STEVE HENDERSHOT: This is Cedar Cathedral, a podcast about artistry, craftsmanship and the creative life in the Great Lakes. I’m Steve Hendershot, along with Clare Hendershot, from The Diving Bell, our band in Chicago.
It was shaping up to be a pretty chill Saturday night for Chef Patrick Conrade — certainly no sign of an impending life-and-death struggle. He had driven across Michigan from Grand Rapids to Bay City—in Mitten-speak, that’s the webbing of the thumb—to be with his wife’s family. After dinner he watched a movie on TV with his eight-year-daughter Marcella.
CLARE HENDERSHOT: This was two months ago, and life was good. Patrick had just been handed the keys to his new, dream restaurant in Grand Rapids, The Sovengard. It had makings of a hit, and of a perfect fit: great location, he was in sync with the owner, and the concept was exactly in line with his own vision and also had mass appeal.
SH: But as Patrick sat on the couch watching Tomorrowland with Marcella, he knew something was wrong. His heart was racing and he was short of breath. As soon his wife Liana walked in and saw him, it was decided. They were going to the E.R., right then, right there.
CH: Something was seriously wrong, even though the emergency-room doctors didn’t catch it that night.
SH: It was the following weekend, back in Grand Rapids, that everything came to a head. By then doctors had diagnosed a bunch of bad things happening near Patrick’s heart—an aneurism, a pulmonary embolism. They were talking about surgery, and then on Saturday …
PATRICK CONRADE: My body decided not to wait. The aneurysm ruptured and they did an emergency open heart surgery.
SH: Chef Patrick Conrade, age 43, was on the table for emergency open-heart surgery.
CH: On this episode of Cedar Cathedral, the story of Patrick Conrade, his heart, and his restaurant.
FLAT ON YOUR BACK
SH: There’s a lot of adrenaline in a restaurant kitchen. Pressure to deliver a product that’s perfect and consistent, plate after plate, service after service. Patrick Conrade has been an executive chef for a long time, first in the corporate kitchen at Steelcase and then for Grand Rapids restaurants Electric Cheetah and Old Goat. And while that title theoretically gives him the freedom to step back from the line, he’s chosen not to.
PC: I felt responsible that everything should be running smoothly and when things weren’t going well it kind of really reflected on me, you know, what am I doing wrong, what can I do to fix this? Going at 6 in the morning and not leaving till 11 o'clock at night when I knew everything was done. To the point of you know helping to mop the floor and take out the garbage.
SH: He was pulling 80-hour, 100-hour weeks, as a year-in, year-out routine. Constant stress. His heart issues caught him by surprise, but they’re not uncommon in the kitchen.
PC: There’s been a lot of concern in the restaurant industry, particularly in back-of-house, with chefs working themselves to the point that their bodies just give out.
SH: And of course, that’s essentially what happened to Patrick. Worse yet, he didn’t have health insurance. He and Liana had a new policy all ready to kick in on March first, a couple weeks too late. So as Patrick is recovering at Meijer Heart Center in Grand Rapids, well, you wanna talk about stress, now there’s reason to stress. Life and death. Medical bills. And then someone at the hospital starts talking to Liana about Patrick going on disability. And it starts to really sink in that the dream job at the Sovengard is in serious jeopardy.
PC: They weren’t sure how I was going to come through, and my wife’s like, ’No, that’s not really an option for him.’ I love to work. I love to cook. I love to feed people.
CH: Patrick does catch one break, here. The Sovengard should have been open by now—that was the plan—but as Patrick sits in the hospital, the restaurant is still waiting on various permits and licenses, which buys him some time. The owner comes by the hospital several times to visit Patrick, and eventually they talk about what’s on both of their minds: whether Patrick can still run the Sovengard’s kitchen.
PC: I think there was a level of concern if I was still invested in the project and if they were still invested in me. And we both agreed that, yeah, we still really wanted to do this. That, you know, my heart was 100 percent into it, and they still had faith in me, which was fantastic.
SH: Let’s talk about this restaurant, which even in the hospital still has a claim on Patrick’s mending heart. The Sovengard is just west of downtown Grand Rapids, in a neighborhood that’s close to the action but hasn’t really taken off, in part because it’s sort of walled off by the Grand River and a highway overpass. But in the last year, that’s started to change, and now the area is turning into a foodie destination. A gastropub called The Black Heron and the brewpub Harmony Hall opened last year, and this year The Sovengard will open right next to a new restaurant from a popular brewer, New Holland.
