The roots of Northern Michigan’s culinary scene run deep. Here, we pay homage to the pioneers who laid the foundation for a flourishing region.
This article first appeared in Traverse Northern Michigan. Find this story and more when you explore our digital issue library. Want Traverse delivered to your door or inbox monthly? View our print subscription and digital subscription options.
We are fortunate to call home an area rich in food and farming traditions. As a fifth-generation summer kid from Omena, my carefree days spent picking roadside asparagus, fishing and making pies had a profound impact on my career path, like they have had for many with deep ties to Northern Michigan. When I was 13, I got my first restaurant job at the Riverside Inn in Leland; and although I’ve lived in many places, I’ve been in the industry ever since. Working in northern California restaurants for more than a decade early in my career gave me a deep appreciation for the positive ripple effect local food can have in a community.
Seeing a hole in the market for a catering company focused on local sourcing, I returned to Leelanau County to open Epicure Catering with Chef Andy Schudlich in 2003, and in doing so, Andy and I joined the decades-old ranks of Northern Michigan’s food pioneers. It is fitting, in this issue that features Traverse Magazine’s first annual Tastemakers Awards, to recognize the folks who forged the North’s rich culinary scene.
Up North food was mostly about burgers and whitefish when Wes and Arlene Westhoven opened the Rowe Inn in 1972—the first of a new wave of destination restaurants to feature a chalkboard menu that changed, Euro-style, with the seasons. A decade later, Justin Rashid of American Spoon turned his love of foraging in the Northern woods into a jarred food business that would go national. In 1984, Pete Peterson, who had worked at the Rowe Inn, opened Tapawingo—and put our culinary scene on the map by earning multiple James Beard Foundation nominations. Phil Murray opened Windows in 1986 and worked hand in hand with Randy and Mari Chamberlain, the architects of one of today’s most acclaimed local dining rooms, Blu (opened in 2008). Jim Milliman, another Rowe Inn alum, launched the Leelanau County bistro scene with Hattie’s in 1987. And you can’t mention bistros without naming Amical, Dave Denison’s beloved downtown Traverse City establishment, which opened in 1994.
Photo by Dave Weidner
While these early restaurants were as varied as their operators, they had commonalities: all showcased local and seasonal items at a time when they were surprisingly hard to source. Farms weren’t set up to sell retail or even wholesale to restaurants. There was no local food distributor and markets were spotty. Many of these chefs found themselves going to great lengths to source local and high-end ingredients. The diligence of those chefs fostered a focus on craft, and specialists like Bob Pisor at Stone House Bread, John and Anne Hoyt at Leelanau Cheese and Mimi Wheeler at Grocer’s Daughter Chocolates expanded the range of locally produced, value-added artisan products.
The work of those culinary pioneers sparked recognition and respect for our locally grown produce, dairy, meats, syrup, honey and fruits—and spurred a renaissance in agriculture that includes an increase in small farms, hoop houses, Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs) and a healthy farm market infrastructure. All of this was pulled together by the Taste the Local Difference campaign, which was the first outlet to publish a comprehensive farm guide for our region and is now marketing statewide. Thanks to the work of many, local food is now ubiquitous, and its benefits are undisputed.
Photo by Todd Zawistowski
Next came craft drink. When Bernie Rink began experimenting, growing grapes and making wine in Leelanau County, I don’t think he could’ve envisioned the way wineries would grow in Northern Michigan—or the bounty of medals our wines have won. Second-generation fruit farmers like Larry Mawby (whose Mawby sparkling wines have won prestigious awards), and Bruce Simpson (whose Good Harbor Vineyards is now in the hands of a new generation) expanded their family farms into vineyards. And an Irishman from Philadelphia, Ed O’Keefe, planted vinifera at Chateau Grand Traverse on Old Mission in 1974, and, against all odds, proved it could thrive.
Breweries naturally followed. Jack Archiable, credited with being the first to commercially brew craft beer in Northern Michigan, founded Traverse Brewing Company in 1996 and went on to mentor some of the region’s best-known brewery founders: John Niedermaier, Brewery Terra Firma; Joe Short, Short’s Brewing Company; and Russell Springsteen, Right Brain Brewery. Cideries and distilleries also emerged, some using generational recipes and all putting a Northern Michigan stamp on their products including locally grown hops, grapes, apples and now even a historic variety of rye.
Photo by Tim Hussey
Clearly, today’s food and beverage professionals have a deep well of history and many mentors in the region to draw from. Perhaps the creativity of the six Tastemakers celebrated in this issue was sparked by an Anishinaabeg meal in an elder’s kitchen, or an experience as a youth on a local farm, or by renowned authors Ernest Hemmingway and Jim Harrison writing about fishing in Northern Michigan. Whatever the influence may be, we celebrate our region’s pioneers as well as the inaugural group of Tastemakers presented in this issue —a delicious stew, if you will, of the old and the new.
Cammie Buehler has more than 30 years of experience in food and hospitality and works as a culinary professional and consultant through her business, Epicure Culinary.
Photo by Cammie Buehler