in San Francisco and Crescent Bakery in Frankfort. When Gollan opened Common Good in 2017, he set out not only to make consistently impeccable boules and laminated pastry but also to give back. In the almost five years since, the aptly named bakery has donated to TART Trails, the Women’s Resource Center and countless other organizations. The group to whom Gollan is especially committed, however, is his employees.

Photo by Michael Poehlman

“I’m defining a whole new way of compensating people in hospitality,” the baker says of a payment shift that the food universe is facing increasing pressure to contend with. Using county-specific data published by an economic geographer at MIT, he makes sure his hourly wages are “as good or better than anything else in town.” Gollan— who holds degrees from the University of Colorado and Michigan State’s School of Hospitality Business and trained at the San Francisco Baking Institute—shares customer tips with every member of the team. Whether you are Gollan’s dishwasher, barista or even his salaried executive chef, he offers employees a set schedule that includes two consecutive days off and a “gold level” benefits plan, both of which are rare in the industry. Working for Gollan is so attractive that an interior architect and a Realtor recently followed their passion for baking and left their former careers to become Gollan’s head baker and run his viennoiserie program, respectively. As it turns out, making excellent bread while also treating employees well is good for business: Common Good recently announced it will open a second location on the east side of Traverse City. In addition to his existing bakery offerings, the new opening will include a 50-seat dining area with a full pizza and pasta menu, with further plans for growth in the works.

Get to Know Jason Gollan

HOMETOWN | Peterborough, New Hampshire
WHY NORTHERN MICHIGAN REMINDS HIM OF NEW HAMPSHIRE | “Common sense is still common,” Gollan says.
COMMON GOOD BAKERY BREAD HE’S MOST EXCITED ABOUT |Sprouted three grain
BUSINESS HEROES | New York City’s Danny Meyer and Boston’s Joanne Chang
BAKERS HE RESPECTS | Éric Kayser of Maison Kayser in Paris, David Norman of Easy Tiger in Austin and Gabriele Bonci of Bonci Pizzerias in Rome, Chicago and Miami
FAVORITE BAKING COOKBOOK FOR HOME COOKS | “Baking with Julia” by Dorie Greenspan
SOMETHING HE’D LOVE TO SEE IN TRAVERSE CITY | A bonafide wine bar that pours 100 percent local wines

Meet Dave Omar, Cheese Maker & Dairy Dreamer

Saltless Sea Creamery | Falmouth | By: Rachel Soulliere

Some of Dave Omar’s first memories are of his Syrian grandma—born in what is now modern-day Lebanon—cooking a warm snacking cheese called jibneh. This handed-down passion for cheese ultimately led the Lansing-area native to jobs at Zingerman’s, Whole Foods and Plum Market, where he was a cheesemonger. “It became an obsession, and I kept making batches of cheese at home, just like my Sittu did,” says Omar, founder of Saltless Sea Creamery.

Together with his wife, Joy (also a Zingerman’s alum), Omar moved to Northern Michigan in 2018 and began pursuing cheesemaking professionally. He introduced himself to Boss Mouse Cheese’s Sue Kurta, who agreed to take Omar under her wing as an apprentice. Omar ultimately broke out on his own and now makes more than five cheeses, including ricotta salata and a semi-firm cheese akin to aged provolone— both of which start with grass-fed milk from Moomers. The product we are most impressed by, however, is Omar’s one-year-aged parmesan-style cheese known as Parmichigano. Not only is it aged an impressive amount of time, it also expresses Omar’s deep commitment to terroir.

Omar is so committed to terroir, in fact, that he hopes to isolate a Michigan cheese culture. While it’s commonplace in much of Europe for each region to start cheeses with a locally distinct “mother culture,” most U.S. cheesemakers help milk coagulate using a starter culture that is produced by big business. Inspired by Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm, Omar would love to someday make a homegrown culture that comes from—and tastes like—Michigan. “Eventually I’ll be able to say this is our state’s flavor profile,” Omar says. The cheesemaker also dreams of a Michigan dairy guild, which would better connect the many players of the sixth-largest dairy state in the nation.

