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Pushing us past the ordinary: Five chefs who are changing the way we eat in Grand Rapids

Patrick Conrade, The Sovengard

From serving dishes in top-secret dining spots to carefully crafting globally-inspired meals with local ingredients, these Grand Rapids chefs are changing what we eat and how we eat it. They are redefining the traditional dining space and pushing us to think past the ordinary.
The culinary landscape of Grand Rapids is in a state of evolution. As the city grows and changes, so does the way residents interact with food and drink. Gone are the days when mom and pop headed out every Friday evening to the same restaurant for the same meal. Predictability in cuisine is dead, and a night on the town has become a self-directed research project (and a fun one at that). Half the enjoyment of a Friday evening in West Michigan is preparing for it; the dining experience is now a culinary experiment in the eyes of many. What new dish, new cocktail, new dessert is going to blow my mind? What am I going to discover tonight that’s different and innovative? 
 
Grand Rapidians have a hunger (pardon the pun) to not only enjoy what they are eating, but to understand where their food came from and feel more connected to their community based on their dining choice. Consumer wants have driven the evolution of dining in the area and have brought about a fresh take on food. While many chefs have answered this call, these five in particular are doing some truly amazing things. They are changing what we eat and how we eat it. They are redefining the traditional dining space and pushing us to think past the ordinary.
 
Food rooted in family
Cory Davis, Daddy Pete’s BBQ

Get your mouth ready for some Southern BBQ. Smoked low and slow, this barbecue is cooked over a wood fire and basted with house-made sauce. While traditional Northern barbecue is cooked hot and fast with direct heat, time is the friend of this Southern-style meat. Now imagine getting fresh brisket smoked for 16 hours or chicken cooked over a rotisserie spit...from a truck.
 
Location is flexible for Cory Davis, owner of Daddy Pete’s BBQ, one of the first food trucks to hit the streets of Grand Rapids. While the development of his signature BBQ style has taken years, his food truck made strides in the popularity department almost immediately.
 
Davis relates his love for good BBQ back to his days as a child. The name, “Daddy Pete’s BBQ,” is in honor of his father, who passed away in 2001. His father had a 12-foot smoker and would cook meat all day while people from the neighborhood would come by to get a taste of his ribs. “It brought the community together, and as I grew up, I realized it was something I wanted to do as well,” Davis says. “I was on a quest to bring traditional Southern BBQ to Grand Rapids.”
 
So, he bought a smoker and started to perfect his style. Through 10 years of trial and error he found the right mix of flavor with a little bit of crunch. “In 2012 my church had a men’s weekend grill-off. I won and brought the leftovers to the church; people were going crazy over them. I knew this was the beginning of something good,” Davis says.
 
Initially, Davis wanted to open up a place downtown, but due to the high overhead cost of running a storefront, he began to think outside the box. “I noticed that food trucks were very popular in bigger cities and thought...let’s try it,” he says. Davis decided to market his BBQ and position his truck downtown on weekends and evenings in the summer. After working his first event, Daddy Pete’s took off like wildfire.
 
“It’s like I had a newborn baby, and after three months it was already feeding itself,” says Davis. Since 2013, Daddy Pete’s had has been running out of a concessions trailer, but soon he is converting to a 26-foot food truck. “I need the additional space,” says Davis. “Daddy Pete’s has been growing so fast; it’s hard to prep for a 300-person wedding in a 14-foot kitchen, for example.”
 
Beyond the meat, Davis has also developed his own brand of sauces available at Sobie Meats in Walker, Michigan and sold on site wherever Daddy Pete’s happens to be that weekend. He also plans to open a quick serve to-go location this winter. With multiple BBQ pitmaster awards under his belt, Davis has been able to see his hobby become a profession. “I still have a full-time job aside from Daddy Pete’s,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to this without the support of my wife; she keeps everything running smoothly.”
 
As Davis has observed the food truck scene grow in West Michigan, both he and his wife hope their experiences in the industry can serve and assist others. “We want to help direct people to the right resources and share information,” says Davis. “There are so many people with aspirations and ideas, there’s no need to keep our experiences to ourselves if they can help someone else.”
 
