Tapawingo Turns 20

Harlan “Pete” Peterson and his small but mighty crew have put the hamlet of Ellsworth, Michigan, on the nation’s foodie map. Can the state’s most celebrated restaurant keep the party going?

Dan Flynn and Edward “Fritz” Girrbach stand a foot apart, heads bent over a wood-topped stainless-steel counter in the main kitchen at Tapawingo. An exhaust fan drones behind them, neat piles of colorful vegetables lie before them, and their razor-sharp chef’s knives are slicing away with surgical precision.

Deep into the preparation of a duck confit terrine with a foie gras mousse for a party of 18 that’s showing up this evening, Flynn lines up a row of slender chives, and with the tip of his knife, makes a swift backward cut, releasing a fresh, pungent aroma. Each succeeding cut is exactly the same.

Girrbach mimics Flynn’s labor-intensive detail with a red bell pepper: Lining it up, slashing backward with the tip, turning it around, lining it up, chopping forward with the blade, producing uniform crimson squares.

The work is repetitive but not the least bit robotic; no machine could duplicate their practiced hands. In the end, each bit of chive, each piece of pepper will be an identical 1⁄16-inch square. If not, it won’t make it onto the plate, because every plate that leaves the kitchen at Tapawingo must be a work of art.

Across the way, Grady Larson is sending dough through a pasta maker for the fifth time, finally achieving the correct thinness for the rabbit-dumpling appetizer he’s assembling. In another corner of the stainless-steel-clad kitchen, Nick Niedzielski stands with a pan full of lustrous red onions.

“Always rub them down with oil and roast them in a 400-degree oven until they start to crumple up a bit, then deglaze them with balsamic vinegar and put them back until they’re nice and wilted,” he advises.

Down the hall in the pastry kitchen, Pete Peterson is assembling a luscious, fluffy lemon dessert made with paperthin pistachio-flecked tuile pastry, a raspberry coulis sauce, just-cranked ice cream and a side of handmade dark chocolates from molds shaped like tiny bundt cakes and large diamonds. With all the enthusiasm of a man half his age, 61-year-old Peterson, restaurant founder, humble good guy and chef extraordinaire, is still in the kitchen, loving every minute of it.

This article first appeared in the May 2004 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Click the link below to view the entire article in PDF format.

Click to download: 0504_Tapawingo_web.pdf