CH: So the Sovengard is in the middle of the action. It’s also part of a culinary trend, the Nordic Movement, which Patrick is translating to West Michigan. The Nordic Movement is about strictly limiting your menu to ingredients that are local and seasonal, like an obsessive version of farm to table. For Patrick, it’s less about Scandinavian flavors and more about that sourcing ethic, as well as some associated techniques like curing, smoking, pickling and fermenting. The standard-bearer for the movement is Noma, Chef Rene Redzepi’s restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark.
SH: It so happens that West Michigan, because of the rich and diverse farmland and farming culture, is a pretty good spot to try to replicate the Nordic formula. Patrick also wants to help define a cuisine that is specific to the region, and that includes foods that the area is famous for, like blueberries and craft beer, as well as other ingredients that are present but have been largely forgotten.
PC: A big part of what we’re hoping to do defining our regional cuisine is finding these items that have been here forever that people not necessarily are using and bringing them into the kitchen, finding ways to use them and introduce them back into our diet because some of these things are healthy and full of vitamins and important for your body.
SH: That includes foraging.
CH: Foraging is so cool.
PC: Foraging is going to be a huge part of what we do. Obviously mushrooms, that’s a big thing that’s coming in right now. Fiddle head ferns. Kind of the crazier greens like the stinging nettles, incorporating juniper tips. You know, we don’t have quite the variety that, like, Rene Redzepi pulls from for Noma, but there’s plenty of other things around here. It’ll be a learning experience for me as well, taking the team out to the lakeshore down by the rivers and just see what we can find.
A NEW APPROACH
SH: For now, with Patrick recovering and the restaurant still under construction, really the only way to eat a Patrick Conrade meal is to go to his house and interview him for your podcast and then beg him to fry you an egg, under the pretext that you need to record it. You know, for the audio.
CH: Out come all these amazing ingredients: homemade salts, pickled mustard seeds, and then cured egg yolk, which Patrick shaves onto an open-face egg sandwich.
PC: It’s just a punch of umami, so it’s really nice.
SH: It’s pretty great. In fact, I’m going to ask Clare to repeat something she said earlier, not for the podcast, but just because she felt this way.
CH: If he can turn an egg into something transcendent, I can’t wait to see what the Sovengard will be like.
SH: Patrick has pretty lofty ambitions on that score. He’s aspiring to serve his guests …
PC: … a beautiful plate of food that not only satisfies their soul and nourishes them, but makes them feel good about themselves, too.
SH: Patrick’s stress level, for the moment, is down. He’s feeling better, and realizing that there are positives to doctor’s orders never to lift boxes heavier than 40 pounds. His medical expenses are under control, thanks to a GoFundMe campaign started by a family friend. And he’s excited to get to work, excited about the team he’s assembling at the Sovengard. He’s excited to make food that’s local, seasonal and sustainable for farmers and chefs alike.
PC: The restaurant we’re building and the kitchen I want to build is going to be one where we value our employees to the point that we want them to have a healthy lifestyle, spend time with their family. That’s what I’m going to work with my staff on having them understand is not internalizing everything to the point that it makes you sick. Creating that atmosphere where you feel responsible and accountable for your job, but make the job in such a way that’s exciting and it’s fun and you’re learning everyday. It’s that burnout that I don’t want people to feel, because I know what that’s like.
CH: For more on Patrick Conrade and the Sovengard, visit cedarcathedral.com and also check out our Cedar Cathedral Instagram, where we’ll be sharing our photos of Patrick—and his egg sandwich.
SH: Our show, Cedar Cathedral, is by and for people pursuing the creative life in the Great Lakes. We’re grateful to all of you for listening, for reviewing us on iTunes and for spreading the word. There’s another part of this adventure that we’re just getting ready to unveil, and that’s gatherings for all our creative friends in cities like Grand Rapids, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis. The first of these to be officially on the books is in Grand Rapids, at Long Road Distillers, at 5:30pm on Friday, May 13, before The Diving Bell performs there that evening.
CH: We hope you can join us. There’s a page on our website, cedarcathedral.com/community, where we’ll post more information about that gathering and others to follow. If you have suggestions for these events, we’d love those as well.
BUFFALO GOSPEL: WAITING FOR THE LIGHTS TO GO OUT
SH: Now to music. Every episode, we introduce you to a great indie band from the Great Lakes, and today that group is Buffalo Gospel from Milwaukee. Clare found these guys first, but I am claiming them for my own. They’ve got several recordings, and this song, Waiting for the Lights to Go Out, is from a brand-new EP of the same name. This is sad, haunted twang done just right.
SH: Cedar Cathedral was produced this week by us — Clare and Steve Hendershot from The Diving Bell. Thanks to Patrick Conrade, and to Ryan Necci and Buffalo Gospel.
CH: See you in a couple weeks, when we’ll return with another tale of Great Lakes creativity.