Then-President Bill Clinton greets former White House Chef Walter Scheib. (Ralph Alswang)
A Taste of Traverse City may be a newbie on the epicurean map, but the three-day event is on its way to becoming a national destination for foodies.
At least that’s the hope of Carol Lewis, the brainchild behind the occasion, which marks it second run this weekend. She sees a Taste of Traverse City drawing comparisons with the popular Aspen Food & Wine Festival or the Scottsdale Culinary Festival.
“This is a foodie town, and I realized there was no place to showcase it,” says Lewis, an event planner. “There is so much you can offer here. It’s not just Traverse City, but the region. Traverse City is just the perfect spot to have it. Who doesn’t want an excuse to come to Traverse City?”
With a landscape rich in orchards, vineyards and farms — not to mention a growing number of craft breweries, distilleries and niche producers of jam, cheese and other fare — Traverse City and northwest Michigan are as much a foodie haven as say,Austin, Texas, or Burlington, Vermont.
Last year’s inaugural festival drew about 3,500 people from 22 states and Ontario, and organizers are expecting bigger crowds this year. The headliner is Walter Scheib, a former White House executive chef under the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Saturday evening, Scheib will be a guest speaker at the White House Dinner — he planned the menu with courses inspired by the former first families.
“I want something Michigan can be proud of,” Lewis says. “This hopefully will be a stop on the epicurean tour for people who like to travel to these kinds of events.”
The weekend is filled with culinary activities. A Grub Crawl Friday night offers food and drink samples at 20 downtown restaurants and stores. Participating retailers are connecting with a winery or a chef to provide fare. “The Best of Brunch” Sunday has chefs, catering companies and restaurants cooking to win “favorite” breakfast station honors. Grand Traverse Distillery and Northern Latitudes Distillery compete to create the best Bloody Mary.
The signature event Saturday, a Taste of Traverse City, features chef demonstrations, cooking seminars, entertainment and culinary, beer, wine and spirits, and retail pavilions, on the grounds of the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa. Among the activities is Dining in the Dark, in which participants will be blindfolded while they dine and sip wine. The menu is a secret.
“It’s a sensory-driven experience,” Lewis says. “We’re trying to give a real foodie experience. Once you shut off one sense, it heightens others. I think everyone will walk way intrigued by the experience.”
The same could be said about Saturday’s White House Dinner. Scheib, who is also an “Iron Chef” winner, is expected to regale diners with stories and anecdotes from his 11 years as chef at the nation’s executive mansion.
“The dinner is really an opportunity to experience White House food and hear about the dining experiences of the two families,” Scheib says. “(The audience can) ask questions and hear what it was like to work in the White House from a professional and personal standpoint. The more alcohol people have, the more amusing and inappropriate the questions become. ... It’s intended to be a fun, light evening.”
Americans are often surprised to learn that the menu at the White House didn’t run along political lines, but gender ones. Both former presidents Clinton and Bush would have been content with a hamburger or rib joint in the mansion basement; it was the first ladies who took an active role in menu planning.
“In the end, it’s a private home, not a hotel or a restaurant, and Mama has to be happy,” he says. “The first ladies were intrinsically involved.”
During the meal, Scheib will share stories behind each course. For example, the first course, red curried sweet potato soup, was inspired by Chelsea Clinton. By the time Chelsea was a high school senior, she had become a vegetarian, and the White House culinary staff created a vegetarian menu for her. Scheib also spent the summer teaching Chelsea beginning and intermediary vegetarian cooking.
The entree, a glazed smoked Angus tenderloin with warm fruit salsa and chipotle-corn sauce, embraces the meat-eating habits of both families. “Neither family likes seafood or shellfish,” Scheib said.
“Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Bush were very similar, but there was one big difference: At the Clinton White House, the go-to protein was lamb. For the Bushes, being from Texas, it was beef,” he recalls.
And dessert, peach and blackberry cobbler with honey and lavender ice cream, is a spin on the favorites of Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush. Clinton was a cobbler fan, and Bush liked ice cream.
As much as possible, the White House dinner will include locally grown produce and other ingredients
“This is the best time of the year for food. You have the end of summer crops and the early fall crops,” says Scheib, who has landed in transit in Traverse City a number of times but has never been able to experience the Cherry Capital, something he’s looking forward to. “The purpose, too, is to come up there and highlight the great products that are available.”
Taste of Traverse City
Events held downtown Traverse City and Grand Traverse Resort and Spa
$45-$85 per event
White House Dinner
Grand Traverse Resort and Spa
6:30 p.m. Saturday