April 17, 2024

Small Town Charm, Big City Kitchen

Why a Blue Apron chef chose northern Michigan over NYC
By Karl Klockars | Feb. 17, 2024

Many of us learned to love meal kits during the pandemic. They’re conveniently sent right to your front door, they’re pre-portioned, you often learn something new while using them, and at the end of the process, you have a fresh, home-cooked meal.

Simple as they seem to the customer, it takes a lot of logistics to pull one of these meals together, from the sourcing of the products to the creation of the recipes, and with cuisines being featured from around the world, it could be considered a global product. But if you’re a Blue Apron aficionado, did you know that the crafting of their meals also makes a detour through Leelanau County first?

Tim Kemp is the director of culinary innovation for Blue Apron, and after nearly two decades of cooking around the world, he boomeranged home to Michigan with his family in late 2020.

From the Operating Table to the Kitchen Table

Kemp originally graduated from Michigan State University with plans to become a doctor, but following stints at hospitals in northern Michigan and the Chicago suburbs, quickly realized it wasn’t for him. A career in the kitchen was calling.

Kemp had worked in the dorm kitchens at MSU, where one of his bosses had mentioned going to the Culinary Institute of America, aka the CIA.

“I was living in Chicago in the late ’90s and I was … really influenced by the Food Network. It was this very early, niche thing,” Kemp says. “I’m from the Detroit suburbs; we didn’t go out to eat in the late ’80s growing up. It wasn’t a thing we did. [But] I’m in Chicago, thinking these restaurants are cool … hm, the Culinary Institute of America … I just found my way there at the end of ’99.”

Kemp went into the CIA driven by a desire to work with his hands and he came out with the technical chops to walk into any early-2000s fine dining restaurant. “When you went to the CIA at that time, it was a place where you learned how to be a Michelin-starred chef. Very classical training, highly focused on French cuisine,” Kemp says.

He ended up being part of the team who opened Per Se, the NYC outpost helmed by one of America’s most legendary chefs: Thomas Keller. “It probably took years off my life,” he says of the restaurant with a laugh. “It was baptism by by fire. It was absolutely insane and so fun, and I’m so proud of the work that we did there.”

Despite the 80-hour weeks, kitchen work didn’t really pay the bills. Luckily, following stints at other NYC restaurants, Kemp’s life changed again thanks to a bad check and a chance encounter with an old co-worker.

“I literally ran into a guy on the street who was an intern of mine at Le Cirque. I was walking out of a bank after my paycheck bounced, and he was like, ‘Oh! I was out for drinks the other night with my cousin’s friend’s brother who needs a private chef. You should call him.’”

Kemp made that call 10 minutes later and found that his friend had, just moments before, already recommended him to his future employer, a billionaire financier (who Kemp politely declines to name).

Inspiring Home Chefs

You’re probably wondering at this point: What does this have to do with northern Michigan and meal kits? Well, it turns out that working as a private chef is great training for a job as a culinary innovation director for a meal kit company. You’re cooking for a family one day and then for a huge party the next. You’re working in a gourmet home kitchen this week and on a small yacht kitchen right afterward. You need to create new menus every day, sometimes on demand, while learning about many different kinds of cuisines. All of that adds up to some prime prep work.

Making the jump to Blue Apron in 2014 was the obvious next step. The meal kit company had launched in 2012, and those early days were all about growth and creativity.

“There was a period of time, the years of our hyper growth, it was me making the recipes in a studio with a wonderful, amazing team of folks,” Kemp says. “We would just make recipes in this little studio apartment and shoot them ourselves, and it was kind of a wild time.” (You may even recognize his hands from early Blue Apron recipe cards.)

Today his role is less hands-on but still culinarily creative. “It’s working cross-functionally with our teams to bring new products and product lines to life. It’s been a super daunting and really humbling experience to figure out what America wants to eat for dinner.”

Even as his job has evolved, Kemp’s mark remains evident in the end product. Compared to other meal kit services, Blue Apron is admittedly a little “cheffier,” as Kemp puts it, and he sees his influence at Blue Apron as both being able to introduce people to new flavors and helping to teach them to cook better, too.

“It’s a little bit of bringing in ingredients that people maybe haven’t had a chance to interact with and just teaching people the basics,” he explains. “We have a great team who’s able to think critically about what [it means] for people to cook dinner for themselves. I think it’s a pretty intimate thing to think about—the responsibility and privilege to come into someone’s home like that.”

Will Move for Food

After years of work in the big city, Kemp relocated to the Traverse City area with his family in late 2020, a decision obviously prompted (like so many others) by the global pandemic. “Pre-pandemic, we always loved coming here for vacation, but it was never a real thought of, like, could we live here?”

Thanks to remote work, their time in Michigan was originally intended as an extended summer vacation, until one day they decided to see what would happen if they put their place in Brooklyn on the market. “The next day, we sold our apartment,” Kemp says. “And we’re like … well, the internet works. There’s a great airport. Maybe we can make this work.”

So, a big-city, globe-trotting fine-dining chef moves to a small resort town. You might think that’d be a bit of culture shock, right? Not so much. Leelanau County is “the most beautiful place on earth,” Kemp says. “[We’re] really embracing living in this amazing agricultural area. We’re kind of pinching ourselves every day that we get to do this.”

That local agriculture certainly helped sweeten the deal. “There’s so much wonderful food being grown around here and so many great cooks that are moving here,” Kemp tells us. A few favorites for the Kemp family are Farm Club, Modern Bird, Crocodile Palace, The Union in Northport, The Mill in Glen Arbor, and The Cooks’ House.

And don’t forget the farms: “You know, you live in cities, you go to the local farmers market, and things are grown hundreds of miles away. Now, literally being able to get 90 percent of our food in the county is pretty incredible—and has changed the way we eat and certainly influenced how I view cooking now,” Kemp says.

Of course, there’s always something to miss from the offerings of the city. Where does Kemp see openings in the culinary market? “I’m always amazed we don’t have a proper small wine bar here with some really interesting curated wines; there’s such great winemakers up here.” And, he adds, a New England-style seafood shack would be nice, too.

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