Les Cheneaux Culinary School will bring good food, people to the area

Culinary schools are plentiful in Michigan, but none exist in the Eastern Upper Peninsula. The Les Cheneaux Culinary School will teach students not only how to be good chefs, but also how to source local food to create a unique dining experience.
It takes vision to look past the obvious when it comes to economic development in a small Upper Peninsula town. The obvious might be to invest in vacation cabins, operate a convenience store with a deli that serves pasties, or a gift shop that sells fudge and humorous t-shirts to the tourists.

But who would have thought of a cooking school? In the tiny resort village of Hessel, no less?

Actually, the same people who brought us a one-of-a-kind boat building school in nearby Cedarville. They're putting the finishing touches on the Les Cheneaux Culinary School, and soon, the economic impact should be felt throughout the eastern Upper Peninsula.

The nonprofit school is being built in the same location of a restaurant that faced the sky blue waters of Lake Huron and the Hessel/Clark Township Marina. The restaurant closed its doors and was sold to the nonprofit group in 2013.

This group includes investors and individual donors; some of these donors are local, some are summer residents who spend a few weeks in the Les Cheneaux area each year. In all, the group has pooled together nearly $300,000 of its goal of $450,000, enough to open the doors to this new venture before the snow blows into the harbor.

Like the successful boat building school a few miles down the road in Cedarville, the culinary school will offer students a year-long training program where they'll learn the art of cooking from master chefs. Eight people have committed to the apprenticeship program, with room for four more. Most of these students, like Morgan Mcleod, come from the eastern U.P., giving them the chance to commute from home or rent a place in the area.

"I love the fact it's going to be small," says Mcleod, who is currently a cook at Penny's Kitchen in Sault Ste. Marie. "There is a greater opportunity for hands-on learning experience." 

Mcleod says she is looking forward to the third semester, which focuses on restaurant management. Her ultimate goal is to operate a food truck and travel around the country.

The economic impact to the region will be felt as the school seeks out locally sourced food, including, beef, fish, and vegetables--and locally foraged leeks. This will give local food producers an opportunity to increase their income from farming, according to Zach Schroeder, director of the school.

"The vision of the school is first to improve the relationship of farmers and restaurateurs in the EUP and to increase the quality of the food coming in to the restaurants, which would in turn increase the quality of the restaurants," Schroeder says. "In the future we would promote our food culture up here and eventually make us a food destination, kind of like Traverse City has developed itself as a food and wine destination."

To achieve this goal, students will be taught how to source food from local farmers, which is a little different than meeting with a sales rep from a large distributor and placing an order.

 "The problem with the local food movement," says Schroeder, "is farmers don't have a salesman like Sysco that knocks on your door and they don't have the delivery method either, so what you have to be as the chef who wants locally sourced food is get out there and find the farmer."

 He says much of this is done by word of mouth; one farmer you talk to who has beef may mention the guy down the road who has eggs.

 "I've developed these relationships (with farmers) and I'll pass them on to the students who will improve these relationships and seek out these farmers hiding in the woods," says Schroeder. "It's kind of a hidden gem that we have up here that hasn't been tapped yet is local food. There are so many farmers--in the Pickford area it's meat, and produce all over." 

He says they can get a superior quality product at an affordable, if not slightly higher price than a restaurant would normally pay for it.
   
"If I can teach the students how to relatively easily source that food, the sky really is the limit as far as the quality of the food in the U.P," says Schroeder.

The general public will get a taste of the fine cuisine being prepared from fresh, locally sourced food, according to Schroeder. The school will include a 55-seat diner that will open its doors from May to September to serve locals and tourists alike. The interns will get hands-on experience--from dish washing to master chef--as they prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

"We'll be running the whole show," says Mcleod, including creating the menu for restaurant.

You might say Schroeder himself is locally sourced. The school originally considered a director from Detroit who had worked in restaurants in the Big Apple. The man had good ideas for what might work in the city, but they weren't applicable to the rural U.P. As a result the school's board had second thoughts and started their search anew for a director.

Meanwhile the 27 year-old Schroeder, a native of Moran, was working in Detroit as a chef and looking for the first opportunity to "fly north," as he puts it. His mother, who had coincidentally appraised the future culinary school building for the would-be culinary school investors, mentioned her son was a culinary school grad. Bonnie Mikkelsen, one of the early promoters and investors of the school, contacted Schroeder and began picking his brain. The rest, as they say, is history for the U.P. native.

"When I graduated from high school in St. Ignace, on the yearbook it said I wanted to 'teach people to cook in the EUP'.  I got pretty lucky there," he says.
  
 Lucky, indeed, and fortunate for future culinary school students and the tastebuds of purveyors of fine dining made possible by fresh, locally sourced food.

"We have the wilderness and everything you'd want as a vacation destination, we just need to improve the food culture," says Schroeder.

Neil Moran is a freelance writer in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and owner of Haylake Business Communications. You can find him on Twitter at @moranwrite.
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