The Cooks' House
Elevated cuisine, artfully presented in Traverse City
By Janice Binkert | April 13, 2019
It’s a paradox: For two cooks whose cuisine speaks volumes, they prefer not to. They just want to cook. Eric Patterson and Jen Blakeslee, chef-owners of The Cooks’ House in Traverse City, celebrated the 11th anniversary of the restaurant on April 1 – not with champagne corks popping and revelry, but by going to work and continuing to do what they do so well.
Patterson, the ponytailed, perennially suit-and-tie-wearing half of the founding duo of The Cooks’ House (who, nota bene,are partners in the business sense only), doesn’t hold back when it comes to things he feels strongly about, but neither does he give much away, either about himself, or his cooking. He credits Blakeslee with being the more creative force in the kitchen. She, demure and casual in a black T-shirt and chef’s pants, is the quieter one, but she is quick to dispute that statement. “You’re just as creative as I am,” she countered. “You just do things in a more structured way.”
FROM VEGAS TO TC
In spite of the generally accepted rule in the culinary world that egos and hierarchy allow for only one head chef in a professional kitchen, Blakeslee and Patterson have been successfully cooking together for over 15 years, having first met when they both worked at star chef Andre Rochat’s eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant in Las Vegas.
The two took very different paths to their culinary careers. Growing up in Kansas, Patterson had an epiphany at the ripe old age of 11 that cooking was his calling (it involved popcorn — ask him about it the next time you’re at The Cooks' House). He worked at a steakhouse during high school and went straight to Las Vegas at age 18, determined to learn to be a chef.
“I kind of hunted down the best chef in town, which at the time was Andre. I just showed up at his restaurant. I talked to the chef de cuisine, who basically said, ‘Seriously, your best experience is a steakhouse in Kansas?’ and showed me the door. But I don’t take ‘no’ very well, so I came back every month for nine months, until I think I just wore them down. When I finally met Andre, he said that my experience was dismal, but if I was still interested, he would hire me as an apprentice.”
Patterson turned out to be a quick study and a hard worker, and ultimately became the restaurant’s chef de cuisine himself.
Blakeslee, a Traverse City native, was a professional dancer for six years at the Hubbard Street Dance Company in Chicago before discovering her love of (and aptitude for) cooking during a vacation in Colorado. Taking a job as a server at a ranch resort in the mountains, she quickly earned herself a spot in the kitchen and moved up the ladder quickly. That eventually led to her being hired as the chef for a new Italian trattoria in Denver that is still going strong today. A few years into that job, she decided to go to culinary school and enrolled at Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island. Later, back at her old job in Denver, some colleagues told her about a sous chef position opening at Andre’s in Las Vegas and encouraged her to apply. As it turned out, Patterson had already been working there for some time when she arrived. A dream team had been born. As their boss told them at the time: “It’s scary how well you two work together.”
So how did Blakeslee end up convincing Patterson to relocate to Traverse City? “There was zero convincing necessary,” said Patterson. “We knew that we wanted to partner in opening a restaurant, and she felt this would be a good place, so I came with her.”
Blakeslee recalled that when they were still in Las Vegas, they used to talk about their plan a lot. “We would say things like, ‘Let’s use products that are fresh — things that we can buy right from the farm.’ But neither of us actually had any idea what we would be able to get here.”
WHAT LOCAL FOOD MOVEMENT?
Blakeslee and Patterson opened the first iteration of The Cooks’ House in 2008 in a tiny building on East Front Street in Traverse City that has served as an incubator for several successful local restaurants.
“People think I’m joking when I say this, but honestly, at the time, we didn’t know anything about the rise of the local food movement in this country,” Patterson admitted. “For us, using local, seasonal ingredients just made perfect sense.” Though it was difficult at first, over time, the two built up a long list of farmers in the region who now deliver to them on a regular basis.
In October 2010, they moved to their present location just around the corner — a two-story, white clapboard house that was formerly home to the House of Doggs.
“It needed a lot of renovation,” said Blakeslee. They started with $25,000, and by the time the remodel and everything else was done, they had less than $2,000 in the bank — less than a day’s worth of revenue. “Which is nothow you want to open a restaurant,” Patterson noted. Nevertheless, it thrived.
“When we opened The Cooks’ House, we really wanted to make sure that it was casual and approachable enough for everybody,” said Blakeslee. Although they both take their cooking seriously, neither she nor Patterson take themselves too seriously. On their website, they describe the restaurant as having a “comfortable, come-as-you are approach to enlightened food.” For the dress code, they suggest only: “clothes.”