But first, Omar must find a permanent home. Demand for his cheeses is so great that he has outgrown the space he is renting in Falmouth. At press time, he was raising funds to buy a shipping container that is outfitted for cheesemaking, which is a start-up-friendly option that we’ve seen used from Connecticut to California. Omar will then place the compact creamery on vacant land, a relocation project he hopes to complete by next year. Until then, Omar’s cheeses can be found at Oryana, Edson Farms and 9 Bean Rows … as long as you’re first in line.

Photo by Michael Poehlman

Get to Know More About Dave Omar

HOMETOWN | Williamston, Michigan
FAVORITE MAGAZINE | Culture. “It’s a cheese industry magazine I’ve subscribed to over the years, and the photos alone will make you drool,” says Omar.
HOW HE AND JOY EAT THE PARMICHIGANO AT HOME | “My favorite thing to do is straight-up eat it with apples as a snack,” Omar says. But he also uses the rinds to make brodo.
HIS FAVORITE AMERICAN CHEESE | Ameribella by Jacobs & Brichford in Indiana
FAVORITE PLACE TO TRAVEL | Italy
AWARD HE’S PROUD OF | Oryana’s 2021 Cheese Madness Tournament
WHERE TO FIND OMAR WHEN HE’S OFF THE CLOCK | The Filling Station Microbrewery in Traverse City

Rosebud Bear Schneider, Market Manager & Food Sovereignty Champion

Minogin Market | Mackinaw City | By: Elizabeth (Lissa) Edwards

Rosebud Bear Schneider’s passion for Native food sovereignty—the right to healthy and culturally appropriate foods—began with the most fundamental nourishment of all: breastmilk. “We can’t talk about indigenous food sovereignty without talking about breastfeeding,” says Schneider. This epiphany was sparked by her work for American Indian Health & Family Services in Waawiyatanong (Detroit), where she grew up. From that awakening, Schneider began building on her Native heritage (she is Anishinaabe, Shawnee and Purepecha) to shape a unique career path that incorporated urban foraging, gardening, seed saving and lactation consulting—skills vital to Natives who are estimated to suffer food insecurity at a rate four times greater than other Americans.

Photo by Michael Poehlman

In 2018, Schneider moved north with her family to become manager of Minogin Market. The market is an outlet for Ziibimijwang Farm, founded by the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians as a sovereign source of indigenous foods for the Native community in the Straits area and beyond. When Covid-19 hit, Schneider made the difficult decision to shutter the market and began selling Ziibimijwang produce at area farmers markets. Schneider reopened Minogin last summer, her zeal for the power of Native foods undaunted. From May through October, the market sells Native-grown produce, indigenous-made pantry items such as maple sugar and house-ground cornmeal, grab-and-go meals like wild rice bowls and other healthy menu items, some of which she also prepares for tribal events.

Inspired by Native chefs Sean Sherman, Elena Terry and Crystal Wahpepah, Schneider is thinking beyond nutrition and exploring the exciting culinary potential of indigenous ingredients. Last year, crowds ordered up the market’s memorable bison chili, corn soup and whitefish tacos. “When you’re cooking, you’re giving part of yourself to people. You’re feeding that person’s spirit,” Schneider says. Schneider’s work to help ensure that her people are healthfully fed by their ancient culinary heritage is garnering respect from coast to coast. She was recently quoted by The New York Times, served as a keynote speaker for a Seed Savers Exchange webinar and is scheduled to make her national television debut this year. We’re honored to celebrate her right here at home.

