He’s a quiet man.

He’s a modest man.

And it was again time to shine a light on him.

Harlan “Pete” Peterson, chef and owner of the former Tapawingo restaurant, was feted by his peers, past employees and friends who gathered at Mission Table recently. The evening was a not so quiet shout out to a man who made significant contributions to the American restaurant scene and our current food culture.

The room buzzed that night with 65 guests, many who traveled far to be a part of the celebration. There were five food stations serving beautiful dishes reminiscent of Tapawingo days. The recipes were given to local chefs by past Tapawingo alumni for this event. Mickey Bakst, a former maître d’ and partner at Tapawingo, was the master of ceremonies. He was the perfect spokesperson, with an exuberance that matched the sentiments of the evening.

The idea for the celebration came during a conversation between local TC resident Gretchen Uhlinger and Amical owner Dave Denison. Gretchen had taken a cooking class from Pete recently, and Dave had introduced Pete to some of his kitchen staff. They were surprised that some people did not know who Pete Peterson was, and they decided to remedy the situation.

Gretchen and Dave gathered a committee of co-conspirators: Pete’s friend, Chris Dennos, Fred Laughlin, the former director of the Great Lakes Culinary Institute, and me. A series of brain storming sessions ensued. Mickey Bakst was contacted for assistance with a guest list, and Paul and Barb Olson offered their space at Mission Table. Friend and food writer Janice Binkert stepped in to assist with the written program. We hoped to keep the event a surprise for Pete.

Pete was delivered to Mission Table under a ruse crafted by Mickey and Ellen Bakst and former Tapawingo chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski. The goal was accomplished; when Pete walked into the room, his wonderful smile said it all. He later remarked at how incredible it was to walk into the room, and to know all the faces there.

The fun began when Mickey, along with former food server Gail Rubingh, animatedly recounted the early days at Tapawingo when Pete hired locals who had no experience, but who had “heart.”

Food servers spoke of times they returned to the kitchen to ask again, “what IS this dish I am serving?” Mickey visited from downstate one day to eat at the restaurant and then begged for a job, “the food was the best I had ever eaten,” he said.

It is clear that Mickey and Pete are still close, both acknowledging that their personalities complimented and contributed to the success of the restaurant. Former employees who live nearby still get together with Pete, and many who live farther away stay in touch. There was a palpable warmth in the air that evening.

Pete said he was so naïve when he started Tapawingo, having little formal training (a cooking class in France, and a stint at the Rowe Inn.) However, it is the origin of the word “naïve” being “natural, instinctive” that fits Pete best. He grew the restaurant’s reputation based on an innate understanding to cook using only fresh and local ingredients. As many said that night, this was before the “farm to table” movement had a name.

Mickey remarked that Pete’s “sense of balance” created “symphonic flavors” on the plate and that the food was not only delicious but beautiful. The food was matched by a gorgeous setting Pete’s designer’s eye produced in the renovated cottage. This was further enhanced by the natural surroundings with a view of the small lake and carefully curated landscaping. The caring staff was also important to the equation, and Pete and Mickey led by example. Pete was an unintentional pioneer who spoke to the food world by simply doing what he instinctively knew would connect people to good food. Guests had to travel out to the “middle of nowhere” for the experience and they did.

Pete’s influence on the industry was clear as Mickey read through the list of chefs and food writers who passed through Tapawingo. Some of these chefs came to pay homage to this magical place, and many of them worked for Pete. Mickey read emails from chef Emeril Lagasse and food writer Molly Abraham, praising Pete for what he created. Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, owners of the acclaimed State Bird Provisions and The Progress in San Francisco, shared their stories (“corn soup in January might not work here” was gently conveyed by a food server to Stuart early in his tenure there.) Nicole said she had no formal training but was given a free rein and world class space to hone her talents as the pastry chef. Mickey also shared stories of the families who came year after year, of getting Pete to come out of the kitchen and into the dining room to meet guests, and of the changing dining scene and a recession that hit the industry hard, including the decision to close Tapawingo.

Pete’s modesty was still apparent that night. But if you happen to see him around town, you might want to thank him for Tapawingo and for his passion which put Northern Michigan on the food world map. While dining styles are always changing, some things should never change. Thank him for opening our eyes to beauty and our mouths to the taste of good food.

Here’s another shout out; this to the chefs who participated in the event:

Local chefs James Bloomfield and Becca Snook of Alliance; Eric Patterson and Jennifer Blakeslee of Cook’s House; Andrea Deibler and Janene Silverman of Raduno; Becky Tranchell of Rose and Fern; and Stephanie Wiitila of Sugar2Salt. They prepared recipes sent by former Tapawingo chefs who created a menu that evening in Pete’s style: Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, Rich Travis who operates a catering business in Gaylord, Jeremy Kittelson of Rootdown in Denver and Dan Flynn of Stafford’s properties in Charlevoix and Petoskey. Needless to say, the food was spectacular.

The following recipe is from a cooking class I took from Pete Peterson a few years ago and is a take on the classic panzanella made with tomatoes and bread. You can substitute other vegetables as the season provides, but aim for a mixture of color and textures, and no more than five different vegetables.

Roasted Vegetable Panzanella, Winter Style

Serves 8 – 12, can be halved

2 large garlic cloves

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

8 – 12 C. hearty bread, ripped into bite sized pieces

¾ lb. cherry tomatoes, left whole and pierced with a toothpick in places

1 t. salt

½ t. black pepper

1 lb. green beans, trimmed and halved crosswise

1 fennel bulb, trimmed and cut into bite sized pieces

½ lb. broccoli florets

10 oz. pearl onions, peeled and blanched, optional

3 T. balsamic vinegar, preferably white

3 T. capers, drained, rinsed and chopped

½ t. sugar

1 lb. fresh mozzarella, cut or torn into 1/3 inch dice

¾ C. fresh basil (I have used parsley in a pinch)

Arrange oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven. Preheat to 425 degrees.

Mince garlic and then mash into a paste on a cutting board, using a pinch of salt and the side of a large heavy knife. Transfer mash to a small bowl, and add the 1 cup olive oil in a slow stream, whisking until well combined.

Put bread cubes in a large bowl and drizzle with 3 tablespoons of the garlic oil, tossing to combine, then divide bread between two baking sheets arranging the bread in a single layer. Toast in oven, stirring once or twice, until golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from oven but leave oven on.

Gently toss tomatoes in a bowl with 1 tablespoon garlic oil, ¼ teaspoon salt and a grind of pepper, then arrange on a baking sheet or shallow baking pan. Toss green beans, fennel, broccoli and onions in the bowl with 4 tablespoons garlic oil and some salt and pepper, and arrange them in a single layer on another baking sheet. Roast the vegetables, switching the positions of the sheets halfway through roasting and shaking the pans now and then, until tomatoes are very tender and green beans are just tender and browned in spots, 12 to 16 minutes. Cool vegetables in pans.

While vegetables roast, add vinegar to remaining garlic oil along with the capers, sugar, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper and whisk to combine. Put the roasted vegetables and any accumulated juices in a bowl along with the bread, mozzarella and basil. Drizzle on the dressing, bit by bit, and toss it together, tasting as you go, until it is as you like it. Let sit 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

— Pete Peterson

Rose Hollander has been a caterer, Idyll Farms chef and cooking instructor who helped initiate the kitchen classroom at the Children’s House. She completed her chef certification at the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland.

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