Community focused, farm friendly
Patrick Conrade, The Sovengard
 
The Westside is a place where history and trend intersect. It’s in a state of growth and revitalization, with Patrick Conrade standing in the middle of it. As a Westsider himself, he can now call this ever-changing neighborhood a place for both home and work. The Sovengard, a new eatery that that just opened its doors a couple months ago (to rave reviews), is where Conrade resides. “This is where my heart is,” Conrade says of the Midwest-meets-Scandinavia culinary spot. “There’s history here; part of the building was constructed pre-1900s, and the other half was built after the great flood in 1908. It’s like a hidden gem with an amazing outdoor space we plan to turn into an authentic biergarten.”
 
While Sovengard is the chef’s landing pad, his culinary experiences span the city. He attended Grand Rapids Community College’s Secchia Institute for Culinary Education later in life and decided that he needed some hands-on experience fast. He began at Gibson’s Steakhouse and then worked at the University Club as the executive chef; this is where he built a foundation of knowledge. That came in handy at his next position as head chef at the Meyer May House, the Frank Lloyd Wright home in Heritage Hill that was restored by Steelcase. There, in the space where Steelcase frequently gathers clients and other business and community leaders, he dreamed up gourmet meals for smaller groups. “Here I really got to stretch all my talents and explore new food,” says Conrade. “Presentation was everything. My background in sculpture and art came to life inside the kitchen.” After the Meyer May House, Conrade worked at the Electric Cheetah in Eastown and eventually assisted with the opening of The Old Goat in Alger Heights. “That was my first opening from the ground up,” says Conrade. “All of these different experiences shaped me and eventually led me to The Sovengard.”
 
Conrade sees The Sovengard bringing a new kind of cuisine and restaurant culture to West Michigan. “The menu vision is Scandinavian in spirit and follows the direction of a Nordic restaurant,” he explains. The Nordic restaurant concept can be viewed as two-fold: ingredients and work culture. “First, it’s about knowing where your food is coming from and being aware of the ingredients,” says Conrade. “We are using the highest quality seasonal and regional ingredients at all times. We support the local farms taking care of our land and resources.” As a result, the menu is driven by local produce and changes frequently. “Our menus are fluid, and that gives us the freedom to create experiences for our guests that are totally unique. This is the future of the local food movement,” the chef says.
 
Secondly, Conrade believes in a progressive company culture and wants to positively impact his  employee’s lives. “Our staff needs to have a high quality of life inside this restaurant; we don’t want to burn out our employees,” he says. For example, the work shifts at Sovengard are shorter than the norm, with staff working five to six days per week and only five- to six-hour shifts at a time.
 
“When we were interviewing the staff it was really important to us to find people that were naturally kind and truly wanted to create a great experience for the guest,” says Conrade. “The team we have created is the best team I’ve ever worked with.” He also plans to give his staff more accountability and responsibility. He wants them to see Sovengard as a place where their opinions are respected and where they can learn and grow professionally. “I’m including my staff in menu development and dish creation,” he says. “I also want to hear their ideas for events and in the running of daily operations, everything really.”
 
Even though Conrade has been a resident of the Westside for 13 years, he considers himself a “new kid on the block” professionally and is in awe of the revitalization happening all around him. “I have a five-minute walk to work now,” he says. “It’s great to say that my team at Sovengard is like a family….and mine is just a few blocks away.”

Home is where the heart is 
Olga Benoit, Chez Olga
 
Walk into Chez Olga, a restaurant located in the heart of Eastown that offers Caribbean and Creole cuisine, and you'll immediately feel at home. With a winning smile and inviting presence, Olga Benoit, the owner of Chez Olga, has created a reputation for her cooking and friendly disposition that can’t be beat. 
 
Benoit has no formal culinary training and learned everything she knows from her mother in Haiti. She took this hands-on knowledge with her when she fled with her family in 1993 during the Haitian civil war. “A church was able to sponsor us,” says Benoit. “We weren’t sure where to go, but heard that Grand Rapids had a good school system. With three young daughters, that was our priority, so we called Grand Rapids home.” 
 
