"If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world," said award-winning author, J.R.R. Tolkien.
Consider Mid Michigan merry, because there's something delicious happening from Frankenmuth to the Bay area.
Fresh vegetables, wood fired meats and mouth-watering pastries are bringing culinary attention to the region. With emerging stars, like Josh Schaeding, Sandy Bierlein and Phil Fahrenbruch – food critics and foodies alike are beginning to take notice.
Josh Schaeding – The Maple Grille
Josh Schaeding, 31, has always been drawn to the fast pace of a kitchen, especially his outdoor wood fired setup at The Maple Grille
on Gariot Road in Hemlock. The challenge of maintaining a fire outside is a welcomed treat for the young chef. "It makes it a lot more difficult than a regular kitchen as the heat varies depending on the wind direction, temperature outside, size and dryness of the wood, and what type of wood I'm using."
Armed with a degree in the culinary arts from Northern Michigan University, Schaeding says hunting, fishing and gardening have always been key ingredients to his cooking philosophy. He also adheres to the farm-to-table idea as he maintains a garden with lettuce, tomatoes, corn, squash, zucchini and a variety of peppers on the restaurant's 6-acre property. "What we don't grow on our half acre garden, we buy from local farmers," boasts Shaeding, noting an herb garden next to the grill.
"We pick our garden daily, and we raise our own laying hens and rabbits," explains Schaeding. "Everything we serve was purchased live," adding the beef comes from his uncle's farm, Bray Beef Farms and Show Cattle – all cooked outside over wood. No freezer or microwave.
Schaeding says the response from the local community has been very supportive. "I enjoy being able to talk to our guests while they wait for there food." It's something he'll miss as they prepare to close for the season in October.
"We hope to expand indoors this winter and build indoor wood fired ovens and grills," nothing he's aiming to be open year round. Also on the agenda over the next few years is building a greenhouse, a microbrewery and continuing to expand on their maple syrup production.
No dates have been set for their winter opening, but Schaeding vows to begin his year round operation "as soon as we get the work done."
Sandy Bierlein – Sweet Sandy B's
"For me, it all begins with a food memory," recalls Bierlein, 32. "I have this very distinct memory from when I was about six years old, waking up to the sound of a hand mixer being used in my parents kitchen."
Bierlein would tiptoe down her hallway to get a glimpse of her mother in the kitchen, mixing a pound cake.
"Cakes and pastries became this magical middle of the night concoction that I viewed as special." Her passion was born, as were the beginnings of Sweet Sandy B's, a retro-themed bakery with an emphasis on using local ingredients.
From that earliest memory in the kitchen, Bierlein worked tirelessly to perfect recipes for a variety of desserts. "The interest turned into a passion – some would say obsession – and it quite literally became my life when I quit my professional job and went to study the fine art of French Pastry" at the French Pastry School in Chicago. "One of the best decisions I could have made."
Bierlein says both her parents provided homeschooled training, creating traditional Mexican dishes to healthy Southern California-inspired meals. "[My dad] can make some fantastic enchiladas." And with a sister in the catering business, it's clear that cooking is in the family blood.
"Crazytown" is how Bierlein describes a typical day at Sweet Sandy B's, opened in September. "I get there at 5am and hit the ground running," she exclaims, meticulously running off her list of daily chores. "I am a one-girl show at this point, so I put on a thousand hats every day."
Today, Birelein welcomes the holiday season, namely Thanksgiving, and giving back to the community in a way only pastries can. "I'm planning on introducing some specialty items that are charity driven where a portion of the proceeds will go to different organizations that are in need," she explains. It's a tasty present to a community she says has been incredibly supportive.
"I've been so lucky to be embraced by my neighborhood and the community remembers," she says. "It affirms my belief that I am filling a gap with my bake shop, and that makes the long days all the more worthwhile.
Phil Fahrenbruch – Bavarian Inn Restaurant
Executive Chef of the Bavarian Inn Restaurant, Phil Fahrenbruch, has been with the German-themed eatery since February 1990, starting as an assistant cook and working his way up to his current position at the 1,200-seat restaurant.
"The Bavarian Inn is a progressive family owned and operated business in its fourth generation of family management," Fahrenbruch explains. "I truly enjoy working side by side with the Zehnder family and the management teams here at the restaurant to overcome the daily challenges associated with directing a team 450 food service professionals," adding the thrill he receives when he hears from a pleased guest or has the opportunity to put together a specialized menu for an event.
Fahrenbruch's passion for food mirrors his passion for the community. "I enjoy being involved in community events and have had the opportunity to direct and organize the food service from 1995 to 1999 for Praying Hands Around Flint." During the annual Christmas dinner, Fahrenbruch and his fellow volunteers were able to serve as many as 400 homeless and underprivileged families. Today, he continues working with community oriented organizations, like the Flint Saginaw Chapter of the American Culinary Federation (ACF).
A member since 1996, Fahrenbruch has served as the chapter's sergeant of arms, secretary, and is currently the chapter president. It's with the ACF in 2002 he received his certification as an Executive Chef after attending the Dorothy Zender School of Hospitality, Culinary Arts, and Business Philosophy, and Mott Community College. Always looking to improve, Fahrenbruch continues his education through the Culinary Institute of America and the French Culinary Institute. The combined training has prepared him for the strenuous 10-hour days he currently faces, overseeing a staff of 450 and a restaurant full of hungry patrons.
Still, Fahrenbruch considers himself one of the lucky ones, proclaiming, "I love my job here."
Joe Baur is a freelance writer and filmmaker based in Cleveland. He's also the Sections Editor of hiVelocity. You can contact him at joebaur.com.