As lists go, this one is deliciously unparalleled. I’m feverishly jotting down the places that James Beard award-winning super-chef Mario Batali likes to forage when he’s staying at the 1940s trout camp he and his wife Suzi remodeled on Northern Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula. Call it Mario-central, because it’s from their house that Batali embarks on his food forays, finding out what makes this part of the state such a culinary delight.
“It’s like having a great big refrigerator,” Batali tells me as he widens his arms in an expansive gesture that seemingly goes beyond Northport, a quaint village at the top of the pinkie finger of Michigan’s mitten. His symbolic embrace encompasses the region’s rolling hills dotted with vineyards and fruit orchards, small-scale farms dedicated to organic and sustainable produce, cheeseries and neat, early 19th century villages nestled on sandy beaches.
That’s high praise from anyone, but even more so from Batali, a master of the food universe. He’s owner of 26 restaurants and has his own line of cookware and food products, including pasta sauces and his new Belcampo slow-cured salamis. He’s a popular TV chef, star of travel DVDs and author of more than a dozen cookbooks. How’s that for food cred?
Heck, you can even go online and treat your feet to a pair of his famed, signature edition Crocs, like the ones he is wearing today.
We’re walking down Mill Street to Barb’s Bakery, where the food maestro is treating us to what he says are the best cinnamon twists ever. Of course, when you’re walking with Batali, his red hair pulled back with a scrunchie, even the most direct path entails a stop or two. People call out hello, pause to shake his hand and ask to take his photo. One happens to have a cookbook for him to sign. No problem. The multi-tasking Batali scribbles his name in the book and puts his arm around an elderly woman as her husband snaps a picture, while thanking someone else who praises his last show.
Someone compliments his cap with the logo of House of Doggs (HOD), a local hot dog joint. “I love them,” Batali says enthusiastically. “They say ‘Hi Mario’ when I walk in, and then I still have to stand in line just like everyone else. That’s great.”
There are local food connections to be made at HOD, where the toppings are musically inspired (like the Fleetwood Mac, which gets its name from the rich, thick and deliciously gooey macaroni and cheese piled on top). The array of condiments includes Kream mustard made by Brownwood Farm in Northport. I learn that Brownwood partnered with Chateau Grand Traverse winery and Grand Traverse Distillery to create Apple Riesling Salsa and Yankee Bourbon Barbecue Sauce. So I add those two places to my foodie itinerary.
Inside Barb’s, the line is long as it winds past large glass display cases filled with enticing baked goods. Someone offers to let Batali cut in front. He declines. He may be famous, but he’s no diva. Back outside, we divvy up the twists and yes, with their warm rich dough, rolled in sugar and cinnamon, they are the best. I greedily take a second.
As we munch, we turn our attention to the Leelanau Peninsula—a thin strip of land bounded by Lake Michigan on one side and Grand Traverse Bay on the other. “There’s the fishing, the great farm markets, the wineries, the artisan food producers,” says Batali, ticking off the foodie attractions. The largest population area nearby is Traverse City, about 30 miles south at the base of the bay, but most of the hamlets are like Northport, which dates to the 1850s and has original wood buildings and a year-round population of less than 600. It may be small, but this northern Michigan gem is a mega-site for sustainable and organic food producers and farmers who seem to band together, creating a connectivity dedicated to authentic food.
“This area inspires my cooking completely,” says Batali. “I don’t go shopping with a list, I just buy things, get home and figure it out.”
Although their home is New York, the chef, his wife and their two sons spend a great deal of time in Northport, enjoying all four seasons. “It’s where I relax,” he says, noting that it takes less time to get to Michigan from New York City than it would if he and his family tried to make the trek to the popular East Coast summer spots like the Hamptons. Here, they garden (produce includes growing gooseberries and ground cherries—a type of fruit covered with thin paper similar to a tomatillo—used for pies), and make pizzas, paellas and bread in a wood burning oven imported from Italy. The Batalis come not only in the summer and on beautiful fall weekends but also at holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“The food scene has really exploded in the region,” Batali writes at mariobatali.com, where he lists many of his tasty finds. Some I know, such as Leelanau Cheese in Suttons Bay. Owners Anne and John Hoyt learned about cheese-making in the Swiss Alps, and specialize in Raclette and a French style Fromage Blanc cheese spread. Ditto for the Grand Traverse Pie Company; Batali raves about their cherry pie. (Whenever I’m in the area I stock up on their beef potpies and apple dumplings with caramel sauce.) I’m familiar with two more of his favorites, the smoked whitefish pate made by the fifth generation, family-owned Carlson’s Fishery in Leland, and grass-fed meats from Leland Mercantile on the west side of the Leelanau Peninsula.
It is food sleuth Batali who clues me in on Tandem Ciders, where the husband and wife team of Dan Young and Nikki Rothwell use traditional cider pressing methods to create old-fashioned hard ciders like Smackintosh. The best seller is made using locally grown McIntosh, Rhode Island Greening and Northern Spy apples from Smith-Omena Heights Farm, Steimel Brothers, Christmas Cove Farm and Schultz Orchards.
But it isn’t all about apples. “Our Pretty Please is made from Balaton cherries, and we have both sweet and dry pear ciders as well as our Pamona—a blend of apple brandy and sweet cider that’s aged in oak barrels,” says Sarah Hoskins, the Tandem tasting room manager. She asks if I’ve been to Christmas Cove Farm. When I say no, she insists that I visit. “They have 240 types of antique apples,” she says. “It’s amazing.” That’s how it goes. I make a note to bring extra coolers next time I come this way.
Sometimes even Batali discovers a new edible, like the Mexican sour gherkins sold at Bare Knuckle Farm. The small scale operation is known for an assortment of heirloom tomatoes and array of squashes, such as blue hubbards, pink bananas and Marina di Chioggias; several types of sorghums; eggs with shells in natural hues of blue and green; and potato varieties including Red Norlan, Pink Fir and the purple speckled Austrian Crescent. Oh— and don’t forget the purple carrots.
“They are so unique,” Batali says about Bare Knuckle’s gherkins. “I’d never had them before. I toss them in rice wine with dill, basil and kosher salt and let them sit for a while. They have a crunch like caper berries.”
He pauses as he contemplates all these culinary delights and then adds: “People from New York sometimes wonder what we eat here, but I tell them this is no culinary wasteland. This is wonderful and real food.”
This article originally appeared in the 2016 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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