April is Michigan Wine Month, so for our latest chef profile we went out to Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay to talk with their executive chef Jonathan Dayton.
His Start in Cooking
Jonathan said that as with many of us, his mother was the first cook he worked with. “My mom was always in the kitchen, and I always right there beside her. She was a fun, crafty kind of chef who didn’t cook too much out of boxes or cans, and we were always going to the store and picking out fresh ingredients.
“My first job was at Schweitzer’s By the Bay as a dishwasher at 16 years old. As soon as I got in a kitchen, I fell in love with the atmosphere and restaurant life pretty quickly – the camaraderie and teamwork and how there was always something that kept you interested and busy.”
After Schweitzer’s, Jonathan spent 7 years at the Grand Traverse Resort, working in many departments in the Resort’s food service operation – from waiting and bussing tables to working in the kitchen of Trillium, The Orchard Room and other restaurants. “I learned a lot because they moved you around a lot, but it wasn’t something I thought of as a career then – just a way to put me through school.”
After graduating from school with a graphic design degree, he went out West to be a ski bum for several years until, “I moved back and started working at Poppycocks. That was when I really discovered my passion for cooking and how I could meld the artistic side of my education and my love of food through what we were doing there. ”
Black Star Farms
Jonathan has been at Black Star Farms for five years now. He told us, “I’m really lucky that I came here. Like a lot of the jobs you get in the restaurant industry, this one was really on a whim. I was working at Amical and Corey (aka Corey Wentworth, Jonathan’s predecessor) and I became friends. He asked me to pick up a few shifts cooking breakfast with him. The next thing you know, I’m the Executive Chef at one of the biggest wineries in our area.”
We asked him what was special about Black Star Farms. “It starts at the top I think. (Managing partner) Don Coe has been very supportive of the transformation of our food program from simply breakfasts to weddings, catering, harvest and other dinners and everything else we’re doing today. Nobody has ever given me a stage like this to work on and the freedom to do what I do,” he explained. “It’s an amazing culinary program we’ve created here and a beautiful situation. Everything’s right outside my door. Where else can you go where you have your own wine produced right there, your own farm and animals and a bakery? Having all that at your fingertips is pretty much the best situation I can imagine as a chef.”
On Cooking and Becoming a Chef
“I think that people look at being a chef as a really cool and exciting thing, but it’s not all about what’s happening at the center of the plate, and it’s not always sexy. There’s something about simple prep like cutting a potato, dicing an onion or making a stock over days that I really enjoy – a beauty in the technique and the pace and speed you can work at. I still like doing those repetitive and mundane tasks.
“If I was trying to do now what I did back then, I can’t imagine how hard it would be. There’s so much more competition now. When I got started, you could get your education the way I did. My degree was 15 years of working, learning the craft at different restaurants under many different chefs until I reached a level where I could run a kitchen. I don’t know that you could do it in this day and age.
“I think if you’re serious about cooking as a career that it would be a wise move to go to a culinary school. When someone comes into my kitchen from the Great Lakes Culinary Institute or another program, I know that there’s a lot that I don’t have to teach them – how you handle food, vocabulary and technique. It’s a really solid base, and it gives you a leg up.”
Thoughts on the Traverse City Food Scene
“I’ve been cooking in Traverse City for a long time, and one of the most interesting things has been watching it grow to such an amazing level. When I was working at Poppycocks, downtown wasn’t this culinary epicenter. There wasn’t an Amical or a Cooks’ House – we were battling Big Boy. There are so many offerings in the area now. Traverse City is on every top ten list, and everyone’s looking to us.
“I think a big part of the culinary success in our area has been the growth of the wineries, just like in Napa Valley or the Finger Lakes. I don’t know if the explosion would have been this big or this fast if we didn’t have the wine going on. The two go hand-in-hand, and as the restaurant scene has grown, so have our farms. We didn’t have all these farmers showing up at the back door 20 years ago, and that’s pushing things to an even higher level.”
On the Horizon
Regarding new developments this year, Jonathan said, “With Jen & Nic Welty of 9 Bean Rows moving to their own location, we’re going to be doing a lot more baking at that nice big kitchen at Hearth & Vine. We’ll sell it at Hearth & Vine and will also plant some crops in our gardens so that we can focus our menus even more on what we produce here at the farm.”
“The most exciting thing is what we’re going to do at Hearth & Vine. If all goes well with our remodeling, we plan to open May 1st from every day but Tuesday serving lunch and dinner. A lot of the things we do out here are top quality, and I really want people to have a chance to experience what we do. Our Harvest Dinners are always focused on what’s in season, and we’ll have a similar, weekly menu focused on farmstead cuisine at its best – what’s in season, what we’ve preserved and some wonderful surprises when they walk in the door. This will be a fun year!”
In addition to Hearth & Vine, you can experience Jonathan’s cuisine at Black Star Farm’s Harvest Dinners on the 2nd Wednesday of every month. That’s tonight with the theme of “Root Cellar Revival” showcasing a variety of root vegetables and meats paired with their wine and also the very popular Morel Harvest Dinner on Wednesday, May 14th – call 231.944.1251 to make your reservation.