For Ralph Humes, cooking isn’t just an job, it’s a passion.
Those who have tasted his dishes at the Soul Hole in downtown Traverse City or Mana at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons have experienced it firsthand. Now he’s extended his reach by opening Sweet Mama’s Kitchen in Elk Rapids.
“The owner of the building said he was looking for somebody with passion,” recounted Humes in an after-lunch break at the restaurant on Ames Street.
Though he already was operating Mana, Humes decided that the chance to expand his operation to a restaurant with greater visibility and superior seating was too good to pass up. Sweet Mama’s opened in October 2012, but after operating both Sweet Mama’s and Mana for a month or so, he decided that was just too difficult a proposition. Mana closed in November.
Now, after having survived the most difficult part of the year, Humes is ready for the summer rush.
“I needed to do something, and took the leap,” Humes said with his easy smile.
Humes’s passion for cooking began when he was just a child. “Dad and Mom and four older sisters all cooked,” he said.
His first dish was French fries, which he so loved that he made them most every day after school. He would then watch cartoons from the living room floor, an activity that eventually caused a grease spot on the carpet from his bag of fries.
That’s translated today into some of the best fries around, a hand-cut recipe that’s second to none.
The French fries are just one of the many highlights on the menu at Sweet Mama’s Kitchen, which hews toward the southernstyle favorites Humes grew up with. There’s honey-sizzled catfish served over grits, chicken and waffles, corn hoe cakes with pulled pork, a fried green tomato BLT, and even a Southern take on a local favorite, Jamaican whitefish.
“It’s soul food,” he said. “I take that and lighten it up.”
Take the catfish, for example. Humes uses a tempura batter rather than a heavy batter.
“It’s the same flavor, but lighter,” he said. And the lighter batter offers a bonus: “It doesn’t overpower the fish.”
DOING IT ALL
With a full kitchen, Humes is able to offer a number of items he couldn’t prepare while at Mana.
“All I had was two paninis,” he said. Now, he can do it all: “Burgers, fries, ribs, meals.”
Humes’s professional career began with his first restaurant, in his hometown of Three Rivers. He says the capacity of that eatery was about the same as his current address, and it’s that size that suits him best.
“In Three Rivers it was 38 seats. That’s the perfect size. I can make small batches. I don’t have to make as many compromises,” he said.
“This is back to what I started.” The prints, paintings and old record covers decorating the walls showcase Humes’s other passion. As a bass player (he often performs as the Bohemians with his wife, singer Dawn Campbell, and others), he needs to lay down the groove without getting too excited or losing focus.
He says the same thing applies to cooking, where he likes to get into a rhythm in the kitchen.
“One of the things I like about music is you have to be present in the moment. In a perfect world, it’s zen-like.
“That’s how you’re supposed to think about food.”
Sandwiches starting at $6.99 Entrees starting at $8.99
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Saturday Located at 145 Ames Street in Elk Rapids. Call 498-2298 or visit its Facebook page at Sweet Mama’s Kitchen