Patterson and Blakeslee understand and complement each other well. They finish each other’s sentences. They laugh at each other’s jokes. And they have the highest respect for each other’s culinary abilities. “Her weaknesses are my strengths, and my weaknesses are her strengths,” explained Patterson.
But these are also two individuals with very divergent personalities and tastes. She keeps the restaurant’s décor clean-lined, with interesting textures; he has little interest in such things. He likes bright lights and soft music in the dining room; she likes candlelight and turned-up volume. She loves being in the kitchen, on the line; he prefers plating, expediting, and playing host. His favorite cuisine is French; hers is Italian (closely followed by Indian, Asian, and Mexican, a reflection of some of her favorite travel destinations).
INGREDIENTS, TECHNIQUE, PRESENTATION, TASTE
While elements of those latter culinary influences may show up on The Cooks’ House menu at any time, Blakeslee’s and Patterson’s food defies any particular definition. What comes out on the plates that are brought to the tables is elevated cuisine, artfully presented, but never predictable, and definitely not fussy. Seasonality is about the only the common denominator. The menu posted on the restaurant’s website is just a sample of what you may encounter on any given night, but it offers a very good idea of the infinite variety and flavor combinations guests have to choose from, any season of the year.
Each item is listed succinctly, with only its ingredients; clever names have no place here. Thus, under Salads & Appetizers, one might find Roasted Beets-Red Cabbage-Dukkah-Olive Oil-Fresh Chevre. Or Warm Mushrooms-Asian Seasoned Pig Ears-Horse Gram Lentils, or Gemelli Pasta-Braised Rabbit-Milkweed Pods-Parmesan Cheese. Main Plates could include Hay Smoked Striped Bass-Carrots-Radish-Pea Shoots-Sesame Seeds; or Slow Roasted Brisket-Wild Ramp Chimichurri-Potato Subji-Swiss Chard; or Sautéed Chicken Breast and Leg Confit-Baby Kale-Whole Roasted Garlic-Curry. Five- and Seven-course menus are another option, with or without suggested wine pairings. Dessert may be something like Parsnip Cake-Spiced Honey Yogurt.
Wine, beer and spirits also play an essential role at The Cooks’ House. Patterson and Blakeslee are of the mind that the best ingredients deserve the best beverages. They stock an impressive 150 different bottles of wine, including one of the biggest selections of local wines in Michigan.
“We don’t change the entire menu every week or every month, but we change certain items and certain preparations on a regular basis,” Patterson said. “Our core philosophy is that the ingredients inspire what we cook, so those ingredients should be of the highest quality available, seasonal, and as local as feasible. Cooking is about 75 percent ingredients and 25 percent technique, but you have to have the technique to make the ingredients work. And then to take it a little further, what’s more important — presentation or taste? It’s taste. You can have a dish that is put together impeccably, but if it doesn’t taste good, the presentation is wasted.”
Blakeslee said that while both she and Patterson contribute ideas for the menus, they collaborate on most dishes. “I know that Eric will always fully give me his opinion about things,” says Blakeslee. “And I do the same with him. It’s all about making the food the best it can be.” The staff is also encouraged to give their feedback on any dish. And speaking of staff, many aspiring cooks who are just starting out in the business have been welcomed into The Cooks’ House kitchen over the years. “Mentoring has always been inherent to our culture here,” said Patterson. “If we can help somebody out, we’re happy to do it. We’ve got a ton of experience between us, so why not pass it on?”
The Cooks’ House is located at 115 Wellington St., in Traverse City. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to midnight. For more information, call (231) 946-8700, visit www.cookshousetc.com, or check them out on Facebook or Instagram.
AND A SIDE OF…
As if Blakeslee and Patterson didn’t literally have enough on their plates running their restaurant (actually two restaurants, since they also operate Milkweed in The Little Fleet), they also do catering — including large, high-end benefits for local organizations like the Leelanau Conservancy, the Father Fred Foundation, and Groundworks — as well as dinners with wineries, breweries, distilleries, and guest chefs. “These collaborations are basically a result of us wanting to ‘play in the sandbox’ with other food and beverage professionals,” said Blakeslee. Want a place in the sandbox, too? Go to mynorthtickets.com and make a reservation for one (or more) of these upcoming special events:
April 22, 5:30 seating – Young Chef’s Dinner
April 22, 8:30 seating – Young Chef’s dinner
April 23, 7:00 seating – Brys Estate Wine Dinner
May 6, 5:30 seating – Lady of the House guest-chef dinner
May 6, 8:30 seating –Lady of the House guest-chef dinner
May 7, 7:00 seating – Big Little wine dinner
May 20, 5:30 seating – Antihero guest chef dinner
May 20, 8:30 seating – Antihero guest chef dinner
May 21, 7:00 seating – 2 Lads wine dinner