STEVE HENDERSHOT: This is a miniature episode of Cedar Cathedral, an experimental offshoot of our 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.

In May we hosted the first Cedar Cathedral meetup at Long Road Distillers in Grand Rapids, just a couple of days after Long Road was named one of the top new distilleries in the world by TimeOut, and just a few days before Long Road’s gin won double-gold in a global blind-tasting competition. Our panel discussion focused on the West Michigan culinary scene, but really there are broader implications for the Great Lakes creative community such as how can different elements of a community — in this case growers, chefs, craft manufacturers and patrons — collaborate to make something great, something bigger than they might achieve on their own. 

CLARE HENDERSHOT: West Michigan has a pretty special combination going here — in terms of farming, this is one of just a couple places in the country with a unique agricultural profile that lends itself to fruits like grapes and blueberries. One of our panelists, Josh Usadel from Downtown Market, explains.

JOSH USADEL: No offense to Wisconsin we live on the good side because you get the wind coming this way. We’ve got apple orchards, there’s some things that are unique like sandy soil, sandy acidic soil for blueberries you know lake shore effect for apples, not only are there things that are super special just to West Michigan, but we can still grow everything.

SH: So the climate is one advantage. Then, thanks to superstar breweries like Founders and Bell's, there’s a track record of big-time success in craft manufacturing. Here’s Jon O’Connor from Long Road, who does not take for granted that there’s a local audience that appreciates premium, locally made spirits. 

JON O’CONNOR: I credit beer constantly because seemingly everybody in West Michigan is a beer snob of one variety or another and as an expert on your IPA and if it doesn’t taste right they’ll tell you and so I think that’s a good thing. The people really want to know not only where their beer ingredients or their food ingredients come from but then if you’re going to do it here I think there’s an expectation in West Michigan, or Michigan as a whole, that if you’re going to make beer you better do a damn good job of it because there’s some people that set the bar pretty high. And so we’ve really tried to bring that same approach to what we do at the distillery. We can A) make really topnotch world class stuff here in West Michigan and then B) just I want you to be an educated consumer.

CH: And the high profile of the farm-to-table movement has helped chefs build restaurants and fans bases around these regional ingredients, along with a culinary culture that’s sophisticated enough to allow the chefs to be farm-friendly. Here’s Chef Patrick Conrade from The Sovengard

PATRICK CONRADE: Our main focus is to use those seasonal products when they’re in season and not source things outside of that time period. We’re going to create a menu that’s more product driven than menu idea driven. You’re working with what the farmer can sustainably produce during his grow season and if half the crop doesn’t turn out or he needs the other half of the crop to send down to the folk street farmers market you know it’s not any problem for us to step back and say ok we’ll just take what we’re allotted; we’ll make use of that and continue on from there.

SH: All that interaction and cooperation has yielded an emerging, multi-dimensional culinary community whose distinctive flavors are a direct result of collaboration. Here’s Long Road’s Jon O’Connor describing how his vodka is uniquely West Michigan. 

JO: Where we’re located we’re so close to literally 96% of the stuff we need to make spirits, whether that’s grain based spirits or fruit based spirits. You know I have all my grain is literally sourced or grown within 15 miles of the city except for a little bit of barley - barley grows better along the lake shore with the cooler climate. And then we’re just 3 miles from the fruit ridge one of the best fruit growing regions in the country so those are the things that we need to make great world class spirits and they’re just around the corner. We like to talk about some of our products having that west Michigan terroir and our vodka’s the perfect example - it’s 100% red winter wheat vodka, Danny Heffron grows it on the largest farmland preserved farm in Kent county. Then his wheat is really amazing stuff and so by not filtering our products to death we want to leave in - the Germans call it the geist it’s the ghost of the grain and so that wheat has that really subtle sweetness to it and it’s kind of vanilla and toffee and caramel flavors and you taste that in like say it’s the terroir of the grain almost. You know it was treated respectfully.

CH: It’s harder than you think, connecting restaurants and farmers and manufacturers in a way that makes sense for everyone. This interaction really depends on the help of a couple of intermediaries. Here’s Josh Usadel from Downtown Market:

JU: West Michigan FarmLink and West Michigan Growers Group have been really been doing a great job. FarmLink connecting farmer products straight to restaurants as opposed to like small individual farmers with their own CSA trying to hit up every little restaurant downtown. They can send it to FarmLink, FarmLink's got it available and then chefs at restaurants can get straight from FarmLink.

SH: One last point, which is how the theoretical limitations of working only with what’s local and in-season actually stimulate distinctiveness and creativity. For some reason, everyone wanted to illustrate that point with beets, so here’s Jon O’Connor and then Patrick Conrade. 

JO: We just had a drink on it with beet juice because beets from Visser Farms was one of the things we’ve been able to get consistently throughout the winter so the chef was making some pickle of some kind and when we took the remnants and juiced it and had a drink with beet juice in it because that was the freshest thing we could find.

PC: You know beets from one farm are going to taste different than the beets from another far that’s closer to the lake shore. The soil makes a huge difference — how they treat their plants; how they rotate their crops. For the farmers that have been doing this the whole time, it’s really great because you can really taste those differences in the items you know if you treat them respectfully and very simply it can be the best thing in the world.

SH: Whether you’re a foodie or not, there’s a creative lesson here: how your work can be enriched by pushing boundaries and making connections with overlapping disciplines, and pushing through even when there are some obstacles to working it all out. We can attest that in West Michigan, the results are delicious. 

CH: Thanks for listening to our mini episode. We’ll be back shortly with a regular episode that has nothing to do with food, but is very much a tale of Great Lakes creativity.