Chef’s Challenge

Traverse City, Michigan, hosts a culinary grudge match as chefs from northern Michigan take to their kitchens against chefs in the southern part of the state.

Coffee-Rubbed Buffalo Flank took top honors at the first Chef's Challenge in Traverse City, Michigan.

Coffee-Rubbed Buffalo Flank with demi-glace, leek spoonbread and morel mushrooms was the winning entry in Michigan’s 2008 Chef’s Challenge. Other recipes included Cocoa Crusted Rack of Lamb, Chestnut Encrusted Walleye, BBQ Braised Venison Shank and Ginger Braised Rabbit.

courtesy Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau

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Traverse City, Michigan — The friendly rivalry between the upstart chefs of northern Michigan and their counterparts in the state’s urbanized south is intense and of long standing, but has rarely been aired in the open.

That changed last year, when Shanty Creek Resorts near Traverse City organized the first Chef’s Challenge, an “experiment in culinary tourism” that pitted chefs from the best restaurants in the north against their downstate counterparts – a sort of North Woods version of the Food Network’s popular “Iron Chef” competition. The event, judged by a panel that included Eric Villegas of “Fork in the Road” fame and Food Network regular Michelle Bommarito, was a solid success.

So it looks like they’ll be doing it again.

The Second Annual Chef’s Challenge will be April 24-26 at Shanty Creek, and will feature more participants, more seminars and more imaginative dishes concocted from Michigan-grown meats, fish, fruits and vegetables (not to mention a wider selection of Michigan wines and craft brews).

“We’ve invited all the chefs from last year to return, and I think they’ve all said yes,” says promoter Joe Breidenstein. “But that’s only the beginning. We’re expanding it this year to include six or seven teams from each part of the state, so there’ll be 12 or 14 teams altogether.”

Breidenstein, a longtime advocate for spring tourism in northern Michigan, created the original Chef’s Challenge as a way to encourage more visitors to the region’s flower-carpeted spring forests while showcasing his state’s rich variety of home-grown food and drink. His idea: to make use of the good-natured rivalry between “up north” and “downstate” chefs by enlisting them in a contest for the title of Best Chef in Michigan. Proceeds from the event would be donated to Challenge Mountain, an outdoor recreation center for disabled and at-risk youth located in nearby Walloon Lake.

Breidenstein found a willing partner in Shanty Creek resorts, whose new owners were eager to showcase the $10 million in new infrastructure improvements they’d just made to their sprawling 4,500-acre ski and golf property. They provided special discount lodging packages for Chef’s Challenge guests and participants, and commissioned their own culinary staff to create the menu for the final four-course banquet.

The 2008 event included free cooking demonstrations, food and beverage pairing seminars, and other classes on topics that ranged from the harvesting and cooking of spring mushrooms to the proper way to cast for trout. But the centerpiece of the weekend was the competition, which pitted four teams of chefs from southern Michigan against four from the north.

The contest began with an afternoon “Taste-Off” event in which each team prepared a recipe selected by the three-member judging panel. The two winning teams – a Southern contingent led by David Hathaway of Detroit’s Wyndgate Country Club and a Northern group under Kyle Marshall of Traverse City’s Red Mesa Grill – then competed head to head in an evening “Iron Chef” round where each had to create a complete meal using the contents of a surprise “Michigan Mystery Basket.” Marshall’s team (perhaps enjoying a home court advantage) won handily.

The same format will be followed this year, Breidenstein says, and a similar selection of free seminars and classes will be offered, including a hands-on class called “Eat Well, Move Your Body & Watch What Happens” taught by Michelle Bommarito, a program on rubs, mops, herbs and other flavor boosters from Chef Chris Kibit of Northern Michigan University’s culinary program, and a seminar on pairing food with wines and beers by Food & Beverage writer Rick Coates.

An added feature at the second Chef’s Challenge will be a Sunday high school competition featuring culinary students from around the state, who’ll face off with their best recipes for barbecue sauce, slaw and cornbread. For more details about the 2009 Chef’s Challenge, check out the website or with Shanty Creek Resorts' website.

For more information on culinary events, classes and destinations in the Traverse City area, and for information about lodging and dining choices and other activities, contact the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau through the website or call 1-800-872-8377.

Here's Chef Kyle Marshall's Coffee Rub, part of the winning 2008 recipe.


16 pasilla chile
4 tablespoons ground coffee
2 tablespoons salt
4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoons granulated garlic
Toast chiles in a 400 degree oven until fragrant. Seed chiles and break into small pieces. In a coffee grinder, blend all ingredients together in batches. Suitable for rubbing on beef as well as buffalo prior to roasting.