BLACK STAR FARMS
Harvest Dinners don’t get any fresher
BY PATTY LANOUE-STEARNS
Photos by Gary L. Howe
If you tried to imagine a more bucolic setting in Northern Michigan, you’d be hard-pressed to match Leelanau County’s rolling 160 acres known as Black Star Farms.
But don’t let its placid first impression fool you: Beyond the beckoning red and white barns, equestrian center, stately white-columned bed-and-breakfast inn and timber-framed tasting room is a real working farm. Between the orchards, gardens, livestock, vineyards, creamery, winery and distillery, this half-square-mile agritourism retreat is a hive of activity and the picture of sustainability—a model straight out of a couple of centuries ago, and right in the vanguard today.
So it’s no surprise that Jon Dayton loves coming to work, even if that means 18-hour days when the season is high. As Black Star’s executive chef, it is Dayton’s job to turn all that grows and is created here into gustatory works of art.
For a guy who fell into this line of work, toiling as a dishwasher at Sweitzer’s by the Bay (now Harrington’s) while still in high school, this is a dream job, even though graphic—not culinary—arts was his first dream. The 1988 Traverse City Central High graduate worked his way through the kitchens of local eateries while attending Northwestern Michigan College, but once he earned his degree Dayton discovered that good-paying graphics jobs were rare up north.
Fortunately, as he advanced in the culinary world from dirty dishes to prep cook to line cook, his artistic side was spilling onto the plates, and his passions were fueled by the hands-on training that only trial by fire can spark.
After Sweitzer’s, Dayton moved around a number of Traverse City restaurants, from the Grand Traverse Resort to Dill’s (now the Blue Tractor), then Poppycock’s, the Boathouse, the Leland Lodge in Leland, and he even opened the Mars Café in the space on Front Street now occupied by the Green House Café. He landed down the street at Amical Bistro, where he spent five years cooking and as day manager. He also helped open The House Café, now Slabtown Burgers.
I’ve worked on the line for a long time—since ‘86,” Dayton notes, adding that his feet still feel fine after all those years standing on the job.
STARTING WITH BREAKFAST
When the Black Star opportunity came knocking in 2008, starting as the inn’s breakfast chef, Dayton jumped.
“The culinary world has exploded up here since then,” he says. “With the continuing expansion of the wine industry, food is right along with it. Just like it happened in California.”
His responsibilities have exploded, too. The first year, he recalls, “I took care of the animals and did a lot of shoveling.” Today, he oversees on-premises catering for weddings and other gatherings such as the annual Wine Club BBQ, Chamber Music North concerts and the monthly five-course, wine- and spirits-paired Harvest Dinners May through October.
Weekend dinners run year-round, Thursday through Saturday, for guests as well as the public. Dayton hopes to offer hands-on cooking classes this winter. \ Offsite, events like the Suttons Bay Wine and Blues Fest and Paella in the Park at Clinch Park in Traverse City keep him busy. Then there are the Black Star Tasting Rooms, one on Old Mission Peninsula, the other (called Tastes of Black Star Farms) at Traverse City’s Building 50 on the former state hospital grounds.
Dayton also oversees Black Star’s seasonal Hearth & Vine Café, which offers wood-fired pizzas, small plates, sandwiches and desserts. Black Star’s animal pens—chickens, ducks, lambs, woolly Mangalitsa pigs—serve as a family attraction and, when they mature, a source of well-tended protein for Dayton’s entrees and charcuterie, a skill he learned at the culinary event PigstockTC (which runs October 22–24 this year), and by experimentation in his own kitchen.
BIG BAD WOLF
Dressed in modern chef garb—brimmed cap, black coat, khaki shorts and Keen clogs—Dayton presides over Black Star’s brick-walled kitchen and semi-commercial Wolf stove on the main floor of the opulent inn, formerly an over-the-top home built by the late local restaurateur Barry Boone.
“It’s incredible the amount of food we cook on that stove,” Dayton says of his six-burner Wolf with the charcoal grill and two ovens—small for a restaurant, but fine for his needs.
The adjacent dining room, with a bar, ceiling beams and porch seating just outside, is where guests are treated to exquisite breakfasts that they would never fix for themselves—say, eggs roulade with smoked mozzarella, rimmed with asparagus or zucchini and prosciutto, served with a fresh pastry from the bakery.
As for dinners, Dayton shoots from the hip, a style of cooking he embraces because he uses whatever is in season, which allows his creativity to soar.
“I don’t have the restriction of having a set menu—it’s always different. I never get bored.” For inspiration, he’s a devotee of cable TV’s Cooking Channel and seeks out recipes in cookbooks and the web. In his spare time, he dines at local restaurants like the Riverside Inn in Leland, Blu in Glen Arbor, Cooks’ House and Trattoria Stella in Traverse City, to name a few.
On a tour of the grounds, Dayton points to the horse show that has brought a crowd this morning, and as we walk over to the Hearth & Vine, Don Coe, co-owner of Black Star and a state agriculture commissioner, invites us to share the Margherita pizza with sausage he just ordered.
Sitting on the patio, Coe talks about the CSA gardens and hoop house to our left, tended by Nic Welty of 9 Bean Rows Farm. The gardens provide the produce sold from Hearth & Vine’s shelves, along with baked goods from the bakery in the back of the cafe. Nic and his wife Jen also own and operate 9 Bean Rows Café in Traverse City, where Jen’s bread, croissants and killer coffee delight the downtown crowd.
“9 Bean Rows is the poster child for what we want here,” says Coe, who won the annual Milliken Award from the Michigan Land Use Institute the night before. Tonight, like so many other nights this season, Coe will be out at an event, pouring his array of wines, which, too, have racked up countless awards.
The week before, Black Star and several Leelanau Peninsula wineries hosted the American Society for Enology and Viticulture Eastern Section’s 37th annual conference and symposium, which brought attendees from the United States and several European countries for tours and tastings of local still and sparkling wines.
As for Dayton, until high season ends, he knows his work is already cut out for him. Nonstop. And he loves every minute of it.
“The creamery, the gardens, the wines—nobody touches what we can do here. I’m fortunate to be here right now—the growth, the vibe—it’s the perfect outlet for my artistic side.”
Black Star Farms’ Harvest Dinner Series includes a five-course seasonal menu from the farm and other local area providers. Cost is $75 per person. September 12 will feature tomatoes and basil; October 10, apples and squash. Reservations: 231-944-1251. The resort is located off M22 at 10844 E. Revold Rd., Suttons Bay.
Longtime food and restaurant critic Patty LaNoue Stearns writes about food and restaurants from Traverse City; visit her website at PattyWrites.com.