For 15 years Benoit worked in a variety of jobs, ranging from hotels and housekeeping to factories and retail. No matter her occupation, cooking was always her passion. “I was always volunteering and cooking food for my church and children’s school activities,” says Benoit. “People loved the food and started asking me to cater events. I told them I was no chef, but they thought otherwise and inspired me to open up Chez Olga.” 
 
Benoit and her family began stockpiling restaurant supplies in their basement and property hunting long before Chez Olga was able to open. Finally, in 2010, Chez Olga opened its doors on Wealthy Street in Eastown. Benoit herself was unsure of how the community would receive the restaurant. Culturally, the cuisine is very different from what other restaurants offer. With a focus on traditional Creole and Caribbean dishes, patrons are pushed to test their taste buds and “taste the Caribbean heat” with dishes like fried plantains, pate, and creole chicken.
However, Benoit’s initial fears dissipated almost immediately. “I learned that my place was a very important addition to the Eastown community,” she says. “People were looking for something different, not just in the food, but the overall feel of the restaurant.” 
 
Alongside the delicious eats, Benoit’s charm and strong customer engagement keeps people coming back for more. “We know who every customer is coming through our door; people come back weekly; we love you like you are family and build a culture based on connection and caring,” she says. That much is apparent: Benoit is invited to weddings, birthday parties and family gatherings...by her customers. “I closed the restaurant for two weeks, and everyone freaked out,” she says. “People are calling and texting asking when we will open back up; that’s true customer loyalty.” 
 
The owner and chef also explains that it’s the outpouring of love from her customers that keeps her going. “Customers give me the strength to keep doing this everyday. When people are happy it makes me want to continue; just seeing people’s faces light up keeps me moving. I don’t want to let them down.” Benoit has successfully created a space full of warmth, color, light and love; Chez Olga has become a mainstay in Eastown and a cultural asset to the Grand Rapids community. 
 
Flipping the dining experience upside down
Eric Benedict, Embargo616
 
Pushing culinary boundaries is a work of art for Eric Benedict, the founder of Embargo616, an underground dining experience for West Michigan residents. Working as the executive chef of The Green Harp in Greenville, Michigan by day, Benedict is raising eyebrows by night, providing customers with unique cuisine options in a space that changes with every meal.
 
Born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Benedict began his professional career in the furniture industry. Disgruntled with his career, he decided to follow his passion for food and delve into the culinary arts. Thirty years old when he embarked on this new path, he recognized the need to make up for lost time. “I had to work very hard and learn fast,” he says. “I was working at restaurants and apprenticing a butcher at the same time, doing everything I could to get ahead and become marketable.”
 
A few years into his cooking career, Benedict began to observe some culinary constraints that naturally occur in a traditional restaurant setting. “I was shocked to learn how much preparation is involved in a restaurant,” he says. “You don’t know what people are going to order in advance and have to offer dishes that can be assembled in five minutes and reheated.” He felt limited by the time cooks have to produce meals in a traditional setting and the costs that have to be considered when developing a menu. “There’s so much overhead that you have to offer items with a mass appeal; most of the menu is going to be quite pedestrian because it has be designed with everyone in mind.”
 
Benedict began developing a concept called underground dining, or pop-up dinners, that take these traditional restaurant must-dos and turn them upside down. “I wanted to push people to think about dining in different way and expand their boundaries by trying something totally new,” he explains.
 
So, he began to work backwards in the kitchen. “I create the whole event,” he says. “I find a location, develop a menu, then sell tickets in advance. I know well before the night of who is coming and how much food I need to prepare. There’s no guess work, nothing is reheated and the food isn’t for the masses.”
 
To fuel the mystery, the location of the event is kept secret until two hours prior, when attendees receive a text message with the address. It’s always within a 20-minute drive from Grand Rapids and relates to the dining theme of the evening. Events have taken place in brewery back rooms, farms and private residences. For his inaugural event, Benedict was able to serve a pork belly that had been curing for 30 days. “That’s just not something I can do in a traditional restaurant,” he says. “Knowing that I have 30 people coming at 8pm on Saturday gives me a chance to prep differently and try new things; people get to try dishes that take time and acute attention to detail to prepare.”
 
