A glimpse into the talents of chefs in the U.P.

Twelve of the central Upper Peninsula’s top chefs and mixologists showcased their culinary and other talents at the recent Elements of Taste fundraiser in Marquette. 

While the food and beverage industry is often reviewed based on each restaurant, this event provided a rare showcase of talent from the area’s food and beverage leaders. 

More than 180 people sampled six small plate and cocktail pairings, inspired by different taste profiles at the sold-out event. 

“It’s nice to showcase what our restaurants can do, but to also see what our chefs and mixologists can do,” said co-organizer Pat Digneit. “It gave them a chance to expand from what they usually do, get creative, and have a little fun.”

Starting off with an amuse-bouche and a flute of champagne, eventgoers were able to wander the banquet hall to try each dish and drink. 

Ali Adamczyk of Tracey's with her sous chef Brandon Olson and mixologist Alex McCracken.

Working as a pair, each chef and mixologist was assigned a taste profile of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, spicy, or umami. They then developed a dish and a cocktail based on that profile. The chefs and mixologists found the most creative ways to highlight their assigned tastes. Options ranged from pork and mushroom soup dumplings with birch syrup and dandelion banchan to rhubarb-infused bourbon with lemon and tart cherry syrup topped with egg white foam.

For some, it meant working with ingredients or liquors that weren’t typically found on their menus. It was even more difficult to accommodate some of the flavors not typically found in their usual presentations. 

Mixologist Ben Filipowicz dealt with umami — a taste that loosely translates to meaty or complex — and struggled to figure out how to put that in a cocktail. He came up with combined saline and sesame oil to sake and then added lemon and cucumber to complete the flavor profile.

“I’ve used all of those ingredients, but putting them all together was a first for me. Never, ever did I think I would put sesame oil in a cocktail, but it worked,” he said. “I was a little nervous when we got umami, but my partner made a really nice starting plan with me. Once we went toward Asian, it was either going to be soju or sake, and I was able to research different ingredients after that.”

While not as visible as some of the unique ingredients or plating styles, chefs and mixologists were able to go outside their usual cooking techniques as well. 
Angela Verburg, chef/manager for Focus Concept Group, which operates Yoop Coop and Border Grill, created the amuse-bouche course. She served a smoked sesame-seared tuna with five spices over a wasabi-creamy coleslaw and topped with a Korean sauce. She was able to get back to smoking fish like she did when she operated a restaurant in Seattle.

“I love to smoke everything. It’s a great way to create with what you have and do something different than what you do on a daily basis,” she said. “I love to do different things and be creative and that’s how I created this dish.” 

The backgrounds of the chefs were almost as varied as the dishes they served. The six were evenly split between formal education at traditional four-year universities, degrees at specialized culinary schools, or on-site training and apprenticeships. 

Experience ranged from the head of the Northern Michigan University student-led kitchen team Trixie Maguran Jacobson to Joe “The Cake Guy” Heck, who has been a pastry chef for over 30 years and is the dessert lead for Huron Mountain Bakery in Marquette.  

For Alex Palzewicz, manager of Barrel & Beam Brewery and chef of the Northwoods Test Kitchen, the talent on display showcased many different ways to be successful and provide a good product.

“The thing I like the most is the variety of talent. It’s such a cool way to have different styles and backgrounds all in the same room,” she said. “It creates a stronger community, both because of the money raised for hospice and by getting us all together in the same room to have a good time and showing where we came from.”

Livio Stabile of The Landmark Inn pours part of his "sweet" drink, a digestive amaro based cocktail.

The mixologists also showed varied backgrounds despite not having as many traditional forms of education. Filipowicz is an English teacher during the day and showcases cocktails on social media. Many of the mixologists, like Brandon Maki of Iron Bay and Lily Vanderbosch of Honorable Distillery, were restaurant owners or managers getting a reprieve from business and finance to get back to their original trade.

The cocktail side brought experience from Detroit, Chicago and Italy to an event in Marquette.

The event also allowed some newer and underappreciated culinary experts a chance to put out their best plate or glass in the hopes of being able to stay in the area.   
 Maguran Jacobson was supplying the crowd with her resume when she placed her dish of mixed rice, mushroom, and whitefish cake with carrot, bamboo shoot and quick-pickled lemon ginger. She said that events like this provided some extra prestige for the NMU culinary programs in the community.

“We have a smaller hospitality program, but seeing students that are knowledgeable and available and want to be involved in the community is great. This will be the new workforce that comes in,” she said. “Even if they can’t stay, it can create a way to return sometime later.”

As a business owner, Digneit found the experience to be a positive one. He and his wife Alyssa own DIGS, a downtown Marquette restaurant that has added a number of fusion dishes to the local menu options. Both have culinary and event management backgrounds, which helped create the environment that allowed the chefs and mixologists to create.

"To watch all of them collaborate together was very nice. It’s an industry where secrets don’t get shared very often, so to see people work together was awesome,” he said.

The fundraiser brought in more than $20,000 for local hospice efforts as part of the long-running Dancing With Our Stars fundraiser. Digneit said that they will try to make Elements of Taste an annual event after this year’s success and the quality of talent in the local food and beverage industry.

Brice Burge is a regular contributor to UPword.
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