At Cornman Farms in Dexter, Michigan, chef Kieron Hales peppers his menus with flavor memories from his mother’s kitchen—lavish roasts and special-occasion vegetables laden with butter and herbs.

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snowy farm exterior
Credit: EE Berger

After the May through November rush of wedding season, December arrives like a sigh at Cornman Farms, a private event center in southeast Michigan. Snow kisses the rooflines of a cheerful red barn and stately 1834 farmhouse, trimmed in white lights and puffing wood smoke. A flock of geese mills about the naked trees, and a few horses graze nearby. 

Hale tending meat in smokehouse
Hales family outdoors winter
plate with beef tenderloin vegetables and puree
Left: Even when snow blankets the fields, Hales bundles up to tend meat in Cornman's historic smokehouse. | Credit: EE Berger
Center: His family—wife Joanie and sons Henry, 8, and Owen, 6—are frequent visitors at the farm. | Credit: EE Berger
Right: How to make humble root vegetables the star of the holiday table? Add butter, and lots of it. Plate it up with luxurious bacon-wrapped beef tenderloin drizzled with velvety sauce, and savor. | Credit: Carson Downing

Even in the winter pause, though, Cornman's founder and executive chef Kieron Hales keeps busy. Preparing for catered holiday parties, he bustles around the kitchen in suspenders, a bow tie hanging loose around his neck. As he dresses a plate with supple leeks and extra-crispy potatoes, he stops to hand over a spoonful of whatever's on his stovetop for a taste. "You know how they say, 'Kill people with kindness?'" he asks. "That's how we Brits show it. With food." 

Parmesan Gougères
Gougères are a traditional French snack eaten warm from the oven. Kieron Hales' dough combines Parmesan with garden oregano, sage or rosemary. He encourages improvisation: "Embrace the herbs you have on hand."
| Credit: Carson Downing

Hales moved to Michigan in 2008 to join Zingerman's, an umbrella of food-centric businesses that includes Cornman Farms. (You might know Zingerman's for its iconic Ann Arbor deli and mail-order coffee cake.) Previously, Hales worked in India, South Africa and Europe. His resume includes stints at Michelin-starred eateries, as well as the world's oldest restaurant venue in Spain. At Cornman, he's found a place to downshift his lifestyle and cooking. He maintains a cottage garden for vegetables and herbs, cures meat in a small smokehouse, and works with local purveyors like Calder Dairy. Like the chef himself, Hales' dishes often speak with an English accent—hearty, simply seasoned, rich with butter.

Bacon-Wrapped Beef Tenderloin with Red Wine Sauce
Kieron Hales cloaks beef tenderloin in bacon, then roasts it on a rack over a bed of leek, carrot and onion. The drippings fall on the vegetables, which Hales later blitzes into a sauce with red wine, port, brandy, mustard and cream—utterly luxurious.
| Credit: Carson Downing

That's especially true at the holidays, when he taps his childhood for inspiration. Hales remembers his mother preparing night and day for Christmas feasts. Dishes he grew up with have become signature at Cornman (and around his family's table). Like his mum, he beats eggs, flour and cheese in a pot to make the choux pastry for gougères, the airy, poppable puffs he serves with predinner drinks. His perfectly pink beef tenderloin hearkens to her Sunday roasts.

Butter-Braised Leeks
Roast Potatoes and Carrot and Swede Puree
Left: Often relegated to near invisibility, leeks take top billing on Hales' Christmas menu. A slow simmer in chicken stock with herbs and horseradish brings out their subtle onion flavor and renders them tender, silky and aromatic. | Credit: Carson Downing
Right: That's no typo: Roast (not roasted) potatoes are an institution in Great Britain. The fat-crisped nuggets have a light, floury interior. Thyme and garlic flavor Hales' puree of carrot and swede (aka rutabaga)—a dish that earns raves even from his picky younger son. | Credit: Carson Downing

The fragrances of cloves, nutmeg, allspice and anise in mulled wine bring Hales back too. "Honestly, even as a child, the smell of the brandy, the sherry, the port—those flavors are Christmas, and they were the ones normally kept special," he says. "They were expensive things that we used to save up for this time of year." 

Christmas Pudding
Christmas celebrations pair perfectly with a slice of Christmas pudding and a melting dollop of sweet brandied butter.
| Credit: Carson Downing
little boy drinking from mug in front of fireplace
pile of festive crackers
woman with child in lap holding festive cracker
Left: Credit: EE Berger
Center: Christmas dinner in England ends with a bang. Families cross arms around the table to pull apart crackers, festive paper tubes that snap from a tiny explosive inside, revealing tissue paper crowns, trinkets and riddles. (Stores such as World Market and Pier 1 stock a nice assortment.) | Credit: EE Berger
Right: Credit: EE Berger

Spices and spirits also find their way into Hales' Christmas pudding, a densely fruity, boozy dessert with roots centuries old. "All families have their own version, but almost all today originate from one of Delia Smith's," Hales says, name-checking the TV star and cookbook author who holds a place in British kitchens akin to Ina Garten's here in the United States. His twist? Adding rosemary for piney flavor and cherries as a nod to Michigan's signature fruit crops. The steamed pudding arrives at the table warm, in a flash of pyrotheatrics. Brandy is heated on the stove, then set aflame in a ladle. Liquid fire cascades over the pudding. The blue flames dance for a moment, and everyone cheers—then tucks in.