Photo by Michael Poehlman

Get to Know Rosebud Bear Schneider

HOMETOWN | Madison Heights, Michigan
MEMORABLE PROFESSIONAL MOMENT | Feeding Native Environmental Activist Winona Laduke at a Mackinaw City water protection event
NEWEST COOKBOOK | “New Native Kitchen” (Abrams, 2021) by Chef Freddie Bitsoie and James O. Fraioli
“LIFE-CHANGING” MEAL | Dinner created by Sean Sherman, the Sioux Chef in Torino, Italy, for a slow food Terra Madre event
FAVORITE INGREDIENTS | The three sisters—corn, beans and squash— and especially gete okosomin squash, an ancient variety
RECENT FOOD GIFTS THAT MAKE HER HAPPY | Homemade cucumber pickles and wojapi, a native berry sauce

Nick VanCourt, Brewer & Superior Saisonnier

Barrel + Beam | Marquette, Michigan | By Carly Simpson

“I learned a lot about good living from Grandpa Bert,” says brewer Nick VanCourt. Bert, a farmer and European beer lover, had more than an acre of gardens in Menominee County that provided “every meal” for his family. VanCourt also worked at a neighbor’s dairy farm starting at age 12, which further fueled his respect for agriculture—something you’ll taste in each of the complex Belgian-style farmhouse ales he now crafts at Marquette’s Barrel + Beam.

A graduate of the World Brewing Academy, which included classes in both Chicago and Munich, VanCourt cut his teeth in Madison, Wisconsin, before landing back in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, at Ore Dock Brewing Company, as head brewer. In 2016, VanCourt and his wife, Marina, purchased the historic Northwoods supper club, a sprawling 1930s log cabin that was a beloved destination restaurant for decades. The long-abandoned and dilapidated structure had become a home for squirrels, but is today a stunning brewery that includes an outdoor beer garden, a seating loft and—coming soon—a small kitchen with expanded dining options. Most importantly, the brewery houses an extensive tap list of Michigan-sourced beers and ciders.

Photo by Michael Poehlman

Most of VanCourt’s offerings are barrel-aged with wild yeast, inspired by an Old World style that is still commonplace in Belgium and Northern France today (think: saison, lambic, witbier and bière de garde). “We’re truly relying on wild yeast and bacteria to do the things that we want in the beer,” VanCourt says. The style has been thus far underrepresented in Northern Michigan. All of Barrel + Beam’s beers are naturally carbonated for a champagne-like fizz, and several, the Wit’s End and Starry Eyed included, are barrel-soured—a process that can take anywhere from six months to a couple of years. “It’s not sharp like a kettle sour, and is a lot more approachable,” VanCourt says.

VanCourt recently began canning, and the distribution of his beers is steadily increasing. Excuse us while we celebrate the arrival of such sophisticated farmhouse ales here in the North by clinking foamy, heady glasses of VanCourt’s Spooky Kriek—a cherry lambic made with Traverse City malt, Williamsburg hops and Central Lake cherries.

Photo by Michael Poehlman

Get to Know More About Nick VanCourt

HOMETOWN | Daggett, Michigan
BREWERIES VANCOURT IS INSPIRED BY | Brasserie Dupont and Orval Brewery in Belgium; Unibroue near Montreal; Michigan’s Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales
SAISON HE’S PROUD OF | Terre a Terre brewed with classic ingredients from France and Belgium
SOMETHING WINE DRINKERS TALK ABOUT THAT HE WISHES BEER DRINKERS WOULD TALK ABOUT | Terroir
MOST MEMORABLE BREWERY TOUR | Cantillon, a celebrated lambic brewery in Brussels that is blanketed in spider webs. “Their whole thing is natural microorganisms,” VanCourt explains. “Don’t worry about the spiders—they haven’t unionized yet,” his tour guide joked.

Photo by Traverse Magazine

Produced and edited by Stacey Brugeman with writing and reporting by Elizabeth Edwards, Deborah Fellows, Allison Jarrell, Carly Simpson and Rachel Soulliere. Photos by Michael Poehlman and styling by Sarah Peschel.

Stacey Brugeman is a Leelanau County-based food and beverage writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, Saveur, Travel + Leisure, and Eater. Brugeman served as Senior Food Editor for Denver Magazine, where she produced a celebrated Chef of the Year awards program. Follow her on Instagram @staceybrugeman.

Michael Poehlman is primarily a portrait photographer living in Traverse City. He specializes in people and personalities, attributing much of his experience to living and working for many years in New York City and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Photo(s) by Michael Poehlman