Top Chef: Harlan “Pete “Peterson influenced scores of chefs and restaurateurs. Here’s what a few of them have to say.
When Traverse City was named as one of “America’s Top 5 Foodie Towns” in a September 2010 issue of Bon Appetit magazine, it was a major coming out for northern Michigan’s culinary scene. For years, chefs had been flocking to the area and opening dynamic, interesting restaurants. Getting the recognition was a bonus.
But who was most responsible for transforming northern Michigan’s restaurant scene from a well-kept seasonal secret to a star on the national stage? Ask chefs in Traverse City, Charlevoix, Petoskey, or beyond, and you’re likely to hear one name: Harlan “Pete” Peterson.
As the founder of Tapawingo, a legendary fine dining establishment in Ellsworth that closed in 2009, Peterson helped redefine what a restaurant could be in the remote reaches of the Lower Peninsula. Today, his former employees wax poetic about some of the things he did – like tweaking his menu every single night, or working with local farmers to get the freshest ingredients – years before these innovations became the industry standard.
Peterson is humble about what he helped create. Though he would go on to become one of Michigan’s “celebrity chefs,” being a restaurateur was not a life ambition: Peterson didn’t open Tapawingo until he was 40 years old.
After leaving a career as a car stylist and industrial designer at Ford, becoming a chef was his chance to turn a passion into a livelihood. In 1984, Tapawingo was born.
“I was relatively naïve about it,” Peterson said. “I had a good eye for things, the restaurant was attractive and I liked to cook. And that was it.”
The early days taught Peterson the ins and outs of the restaurant business.
“I’ve said this many times, but naivete is bliss. You don’t really know with the restaurant business. It’s hard in many ways: the hours, the demands, the long odds of success,” he said. “But I didn’t think about any of that in those days. We hit the right note and got some good media attention right off the bat and things took off.”
Tapawingo did catch a few lucky breaks. One example was a local electrician who needed work. In exchange for stock in the restaurant, the electrician went above and beyond to get the building ready for opening.
Soon, Tapawingo was up and running on $80,000 – a number Peterson says was “unheard of” in the restaurant industry, even then.
Quickly, Tapawingo started to gain notoriety. The restaurant launched a tradition called the American Chef’s Dinner, which brought high-profile guest chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Rick Bayless to the little town.
Peterson himself was repeatedly nominated by the James Beard Foundation as one of the best chefs in the Midwest. The national attention put the spotlight on northern Michigan, building interest in the area’s burgeoning food scene.
Tapawingo was open for 25 years before the recession prompted Peterson to close the doors in 2009. Peterson’s influence in the area is undisputed even today. His association with Alliance in Traverse City was crucial to getting that restaurant off the ground (in the Warehouse District) in 2015, and numerous chefs who worked at Tapawingo have gone on to start their own places, both locally and abroad.
We caught up with six of the chefs who Peterson worked with over the years to find out what they are doing now. Here’s what they had to say about their mentor:
Who: Pram Archarya and his wife Suzanne own and operate Esperance, a fine dining restaurant and specialty wine and food market in Charlevoix. The business opened in 2001, shortly after Pram left a position at Tapawingo.
How do you know Pete? I ran the dining room for Pete at Tapawingo. I moved up to northern Michigan I think in the springtime of 1995 and Pete and I parted ways in 2001. When I started working for him, Pete needed someone to help him out, because he had a void of presence in the dining room and the wine list was very small. I’d been a sommelier at The Golden Mushroom in Southfield, Mich., which was a world-class restaurant with the first master chef ever certified in America, Milos Cihelka. We had an amazing wine list down there, and we brought Tapawingo into the modern age of the wine list world.
What did you learn from working with Pete? With Pete, I learned how to calm my temper down. Pete works at a different pace and his expectations were realistic based on the level of staff and talent he would get in northern Michigan. I had to scale back my expectations, if you will. We had a nice run.
Who: James Bloomfield is the head chef at Alliance, an inventive “New American” restaurant that opened in Traverse City’s Warehouse District in 2015. Bloomfield never worked at Tapawingo, but collaborated with Pete on the opening of Alliance, along with restaurant owners Dan and Meridith Falconer.
How do you know Pete? I met Pete at culinary school. He taught an intro to cooking class as a fill-in teacher for one semester at the Great Lakes Culinary Institute and it just happened to be my very first class. I developed a friendship with him and did some catering events with him to get some extra experience outside of school. When I graduated, I traveled around the country for about four years. I came back to Traverse City in 2015 and randomly ran into Pete one night. I had decided to stay in Traverse for the summer so that I could spend some time with my family before going back on the road. During those three months, Pete was behind the scenes basically setting up a space for us to open together.
What did you learn from working with Pete? Michigan has some of the best produce available anywhere in the country, and I think Pete was the first chef to really embrace that and build his menu around it. He was ‘foraging’ for things and crafting a ‘farm to table’ menu long before those terms were popular in the restaurant sector. I think that Pete made an impact nationally by using things like wild watercress, morel mushrooms and asparagus. Most of the things that he was using on the menu could be found within 50 miles of the restaurant, which was unheard of at the time. I think that he is the single most influential Michigan chef of our time.
