I arrived mid-service on a Sunday evening, and while the restaurant was busy, the atmosphere was calm and pleasant, even on my behind-the-scenes kitchen tour. The kitchen was buzzing with activity in a relatively small space, yet collaboration and teamwork were evident.
At the demonstration window, Emily carefully cut salmon for an order of salmon sashimi. In close quarters, Jon sliced bread in preparation for breadboards serving country-style bread with fancy swooshes of everything bagel seasoning compound butter. In the back, June polished barware while Anthony and Stacey perfected their techniques for candying Marcona almonds. The main concern seemed to be improving the almond’s shine. We eat with our eyes first, so looks are important.
They make everything from ketchup and mayonnaise to salad dressing and bread from scratch, using local ingredients where possible. They get their beef for the burgers from Mackinac Highlander Beef where the Scottish Highlander cattle are raised in St. Ignace in the winter and Rudyard in the summer. Their duck comes from Sugar Island, which is only accessed via ferry. The students learn to forage for components of their dishes. For example, in the spring, they’ll look for Michigan favorites like morel mushrooms and ramps—a wild leek. Those ramps may be preserved through pickling for use later in the summer.
The local theme continues with cocktails served using Les Cheneaux Distillers spirits, an award-winning distiller in Cedarville. For that, after dinner coffee, the restaurant serves theirs from Les Cheneaux Coffee Roasters in Cedarville.
Sustainability is the cornerstone of their program. They even send compost scraps to local farmers to avoid waste.
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The boat house-themed décor features horizontal light wood paneling and light fixtures one would find on a northern Michigan boathouse. Black and white photos from circa the 1950s adorn the walls. And you won’t be left wondering who’s in the pictures, as small placards identify all but one of the images. Those two guys remain unidentified. My guess is they were tourists enjoying the island life.
Shelves of cookbooks adorn the main dining room walls the culinary school, where students and the community borrow the books for inspiration.
In addition to dining inside, you’ll find a covered deck with views of Hessel Bay to experience the Michigan outdoors. Seating on the lower deck is the perfect place to have a glass of Michigan wine or a craft cocktail. The indoor-outdoor bar area makes it easy to grab one more drink while remaining outside.
Piper’s Pro Planning: The restaurant serves dinner Wednesday through Sunday, mid-June through Labor Day. Check their website for special event dinners throughout the rest of the year.
The Food at Les Cheneaux Culinary School Restaurant
While the menu is laser-focused, you won’t feel limited in your selections. Even with the small menu, the variety ranges from upscale choices typically found in fine-dining restaurants to casual pub-style varieties like soft pretzels and hamburgers. So no matter the style of food you’re in the mood for, there’ll be something you’ll enjoy.
Expect the unexpected here. When I reviewed the menu, I saw the charred asparagus and didn’t even consider it. I pictured several asparagus spears on an oval plate, and even though the menu mentioned other ingredients, I chose the perfectly-dressed salad, which featured kumquats and goat cheese. One of my dining companions had eaten here before and selected the asparagus, and what a surprise.
The charred asparagus was perfectly marked on the grill and cut diagonally into bite-sized pieces. The chef then added crisp country ham, pickled red onion, tossed with an amazake vinaigrette, mixed in basil, cilantro, mint, and sprinkled on benne seed. The result was an upscale, totally unexpected serving of a typically plain vegetable.
My entrée was the whitefish curry, combining international flavors with a local catch. This green curry featured asparagus and small chunks of tender carrot in a green sauce with Thai chili and fish sauce, then flavored with ginger. The unexpected part of this dish was the wonderful coconut and panko breading on the whitefish, making the fish golden brown and delicious. The chef served the plate with a side of rice so that you could spoon it in and mix it with the flavorful curry sauce. I don’t have much experience with curry, so it was a remarkable departure from my typical menu choices.
For dessert, my husband and I shared the s’more, a perfect riff on the northern Michigan campfire favorite. It started with bittersweet chocolate pots de crème, layered with soft graham cracker crumbles and topped with a swirl of house made toasted marshmallow—plenty to share, after the salad, entrée, and breadboard.
Vegan Menu at Les Cheneaux Culinary School Restaurant
Vegans needn’t worry about finding something they’ll like. Even in this small town, where vegan dishes may not be mainstream, the staff will present a complete printed vegan menu upon request. All the options seemed hearty enough to be filling. Although the menu constantly changes, when I dined at the restaurant, you could choose between a vegetable curry, shiitake polenta, and herbed couscous as entrées. The appetizers or small plates included charred asparagus, house salad, sourdough bread with cattle bean hummus, and a soft pretzel with maple mustard. And to top it all off blueberry sorbet. No doubt, even vegan diners will be pleasantly sated.
If you’d like to read the behind-the-scenes stories in the life of a culinary student, check out An’na Pinch of Salt, where Anna chronicles her experiences as a student at Les Cheneaux Culinary School.
As I left the restaurant that evening, I felt a bit sad, yet excited. Sad that with the seasonality of the dishes and constantly rotating menu, I may never have these dishes again, yet I am excited about those new dishes awaiting creation. An emotion I’m sure these future chefs will also experience.
For more articles about Michigan restaurants, check out these articles:
- The Mitten Brewing Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan
- Traverse City, Michigan: Cherry Capital of the World
- 7 Lansing, Michigan Best Restaurants in 2023
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While Piper is a lifelong Michigander, she’s had adventures worldwide. Bomb-sniffing dogs chased her in the middle of the night in Bogota (working late), gate agents refused her boarding to Paraguay (wrong visa), and US Marshals announced her seat number on a plane while looking for a murder suspect (she’d traded seats). It’s always an adventure! She even finds exciting activities in her home state of Michigan, where she lives in Lansing with her husband, Ross Dingman, her daughter, Alexis, and two granddaughters.