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New chef at the Grand Hotel for the first time nearly 30 years

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

            Early in the spring, while hiking with his miniature English bull terrier at a nature center outside Lansing during Michigan’s stay-at-home orders, Michael Cerrie was overwhelmed by the aroma of fresh garlic and green onions permeating the chilly air of the still-awakening forest.

            “I couldn’t figure out what it was,” recalls Cerrie, who has a passion for hiking, and, as a chef, a penchant for cooking with foraged foods. “I wondered if it was wild onions or wild leeks, and then I noticed the entire forest floor was covered with ramps. I had never seen anything like it, and I hike a lot. I thought, ‘Here’s a welcome to Michigan and look at the bounty the state has to offer.”

            It’s a bounty Cerrie, the new executive chef at the Grand Hotel, is incorporating into the venerable hotel’s menu, as well as the iconic Mackinac Island resort’s other restaurants. As executive chef, Cerrie is responsible for menu planning and food preparation for all Grand Hotel restaurants: the Main Dining Room, The Jockey Club at the Grand Stand, Woods Restaurant, The Gate House, Sushi Grand, and Fort Mackinac Tea Room.

“The biggest thing I’ve noticed about Michigan -- and I’m new to Michigan -- is the abundance of farms and ranches and different artisans making everything from jam to cheese,” says Cerrie, who grew up on the shores of another Great Lake, Lake Erie, in Pennsylvania. “That is a way I see the menu changing, looking at what the Grand has done for over 130 years -- and they’ve done it quite well, at a high level -- and how to incorporate more Michigan into it.”

Michael Cerrie,  new executive chef of the Grand Hotel

Cerrie, 39, replaces Hans Burtscher, who was appointed the Grand’s executive chef in 1991. Burtscher joined the Grand Hotel in 1983 as Chef Tournant and worked his way up to sous chef. Trained in Austria, Burtscher had previously worked in Spain and Switzerland and also for Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys and Grand Cypress Hotel in Orlando, Florida.

No reason was given for the change in culinary leadership after nearly 30 years. Previously privately owned, the Grand Hotel was sold last fall to Denver-based KSL Capital Partners, which focuses on travel and leisure companies. The 397-room hotel, which opened in the summer of 1887, is being operated by the company’s Pivot Hotels & Resorts. The Grand had been owned and operated by the Musser family for decades. Former hotel president, Dan Musser III remains as hotel chairman.

With his long history of culinary success and numerous awards, Cerrie was an easy addition to make to the Grand Hotel team, says Doug Dean, executive vice president of operations at the Grand Hotel. His honors include induction as Chef Rotisseur into the Chaine des Rotisseurs, the world's oldest international gastronomic society, in 2013. 

"Chef Michael stands out as a leader in his field, continually fostering an environment of professional development and growth among the culinary team he leads, and enjoys the challenge and responsibility of working at an iconic destination like Grand Hotel," Dean says. "This season’s visitors will also appreciate Chef Michael’s charisma, as he often enjoys engaging with guests to make for an interactive dining experience. We are delighted to have Chef Michael continue our legacy and pay homage to the history of Grand Hotel while elevating the dining experience for our guests.”

Cerrie, who trained at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh and has more than 25 years of culinary experience, most recently served as executive chef for a hotel management company, helping open and run hotel restaurants across the country, including the Aloft and Element Austin Downtown in Texas. His resume also includes stints at The Erie Club and Erie’s acclaimed Bayfront Grill, part of the same company.

“I think my career has been fairly diverse,” says Cerrie, who has refined his Mediterranean, Caribbean and Asian food techniques while working abroad and in the United States. “I’ve traveled all over the country and my culinary studies, learning the craft, have taken me all over the country and to other countries. It’s all helped me prepare for where I am now.”

Grand Hotel outdoor dining 2020

It’s that vast, diverse experience, from working in fine-dining venues to counter service and research and management, he says, that enticed him to his new role at the Grand Hotel.

“My entire career built up to this,” he says. “The Grand Hotel for me is the next step, the next challenge, and I’m proud to be back in the Great Lakes.”

At the Grand Hotel, Cerrie manages a kitchen staff of more than 200 employees who prepare and serve as many as 4,000 meals every day in a typical season. Working for a hotel that is open just six months of the year presents some unusual challenges, including training a new staff each season. Maintaining a supply of fresh produce is also tricky on an island that does not allow motorized vehicles and can only be accessed by ferry boat.

The Grand Hotel, Cerrie says, has traditionally used some Michigan-made and grown food products, including whitefish from St. Ignace, across the Straits, for example. Cerrie is already building upon that, expanding the selection from Michigan and the region.

“I’m excited to work with Michigan’s bounties from the land and from the water, from farms and from artisans,” he says. “I’m excited to partner with some of them and incorporate a lot of products in the Grand’s menu and showcase Michigan at the Grand.”

            Recently, Cerrie was visited by an Amish man from north central Michigan who was promoting his wife’s homemade jam. She makes 16 flavors, including peach, cherry, an assortment of berries, and produces honey as well. The man had Cerrie shine a flashlight under the jam to see how thick it was.

            “You couldn’t see through it. He was really proud of the jam. He was proud his wife didn’t put water into making the jam,” Cerrie recalls, adding the jams from Chupp Family Kitchen are already being used in the hotel’s iconic Main Dining Room.

            While Cerrie is passionate about Michigan’s diverse food products, he’s also impressed with the menus already in place at the resort’s restaurants and doesn’t foresee dramatic changes. Throughout the Grand Hotel’s history, meals in the Main Dining Room, which overlooks the Straits of Mackinac, have been one the highlights of guest experiences.

            Standout menu items include Burgundy escargot and Parmesan-herb crusted Michigan whitefish on dinner menus at the Main Dining Room, the Hungarian beef goulash and thyme butter spatzle at the Woods Restaurant, and the grilled Spanish octopus at the Jockey Club at the Grand Stand.

Sitting room at the Grand Hotel

            “Those outlets are similar but offer different experiences for all guests,” says Cerrie, who has been on the job for about five months. “It’s too soon for me to talk about any changes. We need to step back and evaluate and see what might work. Dining here is such an iconic experience, no matter which restaurant. I don’t really see a need to change any of them.”

One piece de resistance that is definitely not going to change is the hotel’s famous Grand Pecan Ball, its most popular dessert, available in each restaurant and gift shop. More than 60,000 pecan balls are consumed each season.

“I think it’s almost an institutional item, and I mean that in the most positive way,” he says. “It’s the quintessential Grand Hotel dessert, instantly recognizable by hotel guests. I don’t foresee that coming off the menu.”

            Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.