Who: Paul Bradley is the head chef for two restaurants in Charlevoix: Terry’s, a fine dining establishment, and The Villager Pub, for less formal American fare. He and his wife both worked under Pete’s management at Tapawingo.
How do you know Pete? I started [at Tapawingo] probably in 1995, and I worked there until 1998 as sous chef. After that, my wife got pregnant with our son and I had to go out and get some health insurance, long story short. So I left there in 1998, but I would still go down to Tap in the morning and make breads and pastries for Pete when I could.
What did you learn from working with Pete? The standards that he set were incredible. The quality of the ingredients, trying to use the best stuff and not compromising. The thing about Pete that I always respected was that he was always true to his vision as far as the restaurant went. He wanted it to be really fine dining with the best ingredients and he never wavered from that. In the middle of January or February when you’re looking out the window and there are maybe 10 people coming, it would be easy to say ‘Hey, let’s throw on a burger’ or ‘Let’s give a coupon and try to draw more people.’ But that wasn’t what he wanted and that’s what I always respected about him.”
Who: Stuart Brioza and his wife, Nicole Krasinski, own and operate a pair of restaurants in the San Francisco area: State Bird Provisions and The Progress. Bon Appetit named State Bird the ‘Best New Restaurant in America’ in 2012, and in 2015, Brioza won the Best Chef: West award from the James Beard Foundation.
How do you know Pete?
I was [at Tapawingo] from 2000 to 2004. I was the executive chef, so I was running the kitchen. I got hooked up with Tapawingo when the chef that I worked for in Chicago, John Hogan, did the American Chef’s Dinner up there. When Pete was looking for someone to take over the restaurant, he called Hogan, and I was his sous chef at the time. So that’s how the Tapawingo thing came about. I’d never been to northern Michigan before that. Or Michigan at all, for that matter.
What did you learn from working with Pete? He cared, a lot. He cared about people. And he cared about the work that they did, the hard work. He tried to create an environment that was conducive not only to caring, but to pushing every year, to bringing something new to the restaurant every year. At the time, I think, for [me and Nicole], working with Pete was a big opportunity. He really gave us the kitchen, and gave us the menu to work with. And he helped guide us, too. He was a great guide, in that he knew his restaurant and the people he was cooking for so well. That’s really important as a chef and I feel like we learned it tremendously from him. How to read your guests, how to know what their expectations are. It’s a beautiful thing when a restaurant really knows its diners. Photo credit: Ed Anderson
How do you know Pete? I worked at Tapawingo from May of 2007 until January 4, 2008. That was the last summer that Tap was open. My birthday dinner on January 4 was actually the last meal ever served there under Pete’s ownership. My original job title at Tapawingo was chef d’cuisine, and then executive chef until the end.
What did you learn from working with Pete? I think Pete’s vision of fine dining in northern Michigan is what I really took from working for him at Tapawingo. He had this vision [of the restaurant] from such a long time ago, and his determination and drive to accomplish Tap was amazing. Pete always put good food first, never taking shortcuts, always making everything the best it could be. In the early days, he lived above Tap and was always cooking and working pretty much 24/7. That’s literally what it takes to make a restaurant work at that level, especially outside of an urban setting. He led by example and had a very clear vision and went for it, and I am glad I got to be a part of it. His attention to detail inspires me every day in the work I do.
Who: Drake Nagel (pictured left with business partner Drue Wright) is the chef and co-owner of Happy’s Taco Shop, a food truck business based out of northern Michigan. Traverse City locals have likely noticed the Happy’s summer location at Little Fleet. The business also has summer locations in Boyne City and Petoskey and a winter location at Boyne Mountain. Nagel says that the focus of the business is making every recipe from scratch with “quality, local Michigan ingredients.”
How you know Pete? Tapawingo was my first job. My dad was a server at Tap for over 20 years, so he was my foot in the door. I started in 2004 when I was 15 and worked there until they closed down in 2009. I started out on the garde manger line making salads and putting out the amuse bouche. In my time there, I worked almost every station. The chefs were always really good at teaching me the ways of the kitchen and I was eager to learn new skills and techniques. I remember being blown away tasting and learning how to cook with ingredients that were super foreign to me at the time, like foie gras and fresh fish used in raw preparations.
What did you learn from working with Pete? Tapawingo was a unique place, especially for its location. I remember being amazed at how often the menu changed and how creative the dishes were. It fed my love for cooking at a young age and set a great example for me as far as product sourcing, seasoning and just being creative in a kitchen. I thought it was normal for a restaurant to get deliveries from local farmers, pick herbs from the garden outside, or forage for watercress in a nearby stream. I understand now that that kind of care and attention to detail is special and it’s the most important thing I got from Pete. Photo credit: Jesse David Green