It’s often said that learning through experience is the best way to acquire a new skill. Achieving proficiency as a chef under the mentorship of an expert is but one example. For almost a decade, this time-honored concept has been alive and well in the Upper Peninsula community of Hessel at the Les Cheneaux Culinary School. Hessel, and its sister town, Cedarville, are the mainland anchors of the Les Cheneaux community (loosely translated from the French as “the channels”), an archipelago of 36 islands hugging the Lake Huron shore about 30 miles east of the Mackinac Bridge. Emerging as a summer colony during the late 19th century, the community’s early residents included wealthy industrialists from Detroit and Chicago, but also from points as distant as Cincinnati, Akron, and St. Louis.
Today, many of their descendants maintain homes in the area. Although not as well known as the Petoskey-Harbor Springs area, Les Cheneaux exists as an equally upscale northern destination. The idyllic location gave rise to a strong nautical tradition, evidenced today by the numerous marine engine shops, the Great Lakes Boat Building School, and the annual Antique Wooden Boat Show. While the year-round population is small, the number increases threefold with an annual influx of summer residents.
To serve the community, various eating establishments have come and gone, no doubt due to the area’s seasonal nature. While informal restaurants can weather these fluctuations, finer dining requires a full-time (and costly) commitment to quality.
In 2011, longtime resident Bonnie Mikkelsen sensed the community’s desire for a quality yearround restaurant, while also noting that most of the young people in Les Cheneaux were leaving once they finished school. “We were rapidly becoming a retirement community,” she says.
She approached the owners of the Hessel Bay Inn, which operated only during the summer, with a proposal to lease the building during the winter to offer informal cooking classes. The owners declined, as they were near retirement.
But this proved only a temporary setback. Not to be deterred, Mikkelsen and other residents, inspired by the success of the Great Lakes Boat Building School in Cedarville, considered the possibility of establishing a professional culinary school. Like its boat building counterpart, the new institution would offer instruction using the apprenticeship model. Hands-on instruction would be offered for nine months, followed by a three-month summer internship, during which the school would operate as a restaurant, allowing students to test their new skills. The idea behind the Les Cheneaux Culinary School was born.
In November 2013, a group of investors formed an LLC and acquired the then-vacant Hessel Bay Inn, which was thoroughly renovated.
The next step was to hire an executive director. After an extensive search, former UP resident Zach Schroeder was hired in early 2014. A native of St. Ignace, Schroeder had been working in the Detroit area as the food and beverage manager at a South Lyon golf club. Schroeder enthusiastically embraced the vision set by the founders. He points out that the apprenticeship model makes good economic sense. “Food is getting more expensive, and in a traditional culinary education program, these increased costs force tuition up. A solution is to offset the costs by selling the food in a restaurant setting.” This model has long been the norm in Europe, but has only recently emerged in the U.S.
A typical year’s enrollment ranges from six to 12 students, but Schroeder explains that 16 is the capacity. He describes the program as “intensive.” Students are in class or in the kitchen 32 hours per week and are also assigned homework. The program acclimates learners to all aspects of food preparation, including prep, grilling, sauteing, salads, and desserts. During the busy summer season, Schroeder supervises kitchen operations while students gain practical experience in each of these areas. The program also includes principles of food service management and food storage. At graduation, students are awarded a Culinary Arts Chef Certificate.
“One of the main objectives of the program is to supply the local workforce with skilled employees,” Schroeder says. “To achieve that, we designed a program that is quick but intensive. That way we can efficiently train our students while also minimizing student debt.”
While a separate waitstaff is hired for the summer months, students are also exposed to “front of the house” functions, with a priority placed on customer service.
The restaurant at LCCS prioritizes sustainability, a cornerstone of the farm-to-table concept, where ingredients are locally sourced items currently in season. To support this, the school has relationships with area farms, dairies, and other purveyors to obtain meat, poultry, eggs, baked goods, and produce. They even have a source for Upper Peninsula maple syrup.
Farm-to-table also determines how the menu is composed. “A menu is a fully developed single idea,” Schroeder says. “Our menu design is built around products that are coming in. Most restaurants design their menu and order food; we do it the opposite way. We find a product a local farm is offering, and then we build a menu item around it.”
Each year’s menu is composed using this method and features an array of mouthwatering options that are sophisticated yet not pretentious. Recent examples include za’atar roasted chicken thighs, a blackened whitefish sandwich, and a house milled country loaf with garlic and herb oil. The menu frequently changes throughout a summer season and is posted daily on the school’s Facebook page.
Local sourcing accounts for almost two-thirds of the needed ingredients and is but one of LCCS’s sustainability initiatives. The school also works to generate as little trash as possible, and the amount that is produced is composted and offered to local farms for soil.
Although the restaurant is normally closed during the off-season, it does hold occasional special events, such as the recent Snowsfest Dinner in February. Guests were treated to poached sunchoke with lobster cream, seared duck with glazed shallot, and a Chocolate Trio (tart, macaron, and mousse) for dessert. A Cinco de Mayo event was planned for the spring, and opening day is slated for June 17 (it closes after Labor Day).
LCCS also offers catering services and is often hired to provide food for weddings at the nearby Hessel School House. The school’s online newsletter, Beyond the Fork, which is on its website (lcculinary.org), features upcoming events, student profiles, and even a recipe or two.
Since LCCS has been operating, some alumni have continued their education to earn degrees in hospitality management and some have gone straight into food service jobs. “We’ve seen students graduate and go on to start their own catering companies, while others have gone to work at establishments in the Petoskey-Harbor Springs area, plus some of the higher-profile restaurants in the Detroit area,” Schroeder says. “One person even went to New York and landed a position at a Michelin five-star restaurant.”
That alum is Nic Ross, a sous chef at Wright & Co. in Detroit, who landed a job at Greenwich Village hot spot Minetta Tavern after his 2019 graduation. He says he found the school’s size a benefit. “It’s easy to focus and learn more than just the basics. After graduating, you don’t have to be just a line cook. You can become a baker, a butcher, or even work in food sales.”
As far as the school’s goal to infuse the region with talented youth, some graduates have found jobs in the Upper Peninsula, and one, Spencer Hoffmann, is hyperlocal: He is an instructor at the school.
This story is from the May 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more stories in our digital edition.