The local food movement is at the forefront of the Traverse City culinary scene. We sat down with our Executive Chef Jonathan Dayton to discusses his culinary background, his dedication to the farm to table concept and what’s instore for the culinary future at the Inn at Black Star Farms.
1. How long have you been working in the Traverse/Northern Michigan restaurant industry?
I started working in the restaurant business back in 1987 as a dishwasher at Sweitzers by the Bay. It was an easily available job in this tourist town for a high school student and I was quickly addicted to the fast pace and sense of community and family in the kitchen. I was a quick learner with a good work ethic so it wasn’t long before I was moved out of the dish pit and into prepping food and then cooking on the line. I’ve always joked that this career is one that chose me. I never went to culinary school for this chef’s life I now live. The kitchens I’ve worked in, the chefs I’ve cooked alongside and the owners that have employed me have been all I needed in this life degree. This is an ever-changing industry with new trends and techniques coming along constantly. Being a chef has been a lifelong education. I learn, see, smell or taste new things everyday I am at work. I have to evolve constantly to keep pace with it all.
2. How would you define the “local food movement?” How long have you been a part of this movement?
The attention the local food movement has been getting the last few years is nothing but positive for all involved, but keep in mind this so called “movement” has been being practiced by people and businesses for a very long time. I think the biggest difference in the last 10 years alone has to do with the availability and amount of product at hand. There has been an explosion in Northern Michigan for produce and proteins being accessible to the homeowner and restaurants like never before. The definition of this movement changes based on the consumer and what the needs for the consumer really are. Whether for yourself, a family or a business, the idea should be practiced the same throughout. Support yourself first, then your community, followed by your state and finally your country. You want to purchase any given product from a source as close to you as possible and you want this product grown or raised by methods that are healthy for the environment and humane to the animal. You also want the people who provide these services to make fair wages. Sustainability. It feels better knowing where your food comes from and I think that feeling makes it taste better. It was somewhere in the early 90’s that I really started noticing the farm to table idea catching on in local restaurants in this area. An elevated sense of pride went into each plate with the knowledge of where the food that was on it came from. This feeling is even stronger today working where I do.
3. What do you consider “best practices” that support using locally grown produce and locally raised animals?
Well the best practice to use for me is taking advantage of what is supplied from the property I work on. The beauty of Black Star Farms in a culinary sense is that what I cook revolves around the availability first and foremost of the ingredients that are outside my kitchen back door. I have the fortune of having a creamery, bakery, winery and distillery on this property, along with the raising of some of our own proteins and the harvesting of our own agriculture. However, our food service department is far too busy to be supplied by this location alone, so other than the farmers markets and food stands I shop at the best thing that has helped supply me and other Northern Michigan restaurants with locally raised and produced products is a company called Cherry Capital Foods. They focus on sales of products primarily grown and raised in the region and state. I am supplied with a weekly availability list of produce, proteins and dairy and my menu offerings are often based off of that availability. Vice versa I can tell them what it is I’m looking for and they take that knowledge back to the farmer. It’s a very unique and involved working relationship. I consider my work with them a key component to my success in supporting locally grown produce and products.
4. Do you at times find it difficult to adhere to using only local foods throughout the year? If so, what do you do to plan for the winter months when local produce is not as abundant?
It is difficult living in this place on the planet and staying true to buying local. As a chef, creatively it can get a little boring in the long months of the winter. Fresh produce is by far the hardest do deal with out. There are only so many things you can do with root vegetables. Believe me, I’ve tried them all. But with the darkness of winter come slower times. You just have to plan ahead the best you can by preserving as much as possible and filling up the freezer and pantry. With the emergence of farmers using more green houses and hoop houses the season can be extended later or started early but even then produce is difficult to find. I guess at the end of the day it comes down to the business you’ve built and what the clientele expect from it.
5. Do you believe there is a future for culinary tourism in N.Michigan? If so, does it revolve around this region’s acclaim as a local food haven?
The future for culinary tourism has already arrived. It’s been fascinating to watch and a privilege to be a part of this growth in Northern Michigan. Agriculture and tourism in this state are the second and third largest industries. People have always traveled to this area for the beauty and way of life. I believe culinary tourism has been here for some time, but I do believe a significant rise has come from the emergence of our wine industry. The wine trails, both on Old Mission Peninsula and Leelanau Peninsula have been essential for pulling in a whole other type of crowd, the foodie type of tourist, not only from our own state but more importantly from out of state. It’s given our region notoriety in national papers and magazines, and with the rise of the restaurant also comes the rise of the farmer. The interest from this clientele for a more creative meal and wider range of offerings has expanded the culinary industry, which then allows the farmer to grow and evolve as well.
6. What are your current and future plans in the kitchen that support this movement?
Currently during these winter months I’m buying what’s left out there of the available produce. Apples and pears are still around so preserving those for the winter. Root vegetables and squash are also still abundant and if properly stored last for months. We had a huge basil and tomato harvest in my own garden here at the farm this past summer so a lot of pesto and purees were made along with soups and sauces, they are all in the freezer for upcoming menus now. As far as the future, we are just planning on doing more. Growing more produce. Raising more animals. Taking what we have at the different times of harvest in the year and creating better ways of preserving. Trying to stretch the season out. Always thinking ahead and improving. Expanding. Always learning.