I moved up from Chicago to Traverse City in the spring of 2017, bringing with me the desire to connect to the local landscape and growing community as much as possible. I found a good fit when first interviewing with Simon Joseph, Chef/Owner of Just In Time Hospitality, listening to his description of the noodles they use at Gaijin. The foundation of any ramen shop is its noodles, and beyond the homework done on the technique, what stood out to me was the commitment to using 100% non-GMO, local wheats from Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties.
It is this commitment to local product that we have tried to expand upon in every aspect of our menu. Every protein, save our saltwater seafood offerings, is sourced from Michigan. When you live in northern Michigan, there is little need for exotic ingredients from far away, because what is growing within a short drive is so impeccable. It makes a job like mine easy – having such pristine ingredients that require little manipulation to make them stand out. The difficulty becomes showcasing our food in a way that does our farmer friends justice. Even in the wintertime, when choice becomes limited, almost every dish on our ever-changing menu is centered on our local offerings – from our beets from Second Spring Farm making an appearance in a chilled salad with the ramps I harvested and preserved in June to chicken and eggs from River Valley Farms used in our broths, ice creams, and rice dishes.
Connecting to our local environment is an endeavor that we at Gaijin are constantly working on, continually forging relationships with new farms and purveyors. Most recently with Moomer’s Dairy Farm to source milk and cream for our housemade ice creams. Our “carrot cake” ice cream will feature local dairy, carrots, and eggs. We also work to build upon existing relationships with our farmer friends. With a few months until spring, the conversation continues with planning next season’s planting of crops from which our menu takes its lead.
Beyond the kitchen, we push this vision with our beverage program as well, using local ingredients and producers to compliment the curated selection of Japanese sakes and whiskeys. We use locally foraged sumac in our “Japanese Old Fashioned” along with Traverse City Whiskey Co. drunkencherries, tea made with local chaga mushrooms for one of our “Tea and Whiskey” selections, and house made craft sodas featuring apples from local orchards.
It is the unavoidable and harsh reality of northern Michigan in the winter that some product must be sourced from elsewhere, but our pursuit of showcasing local product will always come first and foremost. Spring is around the corner, and soon we will move away from relying on storage crops such as potatoes, root vegetables and apples and be able to enjoy green garlic, asparagus and fresh blueberries once again.
Gabe Lava is the Chef de Cuisine of Gaijin in Traverse City, MI. See menus and find more information at www.gaijintc.com