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Posted on Mon, Aug 15, 2011 : 12:45 p.m.

Made in Michigan: Local chefs take pride in using locally-sourced foods, creating a revolution in Midwest's food sensibility

By Jessica Levine


Michigan chefs embrace fresh ingredients. Photo taken at Alber Orchard & Cider Mill.

Jessica Levine I Contributor

Dinnertime chat among several celebrity chefs, restaurateurs and writers has lately revolved around what they say is Americans’ propensity for mediocre food — particularly citing our tastes for Kraft Grated Parmesan, breaded meatballs and strip-mall Italian eateries.

David Chang, head of New York City’s Momofuku Restaurant Group, said of the aforementioned cheese that, “[Americans] are more comfortable just staying in the middle — being like, hmm, I can buy this Kraft Parmesan cheese, or I can buy this wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano. And they either don’t want to risk spending the money or they don’t want to risk learning something new.”

Something new?

This arrogance is a slap to our sensibilities and tastes, especially here in Michigan, where diners and chefs alike embrace traditionally ethnic and fresh flavors.

Eve Aronoff, owner of Ann Arbor’s Frita Batidos and a 2009 “Top Chef” contestant, exemplifies this with a Cuban-inspired menu.

“In creating Batidos, I honed in on Cuban culture, inspired by the ingredients I love and respect,” she said.

“I make a tropical fruit chutney, which has fresh mango, pineapple, serrano chilies, dark rum, maple syrup, a Thai sweet chili sauce and rice wine vinegar, for example.”

Furthermore, the restaurant makes every effort to use beef, pork, chicken, turkey, cheese and produce sourced from Michigan or other Midwest vendors.

So despite even the criticism some local chefs have garnered from readers, Aronoff and others are vocal advocates of a growing trend in Michigan that favors local companies and ingredients. While the Changs of the world denigrate our spending and eating habits, chefs in the Midwest are working to establish a unified state brand comprised of fruits and vegetables, wineries and breweries, soft drinks, hot dogs, fish, pizza — you name it.

Steven Grostick, executive chef of Novi’s Toasted Oak Grill and Market, is a big proponent of these local foods; so much so that in July, he prepared an “I Cook Michigan” dinner at the James Beard House, a high honor in the culinary world granted by the James Beard Foundation.

His menu included Coney Dogs with Bad Axe Venison Coney Sauce, Faygo Root Beer-Braised Short Ribs, Hunter’s Sausage with Michigan Sweet Corn Chutney, Farm-Picked Strawberry and Rhubarb Pie and Ray’s Vanilla Bean Ice Cream Milkshake with Salted Caramel and Michigan Whiskey.

“We are different from other people,” Grostick said. “Those of us that are still in Michigan through all of these hard economic times — we are very true, and we like to earn our money and spend our money here. That’s how I stay true; I’d rather not use some of the big conglomerates from California if I’ve got all of that beautiful stuff here.”

Other chefs in southeast Michigan enthusiastically agree; Chef Alan Merhar of Evans Street Station said that “a homegrown Michigan tomato can’t be beat: our apples are crispier and have more intense flavor, and our corn is sweeter than anything else I’ve come across.”

The Common Grill’s Craig Common simply called local flavors “dynamite.”

Responding to customer demand, entrepreneurs are beginning to start businesses selling local products. Cafe Ollie co-owners Mark Teachout and Danielle Scherwin have planned to open the Mi General Store later this summer next to their restaurant in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town. According to Teachout, the space will feature Faygo, Zingerman’s, Guernsey, Calder Dairy and Four Corners Creamery brands, along with a huge variety of wines and microbrews.

This sense of camaraderie, Grostick maintains, makes us different from other states. We are unabashedly tied to tradition and nothing is more fundamental to tradition and culture than what we eat. Trained as a French chef at the same school attended by Julia Child, Ann Arbor native Aronoff concurs.


Frita Batidos’ Chorizo Frita.

Jessica Levine I Contributor

“To me, the philosophy of French cooking revolves around making things with care, from scratch, following the seasons, respecting the food and trying not to be wasteful, encouraging warmth and conviviality around cooking and eating,” she explained.

“These values are the foundation of most traditional cuisines and culture — and are present in my cooking in general — at [former restaurant] Eve, at Batidos and at home.”

Yet traditionalist chefs are now under fire, being challenged by foams, bubbled caviar and the use of liquid nitrogen.

