In recent years, the apogee of fine dining has been defined by chefs adroit at manipulating and transforming ingredients into virtually unrecognizable concoctions. The pioneering molecular gastronomy of Ferran Adria’s El Bulli. The Fat Duck under Heston Blumenthal, delivering on the assertion that “Preparing and serving food . . . [is] the most complex and comprehensive of the performing arts.” The sous vide mastery of Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and Per Se. The “progressive American cuisine” of Grant Achatz at Alinea, which includes dishes such as Ayu (a Japanese fish) with watermelon, kombu (Japanese Kelp) and coriander topped with the desiccated fried spine of the fish that crunches just like a combination between a potato chip and a French fry.
Yet there’s one great new restaurant that couldn’t be farther away from this trend. Instead, The Cooks’ House represents a return to fundamentals reminiscent of Alice Waters' origins.
Like Chez Panisse, chef Eric Patterson and co-chef/co-owner Jennifer Blakeslee insist on fresh, seasonal ingredients that are grown down the street, rather than shipped in from across the world. 95% of the food served originates from within 100 miles of the restaurant. Rather than a phalanx of sous chefs there is one: Patterson’s stepson. The overall result? An authenticity of experience and dishes that are remarkable in their purity and flavor – delivering on Coco Chanel’s admonition that the challenge of luxury is to make simplicity striking.
Why can’t you get into The Cooks’ House? Well for one thing it only has five diminutive tables that seat a total of 18 lucky diners. The other? The Cooks’ House is in Traverse City, Michigan – a place sufficiently remote that the airport closes down between scheduled flights. Proof yet again that big cities – and complexity in general – have no monopoly on excellence.