Chefs of Southwest Michigan: Three to Watch

From downtowns to the rural reaches of Southwest Michigan, no matter where you travel, local chefs have something delicious for your dinner plate. Three of those, who diners are going out of their way to seek out, can be found in their kitchens in Fennville, Texas Township, and Kalamazoo.

Chef Matthew Pietsch

When Matthew Pietsch walked down the main street of tiny town Fennville, resume in hand, he stopped at the door numbered 114. It was locked. He peered through the glass. The place, once a restaurant, was obviously closed--and not just for the night. It was closed, as in closed for business. He slipped his resume through the mail slot anyway, watched it float to the floor, and walked away.

A week later, Pietsch got a phone call. The owner of the building had found his resume and had an idea. Pietsch was a chef, and his background was solid. Would Pietsch be interested in being the chef of a new restaurant at 114 East Main Street?

"I cooked a big dinner for the owner of the place, just like I cook at home. I call it rustic cooking, simple and honest food," Pietsch says. "The next night we sat down and talked about a menu."

Salt of the Earth opened in Fennville in 2009, with Chef Matt Pietsch running the kitchen, and in spite of (perhaps because of) being "in the middle of nowhere," people were attracted to the rustic eatery and bakery. They come from all over town, from Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Holland, even Chicago.

Pietsch runs the kitchen on the concept of farm to table. He brings in food from as many area farmers as he can, and when he needs a handful of fresh herbs or a basket full of fresh vegetables, he simply walks out the back door of the restaurant, crosses the street, and picks what he needs from a garden growing in a once vacant lot across from the town bank.

Pietsch has been cooking since 1997, although he once "wanted to be a roadie and have the big experience in the big cities." He apprenticed with the U.S. National Pastry Team and participated in the Culinary Olympics in Germany, what he calls "an incredible experience." Later, he cooked for the Ford Advertising corporate kitchen and operated the Opus One kitchen in Detroit. Now, far from corporate life and big cities, he refers to Fennville (pop. 1,400) as his "forever home." He lives, in fact, a few minutes from work, and raises chickens and goats with his newlywed wife.

"My philosophy as a chef is to keep food simple and humble. I use the best ingredients possible, in season and local when I can, and then I get out of the way. It’s good, honest food, and people appreciate that. My relationship with the local farmers is what matters."

Chef Andy Havey

About 50 miles south of Fennville, in an area called Texas Corners, at 6915 West Q Avenue, another chef is raiding the cooler in the kitchen of Bold to create the specials of the evening. Chef Andy Havey has prepared meals for celebrities, but now, no one is more important than the dinner guest at Bold.

"Kenny Loggins, Leonard Nimoy," he counts them off when pressed, "Andre Agassi … Alicia Silverstone’s wedding … and, you know, the South Park guys …" He auditioned to appear on Chef Gordon Ramsey’s show "Hell’s Kitchen," but was told he was too experienced.

Havey is the homeboy, graduate of Loy Norrix, who went out into the world and full-circled back. He brought a lot of great recipes with him.  

"All the women in my family are great cooks," he says. "I helped Mom cook. Three cousins are chefs. I didn’t like academia, so I earned a culinary degree instead." It fit. Havey liked to be on the move, craved frequent change of scenery, and the fast turnover in most kitchens was a positive. He cooked in South Carolina, he cooked in Colorado, he cooked in California. For a stint, he left the kitchen and started a landscaping business, but the dinner bell brought him back again. And family eventually brought him back to Kalamazoo in 2009.

Bold hired Havey as a line chef, but quickly moved him up to executive chef. "It’s all about great ingredients," Havey says. "I shop the Texas Township Farmers Market, I look at what’s fresh, and I create the specials that bring the regulars back."

Now and then, when the fast tempo eases up a bit, Havey wanders out into the restaurant to chat with patrons. He’s happy to give recommendations. When he tells you that his favorite dessert is the Budino--Italian butterscotch (real butter, real scotch) pudding with salted caramel and whipped cream--believe him. To die for.

Chef Denise Miller

Chef Denise Miller of Fuel, on the corner of South Burdick and East Alcott streets, is another chef born of generations of women cooking up a delicious storm in their home and professional kitchens. She is not only executive chef at the vegetarian-vegan-raw food restaurant, but also owner. 

"I grew up on good food," Miller says. "The women in my family survived on food. I grew up in Cadiz, Ohio, in a small African-American community where we weren’t allowed to go to certain bars, so the family ran a speakeasy. My great-grandmother had dining halls named after her."

An accomplished poet and writer as well as a chef, Miller teaches English at Kalamazoo Valley Community College and is co-founder of Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that encourages artistic expression and social justice. 

"At Fire, we have culinary programs for marginalized youth, and at Fuel, we put many of those students to work. Proceeds from the sale of our desserts go back into supporting Fire and other nonprofits in the Kalamazoo area."

It’s a recipe for success, and with Fuel, Kalamazoo gained a dining option. "I was frustrated at how few choices a vegetarian or a vegan has on most menus," Miller, herself a vegetarian, says. "I wanted to offer a number of choices for every food philosophy."

With that embracing of food philosophies, Miller includes regional cultures and ethnic foods, while using organic and seasonal ingredients whenever possible, shopping locally. "Cuban, South American, Peruvian, Southern Asian, Italian … we try for the heart of different ethnic foods. And with our collaboration with area nonprofits, we want to feed our community not just physically, but also metaphysically."

Dinner is on.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins. 

Photos by Erik Holladay.
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