In a recent episode of Travel Channel’s “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” the host sat down to a 52-course meal (priced at around $400) at Spain’s now closed elBulli. Along with Jaleo’s Jose Andres and the restaurant’s “forward-thinking” owner and chef, Ferran Adria, the trio dined on frozen hot gin fizz (hot on the lip, cold when swallowed), gorgonzola globes (like a chocolate Easter egg but creamy), a planned sequence of Japanese dishes like tuna bone marrow, tofu tiramisu infused with sake and black truffle cakes.

Sounding like a sycophant, this veteran chef of 28 years called this the best meal of his life, served in the world’s best restaurant. Bourdain supposes that Adria, the scientist, the chef, the creative energy behind these meals, has changed the way we cook and the way we eat forever.

Adria adamantly denies he is the father of the trend in cooking commonly referred to as molecular gastronomy — described by food chemist Harold McGee as “the scientific study of deliciousness.” Instead, he suggests his approach to cooking is an effort to make people happy and to give them something to think about; and, secondly, via all five senses, to create emotions during the dining experience.

It is this philosophy that has prompted lively debates: Does the best food come from an adherence to the traditional, or do we push the bounds of the accepted and untried?

As Grostick explains it, he is not “trying to reinvent the wheel” with meals like grilled cheese, soup and fried chicken, though he does acknowledge that those chefs on the cutting edge of contemporary cuisine still use elements of the tried and true.

Grostick cites St. Clair native and renowned Chicago chef, Grant Achatz; an admirer of Adria, Achatz seeks to create dishes engaging all five senses. His version of pheasant, served with shallot, cider gel and a sprig of burning oak leaves is, Grostick believes, Achatz’s tribute to Michigan’s autumns and the sleepy smell of leaf smoke.

“If you really think about it, this is based on traditional culinary method,” said Grostick.

“It’s like when your mom would open up the crockpot of pot roast, and that aroma filled the kitchen, or when mom cooked an apple pie. If you really delve deep into it, chefs like Achatz are using traditional cooking methods but they are infusing it with methods that make carrots look like cheese puffs.”

But when we go out for dinner, are we really craving cheese puff-looking carrots?

Some think so, or at least, think we should. According to Chang, Bourdain and other culinarians, we are facing a gastronomic revolution; it is time, they say, to leave Kraft Grated Parmesan in the shaker and replace it with something akin to a hot gin fizz.

Meanwhile, chefs like Aronoff, Grostick and Zingermans’ Alex Young, continue to satisfy our Middle-American palates by preparing chorizo burgers, brats, macaroni and beer.

Maybe because, as Grostick says, we are different.

Jessica Levine profiles the culture, history and personalities of Washtenaw County restaurants for Contact her at



Sat, Aug 20, 2011 : 12:27 p.m.

Excellent, thought provoking article. Thank you! I love Michigan foods!


Wed, Aug 17, 2011 : 8:09 p.m.

Great article! I enjoyed reading it.


Wed, Aug 17, 2011 : 1:44 a.m.

Thanks to Ms. Levine for a thought provoking story about different cooking styles and traditions....certainly gives the reader an appreciation for the many fine restaurants we have here in Michigan. Keep up the good work.


Tue, Aug 16, 2011 : 3:05 p.m.

Strange that this article doesn't mention Grange Kitchen &amp; Bar on Liberty just west of Main. The chef there, Brandon Johns, is a local leader in using Michigan produce and meats. They've done several special dinners where pretty much every single thing served was grown or raised within 50 or 100 miles I don't think any other restaurant in the area has more local dishes on the menu, or responds more to the seasons. <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> The Ann Arbor-based website Real Time Farms is a great resource for consumers looking for farmers' markets and local food producers in their area, anywhere in the country. It's an open community, anyone can add information, so it's a good way for farmers, artisans, and markets to make themselves known. Ordinary consumers are encouraged to post too, it's fun to take a few pictures at the farmers' market and share them to let other folks know what's fresh. <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>

Jessica Levine

Tue, Aug 16, 2011 : 5:32 p.m.

Thank you for pointing out Grange, @Epengar. It does exemplify Ann Arbor's locavore movement very well; I'm interesting in trying the maple glazed baked apple dessert. Sounds delicious!


Tue, Aug 16, 2011 : 3:35 p.m.

Speaking of local food here's an article about the &quot;Outstanding in the Field&quot; dinner Brandon Johns cooked recently, and the local farms that supplied it and hosted it. It sounds like it was quite an event! <a href=""></a>


Tue, Aug 16, 2011 : 1:04 p.m.

