In northern Michigan, the lake shapes the climate. The climate creates the ingredients. And the ingredients make the meal. Just ask the chefs who call Traverse City their home.

By Hannah Agran and Tim Tebeau
June 25, 2020
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As writers, we’re taught to avoid hyperbole. Resist cliché. Never gush. Clearly, whoever invented these rules never visited Traverse City, Michigan, in July. The fertile country around town looks like a vintage fruit-crate label brought to life: sun-soaked, oversaturated, hyper-delicious. You can’t hold back up here, in words or in gustatory pleasures. You lean in—to the cherries, wine, walleye, apricots, plums, wine, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, beer and, oh, did we mention wine?

Many Traverse City area wineries enjoy bay views.
Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux

A smallish town of 16,000 (a number that swells in summer), Traverse City sits at the base of Old Mission Peninsula, a long finger that points north into Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. The lake insulates the land and softens the seasons’ rough edges, protecting tender crops from extreme heat, cold and frosts. The landscape ripples into sheltered valleys where the soil is sandy and forgiving. In late summer, the water glitters turquoise, and the hills are striped with vineyards, fields and orchards. Each day, fishermen and farmers haul their bounty to roadside stands, farmers markets and restaurant kitchens.

“Product here is far superior because it’s coming 20 miles or less and is harvested the same day or day before,” says chef Myles Anton of Trattoria Stella. “When I get beets delivered, they smell like fresh dirt. Our heirloom tomatoes are the best I’ve ever had. Celery is unlike anything in stores; it almost hurts, it has such an intense flavor.” Many people know Traverse City for wine grapes and cherries, but a full spectrum of fruits and vegetables thrives here—quality, diversity and abundance that are unrivaled in the Midwest.

The steady flow of fresh ingredients (and of travelers) fuels a vibrant dining scene. Cafes and restaurants crowd downtown. “Our customer base is astounding,” says chef James Bloomfield of Alliance. “I feel like I can experiment and cook anything because customers are down for whatever.”

Eric Patterson of The Cooks’ House agrees, but he says Traverse City has also taught him and chef partner Jen Blakeslee to simplify: “We let the ingredients speak for themselves.” Some days that means ingenious pairings of surprising elements—ripe slivers of plum floating in a pool of savory corn. Other days, it means letting go of creativity entirely. “Strawberries and cream might be cliché,” Patterson says. “But when you have berries from Ware Farm and cream from Shetler Dairy, there’s nothing else you have to do.” Some things—and some places—really are as splendid as they seem.

Scroll down the story for 5 recipes from Traverse City chefs.

Eric Patterson and Jen Blakeslee run The Cooks' House.
Tony Demin
Summer means bushels of local fruit.
EE Berger
The Boardman River runs through downtown. (One way to explore: a Kayak Brewery Tour.)
Tony Demin
Not far from the northern end of Old Mission Peninsula, the vineyards at 2 Lads Winery unfold outside a striking tasting room.
Tony Demin
Sailboats skim across Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, which is split in two by the wiggly, 19-mile-long sliver of Old Mission Peninsula.
Tony Demin
Drive the full length of Old Mission Peninsula to find Mission Point Lighthouse, squatting above a sandy beach like a sentry.
Bob Stefko
Fruit stands dot the highways, and orchards blanket the hills; Michigan leads the country in tart cherry production.
EE Berger
The bay peeks from behind the grapevines at Chateau Chantal.
Aaron Peterson

GENIUS IN A BOTTLE Dozens of wineries, breweries, distilleries and cideries nestle around Traverse City, making magic with local grapes, hops, apples and other fruit. In addition to those above, here are four more great stops.

Mari Vineyards, Old Mission Peninsula The winery, tasting room and aging caves look as if they were airlifted from Tuscany and offer glittering views of East Bay and the surrounding vineyards, where father-son team (and History Channel stars) Marty and Alex Lagina grow a dozen-plus varieties.

Rove Estate, Leelanau Peninsula Perched on Leelanau County’s highest spot, Rove Estate looks over sweeping panoramas of orchards and rolling vineyards planted with Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and other grapes.

MiddleCoast Brewing Company, Traverse City Located next to State Street Marketplace food hall, MiddleCoast harnesses Michigan hops in creations like Left Fin IPA and GW’s Little White Lie.

Left Foot Charley, Traverse City Settle in on a sprawling patio in Grand Traverse Commons to sip Bryan Ulbrich’s small-batch hard ciders, like Cinnamon Girl or Engle’s Ransom. Or try his dark and briary Blaufränkisch, an award-winning Austrian-style wine.

Recipes from Traverse City chefs

Stone Fruit with Burrata and Sweet Corn
Carson Downing

Stone Fruit with Burrata and Sweet Corn, The Cooks' House Chefs Eric Patterson and Jen Blakeslee are pros at harmonizing flavors, textures and aromas. Creamy cheese, cardamom-poached plums, warm sweet corn puree, herbs, olive oil.….this is a mic drop of an appetizer that’s much easier than it looks. See the recipe.

Blistered Green Beans with Fried Onions and Basil-Mushroom Cream
Blaine Moats

Blistered Green Beans with Fried Onions and Basil-Mushroom Cream, Trattoria Stella A farmer’s bumper crop of beans inspired chef Myles Anton’s twist on the classic Thanksgiving casserole, flavored with fresh basil and dried porcini mushrooms. Serve with simply grilled fish, pork or chicken. See the recipe.

Angel Food Cake with Strawberries and Elderflower Cream
Carson Downing

Angel Food Cake with Strawberries and Elderflower Cream, Alliance To “bring the smell of the field” into a favorite summer dessert, chef James Bloomfield infuses whipping cream with fresh elderflowers. You can get the same effect with a splash of St-Germain. See the recipe.

Seared Lake Trout with Summer Relish
Carson Downing

Seared Lake Trout with Summer Relish, Mission Table “Our bestselling protein is trout from Treaty Fish Company,” says Paul Olson, of the Mission Restaurant Group. “Ed will catch the fish in the morning and bring it to us in the afternoon.” Chef Adam Raupp serves it with tangy corn relish and garlicky spinach vinaigrette. See the recipe.

Cherry Brownies a la Mode
Carson Downing

Cherry Brownies a la Mode, Mission Table Traverse City’s famous tart cherries get double billing in this sundae—baked in the brownies and spooned on top. But there’s another local fruit hiding here. Chef Adam Raupp adds a little Riesling to the sauce. See the recipe.