Michigan: Edible Grande Traverse Making Creativity Center of the Plate At Alliance Restaurant
story and photographs by Nicolas Theisen
People are talking about Alliance, and for good reason. This crew is not sitting on their haunches; they sweat like Hammer on the dance floor: in the kitchen early, in the kitchen late, noses in a cookbook when not in the kitchen–hungry for creativity, hustling.
At their core, both Pete Peterson and James Bloomfield are country boys raised on meat and potatoes. Peterson has the sandy look of a man of the plains: golden like a wheat field; a North Dakota boy. Bloomfield is light, quiet and bright like a birch tree; a son of Michigan’s north woods.
Peterson and Bloomfield are united by a common love of food. They have partnered at a pivotal moment in Traverse City’s culinary blossoming to create Alliance, a vegetable-forward restaurant where light and rich meld and green beans satisfy like beef stew. This menu is making mute men holler in delight and tough guys fight over the last beet.
Harlan “Pete” Peterson is known for his well-loved and long-lived restaurant Tapawingo, in Ellsworth, Michigan. A Midwestern culinary legend, Peterson and Tapawingo received accolades from across the nation including multiple James Beard Award nominations and features in Bon Appétit, Gourmet and The New York Times.
Prior to his 25 years at Tapawingo, Peterson was a car designer for Ford Motor Co., calling his job, “for the time, pretty exotic by any standards.” In 1976, a decade into working with Ford, Pete was thumbing through a Time magazine when he came across a one-column article about a weeklong culinary school, LaVarenne in Paris, that Julia Child was involved with. He went to Paris, his eyes were opened and his career shifted gears.
After closing Tapawingo in 2009, Peterson never planned to open another restaurant. He says that he was so taken by Bloomfield’s particular culinary skill, style and drive that he recognized this was something special, something to nurture and to keep in Traverse City.
Peterson is funny, quick to smile and a host of hosts. He runs the front of the house at Alliance with style and detail. But the real story here is summed up in Peterson’s words: “James is the reason for Alliance. He is why I am here. He is pushing flavors and textures with more sophistication than we ever did at Tapawingo.”
Bloomfield is confident, but like anyone pushing their art, he also has an internal dialogue of self questioning. This is often what makes someone good–the confidence to move forward but enough doubt to continuously strive. At 28, time is on his side. Paul Carlson, formerly of 9 Bean Rows Restaurant in Suttons Bay [north of Traverse City in Leelanau County] called him, in the most endearing manner possible, “a cocky kid.” Carlson’s tone implied admiration and mutual respect–just a gentle jab to keep him on his toes. Carlson followed it up by saying that he thinks Alliance will change the face of food in Traverse City.
Bloomfield cut his culinary teeth at The Great Lakes Culinary Arts Institute and area eateries including Trattoria Stella, Lulu’s Bistro and WINTER. He also spent time in Austin, Texas, working at the critically acclaimed Qui. “They were the pros, the next level,” Bloomfield recalls. Their attention to details, the cleanliness of the kitchen, the skills of the kitchen staff and, most importantly, the quality of ingredients set Qui apart. This is the level Bloomfield aspires to.
For every ounce of confidence Bloomfield has two ounces of sweetness. He is pensive, quiet and charming. From Lake City, Michigan, he recalls his family eating together on a nightly basis. This had a large impact on him and instilled the importance of sitting together to eat: a time to be together, to be grateful, to talk. Bloomfield’s grandmother lived down the road from his childhood home. “My grandma was a crazy good cook, Hungarian by heritage. Her spaghetti was a special occasion dish, an all-day sauce, the real deal Old World cooking.” Bloomfield would save his appetite all day, “even as an 8-year-old I could tell how important this food was.”
On a Monday morning in late September, the kitchen crew at Alliance is quietly working. It is calm and inviting in the early autumn light. Occasionally Becca Snook or Christian Geoghegan spoons something into Bloomfield’s mouth, and he responds “still more lime” or “salt.” White subway-tiled walls, a wooden bar, copper accents and a concrete floor; the kitchen is clean, bright and small. Geoghegan is bent close to the cutting board prepping kohlrabi, sliced and neatly stacked. Raw chicken is being cubed for curry, cilantro stems are finely chopped, blue potatoes are boiling, a bowl of roasted pork is next to the range, empanadas are piled high on a baking sheet and Bloomfield is processing hard bread into crumbs.
Bloomfield says that Snook and Geoghegan played a key role in him deciding to stay in Traverse City and to open Alliance, calling them solid, reliable, committed and skilled. These three make up the kitchen crew; they are the team cranking out all of the food at this ever-full hot spot in town.
If Alliance has a soundtrack it is the new wave of idiosyncratic pop R&B, played loudly while they chop, julienne and brunoise every fruit and vegetable that Northern Michigan can grow. Occasionally Bloomfield sings along and a little piece of his heart sneaks into the food. Some of the most important ingredients are invisible: These three have skills, but they also have heart and they lay it out on each plate.
It feels good to eat at Alliance. The space is tight and cozy, sometimes loud, but celebratory. The menu is changed daily, based on what local growers have. The plates are designed for sharing. Bloomfield says, “From day one the goal at Alliance has not been to only change what people eat, but to change the way they eat–put their phones away and dissect the dishes out of wonder and excitement of the new flavors. I want talk about food at the table. The food is the focus.”
Handsomely clad staff serve with a smile, seemingly proud to be a part of such good honest food. Something is happening in food right now, a notable change, in the history of gastronomy we have entered the Vegetable Era and from L.A. to Copenhagen, Bar Tartine to Noma, Bloomfield has his finger on the pulse.
Bloomfield says one of the primary draws for him to this area is the quality of the produce. “I have never worked with better produce than what we have in Northern Michigan.” Alliance is vegetable centric, though not vegetarian. Bloomfield is attracted to vegetables because of the huge variety, and the change from season to season.
“Chicken tastes like chicken; vegetables vary. I don’t want consistency; I want quality, natural variability. The beauty lies in the improvisation of it all.” At any given time a huge variety of vegetables are featured on the menu, from the Thai Salad of kohlrabi, apples and peanuts; to Roasted Beets with orange, Thai basil and creme fraîche; to Grilled Kale with mole, queso fresco and tomatillos. Alliance will make vegetable snubbers ask their mothers to forgive their picky pasts.
Alliance Restaurant FoodForAlliance.com 144 Hall St., No. 107 Traverse City, MI 231-642-5545 Open Tuesday–Saturday at 5 PM
Nicolas Theisen is a farmer, writer and photographer in Leelanau County. He owns and operates Loma Farm, which grows vegetables for a CSA, farmers’ markets, grocers and restaurants (including Alliance).
This article is reprinted, with permission, from the Holiday 2016 issue of Edible Grande Traverse.
If you go . . .
A trip “Up North” to Michigan wouldn’t be complete without the travel companion of Edible Grande Traverse.
For up-to-date information on regional food and drink, you can find them on Facebook or go to ediblegrandetraverse.com and click on the “Our Advertisers” tab for ideas.
While you are there, consider visiting these establishments from the pages of Edible Grande Traverse:
Taproot Cider House 300 E. Front St., Traverse City, MI
Tuscan Bistro 12930 S. West Bay Shore Dr., Traverse City, MI
Chateau de Leelanau 5048 S. West Bayshore Dr., Suttons Bay, MI
Hillside Homestead Historic Farmstay 3400 Setterbo Rd., Suttons Bay, MI