The Cooks’ House Chefs Take Amateurs to School
By Clark Miller | July 15, 2017
Interested in updating your home cooking chops? Two veteran Traverse City chefs are willing to start you down that path. Jennifer (Jen) Blakeslee and Eric Patterson, co-owners of the innovative The Cooks’ House restaurant, are offering Saturday morning cooking lessons.
It all starts with a trip to the Sara Hardy Farmer’s Market, where a small group of students — myself included — watch Blakeslee and Patterson evaluate and buy a small mountain of local veggies: beets, green tomatoes, kohlrabi, garlic scapes, rhubarb, radishes, shiitake mushrooms. The goal is to show us how to create interesting dishes out of this jumble. In the hands of an amateur, none of this would make sense. The chefs just make it up as they go along. There’s no cookbook.
Two of my fellow students are yoga instructors. One is a nurse. As far as I can tell, no one in the class aspires to become a commercial chef. They simply want to eat healthful and interesting food.
A few hours later, Blakeslee and Patterson have done the impossible: A four-course meal is done, and somehow, all the dishes make sense.
Judging by the reaction of my three classmates, such delicacies as savory pancakes with bok choy, mustard vinaigrette, and fried egg (see the recipe below) are a hit.
Above All: Ingredients and Simplicity
The two chefs have worked together for nearly 20 years. They have contrasting yet complementary styles. Patterson takes a more classical approach. Blakesee, on the other hand, is more laid back and, in Patterson’s opinion, also more creative.
“She can sprout ideas all day long,” he said.
Besides gigging on the side as a high-end personal chef, Blakeslee’s current passion is Indian cuisine, which visitors to the Little Fleet pub and food truck emporium across the street can sample in small plate form.
Despite their differences in training and personality, they work together well because they agree completely on two key points: One, all good cooking begins with using the best in-season ingredients you can find, and two, chefs should always strive for simplicity.
They repeat these themes throughout their popular cookbook, “Cooks’ House: The Art and Soul of Local, Sustainable Cuisine.”
“To me, using the right ingredients is at least 75 percent of cooking,” Patterson says. “Then you work with them and elevate them. But you don’t mess them up.”
The Cooks’ House is rooted in Northern Michigan’s lively farm-to-table scene. Patterson and Blakeslee rely on 60 or more local growers for everything from duck eggs to meats.
During class at the restaurant, that connection to the land is underscored when a local farmer knocks on the kitchen door to make a delivery. What she holds in her hands causes the entire class — including both chefs — to pause in awe. The beauty of two complex stacks of multi-tiered yellow oyster mushrooms is a stunning reminder of northern Michigan’s natural gifts.
As they watch Blakeslee and Patterson at work, the students ask lots of technical questions. The chefs patiently explain: Here’s how to blanch cauliflower. You can bring certain dried herbs back to life with a little skillet time before using in a recipe. This is the way to cut carrots Julienne style.
In particular, the students want to learn which spices work best together. The chefs recommend “The Flavor Bible” by Chefs Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. (My just-purchased copy turns out to be exactly the type of reference book I’ve been looking for.)
As the dishes come together, Blakeslee and Patterson talk less about the technical side and more about their love for cooking. To them, food is all about the creative challenge. The attempt to come up with something new and interesting seems to be the driving force in their daily lives.
The next Saturday morning classes are scheduled for July 22 and Aug. 5. Each class costs $65. The chefs buy all ingredients. For more information, visit The Cooks’ House website, www.cookshousetc.com.
Ingredients for a Successful Kitchen Jam Session
Cooking happens to be the art form Jen Blakeslee and Eric Patterson have chosen, but it’s easy to imagine either one of these chefs as a painter, writer, or musician. Patterson often draws parallels between cooking and jazz. Here are the creative principles he and Blakeslee emphasize in class — and in their cookbook:
· Study what has gone before
· Use your imagination
· Keep aesthetics in mind
· Think in terms of contrast and balance
· Remember combinations that have worked
· Make sure absolutely everything you do has meaning and purpose
· Respect those who can teach you
Recipe: Savory Pancakes with Bok Choy, Mustard Vinaigrette and Fried Egg
2 cups flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper, 3 eggs, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil, 1/2 tablespoon mustard oil or Dijon mustard, whole milk, and 1 bunch sliced green onions. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and add milk until the thickness of pancake batter. Cook just like one would for pancakes.
1 medium head of bok choy — slice like one would for stir fry, 1/4 small red onion finely minced, salt, vegetable oil. Put enough oil into a fry pan to cover bottom. Heat pan over medium high heat. When oil is hot, saute bok choy and onions quickly (for only about 1 minute). Add salt to taste.
1 eggs, 2 tablespoons mustard, 3 or so tablespoons rice wine vinegar, 1 clove garlic,
1 cup neutral salad oil, salt and pepper. Use a blender to mix ingredients (except oil). With blender running, drizzle oil in until all the oil is added. Season with salt and pepper
Fry an egg.
Make a pool of vinaigrette on a plate. Stack a pancake or two on the vinaigrette. Then plate some of the sauteed bok choy. Top with the egg.