I recently sampled a Flavor Sauce made in Michigan. I asked if the sauce was a Memphis based (sweet) sauce. Wisely he responded that it was purely Michigan. I tried it and it was very sweet. I then reduced it in a pan at medium heat with a 1/4 teaspoon of Sriracha chili sauce till it thicken. Over home made meatloaf it was wonderful. The sweet was offset with this deep cherry (must be Michigan cherries) flavor. Works well with pulled pork. The name is : Sweet Sass made in Michigan limited distribution. Buy local makes so much sense when you factor in the freshness of the farm stand products. Roasting fresh corn this season produces wonderful tasting corn.

Not a valid excuse for a newspaper

Tue, Aug 16, 2011 : 12:47 p.m.

We ARE blessed with an abundance of great food here. I love that local restaurants are taking advantage of this opportunity. Aranoff's chorizo &quot;frita&quot; is amazing.


Mon, Aug 15, 2011 : 9:48 p.m.

Ms. Levine writes: &quot;David Chang, head of New York City's Momofuku Restaurant Group, said of the aforementioned cheese that, "[Americans] are more comfortable just staying in the middle — being like, hmm, I can buy this Kraft Parmesan cheese, or I can buy this wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano. And they either don't want to risk spending the money or they don't want to risk learning something new." &quot;Something new?&quot; &quot;This arrogance is a slap to our sensibilities and tastes, especially here in Michigan, where diners and chefs alike embrace traditionally ethnic and fresh flavors.&quot; The write obviously missed the point that Chang was trying to make. Is she implying that Mr. Chang is &quot;arrogant&quot; for encouraging people to move outside their comfort zone to purchase authentic Parmigiano Reggiano? How is this a &quot;slap in the face&quot; to anyone??? The article rambles on rather incoherently from there...trying to somehow pit molecular gastronomy against the locavore movement. As an example of Chef's utilizing a midwestern sensibility and local products she cites Eve Aronoff and her tropical fruit chutney. Uhhhh...huh????


Tue, Aug 16, 2011 : 2:21 a.m.

Yeah. After watching an episode of Bourdain's show where he spends most of the hour, with the able assistance of Chef Jose Andres, explaining just how linked Adria's cooking is to his homeland.


Mon, Aug 15, 2011 : 9:47 p.m.

It was a nice article until you got into the attack on Bourdain. What was the point of that? Could have done without the last third of the article. Instead, you might have wandered up north where there is a real food revolution under way. Lots of great small operations up there doing all sorts of great foodie stuff..


Mon, Aug 15, 2011 : 7:50 p.m.

&quot;According to Chang, Bourdain and other culinarians, we are facing a culinary revolution; it is time, they say, to leave Kraft Grated Parmesan in the shaker and replace it with something akin to a hot gin fizz. &quot; That's careless writing, and it's wrong. Show me, with a reference or a link, where either Chang or Bourdain take the position that we should all move to molecular gastronomy. In your quote, it looks more like Chang is saying people should try some decent authentic cheese instead of the canned crap, which is about as far as suggesting &quot;something like a hot gin fizz&quot; as it's possible to be. And while Bourdain is justifiably impressed by Alinea, he's also an advocate of traditional foods, which is very clear from the episode you're referencing.


Mon, Aug 15, 2011 : 7:04 p.m.

Why no mention of Brandon Johns @ Grange. He has done more for this &quot;Local&quot; movemnt than any other person in the culinary arena. Doug Hewitt @ Terry B's in Dexter has really embraced the &quot;Local&quot; movement. I happened upon a &quot;Pure Michigan&quot; cookbook and they had a dessert from Craig Common and it was Banana Cream Pie! I burst out laughing and put the book down. What a joke, I have been to the Common Grill and it may have token ingedient from a local farm but by no means do they support &quot;local&quot; farmers.


Mon, Aug 15, 2011 : 11:50 a.m.

Is this local movement particularly unique to Michigan, or is this something that is a trend nationally? I totally support the concept of supporting local growers and companies.

Jessica Levine

Mon, Aug 15, 2011 : 1:37 p.m.

Great question, @Juno! While it's fully in motion in Michigan and throughout the Midwest, the "locavore" movement—one interested in the sustainability of local products—began out west and has since reached the east. I found this article, for example, from the Bloomfield, NJ Patch discussing the state's recent trend towards locally sourced chickens and produce. <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> Thank you for reading. :)