The chef is now expanding his underground dining experiences to the general public and rebranding it as Embargo616. “To me, an embargo is a restriction,” he explains. “Moving forward, everything served will be 100 percent grown in West Michigan. In this day and age, ingredients are too easy to come by; I want to present something that I’ve emotionally invested in and treat food preparation like an artist would treat a painting, with extreme care. Our food needs to resonate with our local farmers.”
 
Benedict plans to host events every month that match what is seasonally available and create environments in which people get to treat their taste buds to high quality Michigan ingredients. “I want to create a new touch point for people to try something they wouldn’t experience otherwise,” he says.
 
Throughout this whole process, Benedict has expressed his admiration for the people of Grand Rapids. “I can’t think of a better place to be. Grand Rapids is just the right size and forward thinking; it can support this kind of creative culture. People are embracing this localized concept, and I couldn’t be happier.” 
 
Back to the basics
Jameson Ewigleben, Flat Lander’s Barstillery
 
“Good food can change a person’s day.” This is the thought behind Jameson Ewigleben’s new menu at the ever-popular Flat Lander’s on Michigan Street in Midtown. A well-known chef in Grand Rapids since 2008, Ewigleben has worked behind the scenes in many West Michigan staples, such as Graydon’s Crossing, 57 Brew Pub & Bistro, and Amore. Just over two years ago he arrived at Flat Lander’s with new ideas and his own personal take on dining.
 
Prior to Ewigleben, 75 percent of the food served at Flat Landers was frozen. “It killed me to make food I didn’t believe in,” he says. Within the first two months his real food philosophy began to take shape. “I didn’t change the menu that was developed, but I began to rely on food from scratch,” he says. “Now we get our meats from the butcher next door, pickle our own jalapenos and cut our own fries.” He has influenced the staff at Flat Lander’s to value attention to detail and care about the quality of food being served. “I don’t want to just shovel it out; I want to make someone’s day,” Ewigleben says.
 
This fall, the chef has the chance to not only serve real food, but on his own terms. He recently transitioned to the general manager position at Flat Lander’s and plans to roll out an updated menu and cocktail list by the end of October. The restaurant has a partnership with Journeyman Distillery to produce a premium house line of organic liquor, and they plan to include liquors from different local Michigan distilleries and vastly increase their cocktail choices. “We serve old fashioned cocktails with a twist,” Ewigleben says “I want to make sure the drinks offered and food served make sense together.”
 
The revamped menu is the brainchild of Ewigleben and can be described as Southern- and Appalachian-inspired small plates. He has taken the “hillbilly chic” brand of Flat Lander’s to a whole new level. “Our current concept of hillbilly cuisine just doesn’t fit,” he explains. “Fried food isn’t hillbilly. I’m from the South, and we have a real cuisine. The ingredients I’m going to use at Flat Lander’s are hand-crafted, seasonal, and based in the roots of Appalachia, with a contemporary perspective.”  

Does baked sweet potato parmesan with goat cheese, candied bacon, sour cream mixed with thyme and sage topped with bourbon brown sugar sound good? How about braised sticky short rib with cheddar jalapeno grits? If the answer is yes, Jameson Ewigleben is the chef for you.
 
Grand Rapids: Charting new culinary waters
 
There are a few commonalities among all the amazing chefs featured. It is apparent by their ingredient choices that the local food revolution is real and thriving. Many of them are dedicated to using only locally-sourced food (even in the winter). Resourcefulness will be essential to stay dedicated to local only, but these chefs are up to the task. Many also feel that it’s important to not only serve good food, but to challenge their patrons to expand their palate and culinary lifestyles. Lastly, they truly care about their employees and their customers. People keep coming back for tasty food, but also lively conversation and sometimes even a hug. We are lucky to be part of such a thriving foodie community, supportive of new endeavors and ways of dining. 

Chelsea Slocum is a freelance copywriter who enjoys learning about new local developments in both Grand Rapids, MI and Seattle, WA. Find her here.

Photography by Adam Bird
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