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Behind The Line: Talking with Jim Milliman
by Andrew L. McFarlane
Jim Milliman / Recipe Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in the Lake Country Gazette in the fall of 1995.

At 4:30 PM, I walked into the kitchen at Hattie's. By 4:32, I was fitted for a chef's coat and by 4:35, peeling potatoes. My purpose was not a career change, but rather to view the workings of a restaurant from the inside. The kitchen is the nerve center of any restaurant. From a McDonald's to the Waldorf Astoria, the kitchen and what happens within sets the tone for the entire establishment. The tone of Hattie's in Suttons Bay could be considered "fine dining", though not of a sort that makes one feel that they should have a thorough grounding in culinary principles and proper fork ettiquette to fully appreciate. The menu bursts with items such as grilled Portabella mushrooms with parmesan polenta, sauteed walleye with an herb mustard crust, beef tenderloin in a morel cream sauce and grilled venison served with an amazing cherry barbecue sauce. The artwork on the walls often features local artists and changes regularly. Those in for an early dinner on the way to a movie at the Bay can choose from several pre-theatre menu items in addition to the regular menu.

Jim Milliman is the head chef, manager and owner. On this Thursday evening, Jim and his assistant chef Tom Stayer were preparing for a relatively light evening. As I peeled the potatoes, destined for mashed potatoes (no potato buds here), we talked.

"I think that somewhere in the back of the mind of everyone who goes into the restaurant business is the thought that they'll make a lot of money," Jim related. "On day one, I was thinking of making a million dollars. On day two I thought, well, maybe not a million dollars, maybe just a half a mil. Somewhere around day three comes the realization that it's going to be a long road." Jim's long road began at a pancake house near Detroit . A friend and former co-worker enticed him away to run a bar in Royal Oak, which he did successfully for several years. From there, he moved North and into finer dining. He started at the Rowe Inn as the pastry chef under Wes Westhoven for a half a year before leaving to attend business school. When the Rowe's chef left for Tappawingo, Jim returned from business school to serve as the Rowe's head chef for three years.

"The Rowe was a very rewarding experience and Wes was very generous with his knowledge," he explained, "but always in the back of my mind I knew that someday I wanted to own my own restaurant. In 1986 I was searching for a good location and almost purchased a place in Elk Rapids. Then I was in Suttons Bay one day and saw that the old Epicure was for sale."

Elk Rapids' loss was Suttons Bay's gain. Jim opened the doors of Hattie's on the 23rd of June in 1987. He remembers those first years with the kind of fondness usually reserved for World Wars and the Great Depression. "At first, it was pretty quiet. The winter especially we might have nights with no reservations where nobody or almost nobody would walk through the door. Over time, those nights got fewer and fewer."

I finished the potatoes and got them on the stove to boil. Jim explained that he came in most days at around 10 AM to handle a lot of the prep and showed me a list of tasks, some completed and crossed off, some left to do. Most of them were under his name, several under the assistant chef's, and (I was flattered to note) two under my own. I crossed off potatoes and got to work on prepping the vegetables.

As I peeled the carrots, I asked Jim about owning a restaurant in Leelanau County. He considered and replied, "Any fool can open a restaurant here in the summer and succeed. The year's twelve months long, though. It's the offseason that really takes the figuring. We're finding that much of our business in the offseason comes from special events -- wine dinners, private parties, catering -- that sort of thing."

I asked Jim if there was any philosophy that guided his menu choices. "It's seat of the pants cooking here -- no rules," he responded. "Food should look good and taste good and be something that they wouldn't normally get at home." Jim believes that it's important for the staff to know about the food and wine that are served and that the only real way to do that is by experience. He prepared one of the evening's menu additions, and explained, "A couple of years ago the staff said to me, 'It would be nice if we had something to talk about that wasn't on the menu when we went to the table.' I've never liked the term "special." It seems to imply that the rest of the food isn't," he said as he sauteed the filet of monk fish.

The fish was then lightly baked, laid on a bed of creamed corn and liberally covered with a roasted red pepper butter sauce. The result was an addition which had every right to call itself special and tasted far richer than it probably was.

I asked Jim if he had a favorite dish. He considered. "Well, nothing beats a really good hamburger. It seems that people are always asking me that question. I have two kids, and when someone asks me: 'What's your favorite dish?' it's like asking 'Which one's your favorite child?' I recommend everything -- if I didn't, it wouldn't be on the menu."

Throughout the night, I was struck by the amount of individual attention paid to each dish, from the moment it hit the pan to the time it was laid before the diner. It was a relatively slow night, yet Tom and Jim moved with a precise economy of speed that sacrificed nothing. I asked Tom if this care was typical. "Of course it's busier in the summer," he replied, "But, yes, each one of these is going to be the only meal that person eats here -- they're all important." The hardest part for me of the experience was standing around, wishing that I could help yet realizing that most of my efforts would detract rather than add to the process. Almost any cook will tell you that they'd rather be busy than slow even though they get paid the same whether it's 4 or 400 dinners. There is a quality of time that just can't be measured in ticks of the clock. The closest Jim came to expounding a philosophy was when I asked him point blank: "Why do you do this?"

He responded, "For me it's all about the food and honest effort. I remember this summer a woman came in raving to her friend and me about the meal to come. She asked me for a recommendation and I told her she should probably go home. She was surprised, of course, but I knew that I could never equal her expectations -- no one could. I try to challenge my staff and to challenge myself with new dishes, but I think that the minute you take the food or the wine or anything else too seriously, you've lost it. "

Jim works to keep things in perspective for himself. "I try not to let this dominate me. There's a lot of stress and you see a lot of divorces in the restaurant business, and I like my wife and kids."

Nonetheless, when he is in the restaurant, Jim seems to be in constant motion, mental and physical. In my years of working in restaurants I found that there were two types of owners and managers. All of them pay attention to the costs and such -- you must to stay in business for long. For some the restaurant is a job like any other and food cost and plate breakage take almost religious significance. It is as if they miss the whole point. Others, like Jim, pay every bit as much attention to the the minutia of running a restaurant, but it is as if their attention to the details springs from an entirely different source. They watch the margins and the cleanliness of the glassware and the ten thousand other things not out of an obsessive need, but rather a consuming love.

Just before I left, we got to talking about leeks, wild and domesticated, and their various uses. Jim pulled out a tub of pickled wild leeks. He explained as he offered me one that they are served with the paté and used as a sort of informal barometer of business. The faster they run out, the busier the restaurant. As I left, savoring the vibrant crunch of the only slightly tamed wild leek, I thought that he was lucky that I didn't work there -- I'd throw his barometer all out of whack!

Hattie's Restaurant is located at 111 N. St. Joseph, Suttons Bay (phone: 231-271-6222). You can learn more about Hattie's and find some more recipes on their web site at hatties.com.

Copyright 2000 Manitou Publishing Co. & Andrew L. McFarlane • All Rights Reserved.

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