James Bloomfield: A Young, Innovative Traverse City-Based Chef

In Traverse City, Michigan, lies a 40-seat restaurant with a small bar and a staff of eight— including servers—nearly on the edge of the storied Lake Michigan. Contained in the Warehouse MRKT, the establishment’s 28-year-old head chef delivers inventive, creative fusions with fresh, local produce and a brand-new menu printed every day, informed by his own explorations of the world—like miniature, edible canvases painted with elements like béchamel sauce and coriander.

The Warehouse MRKT was given a second life after being renovated by Daniel and Meridith Falconer, who envisioned it as a destination spot for avant-garde entrepreneurial experimentation. They’d been looking for a chef to head up the locale’s restaurant, Alliance, when long-renowned Great Lakes chef Pete Peterson introduced them to James Bloomfield.

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Bloomfield explains that tonight’s menu will begin with a salad featuring heirloom tomatoes and fresh cucumbers, leading into a Filipino-style ceviche dish with coconut milk and Thai chiles, as well as warm vegetable dishes with wild mushrooms, foraged by “a guy who finds mushrooms for me in the area,” he explains, laughing.

This past March, Bloomfield and a few Alliance employees traveled to Thailand, where they ate, explored and learned through experience and osmosis, on a quest to re-invigorate their own cuisine. As Bloomfield talks about it all, it’s not without an absorbing laugh, especially if you ask what he eats when not working. “Reese’s Puffs,” he says, in all seriousness.

What made you want to explore Thailand?
I worked at a restaurant with a few guys who were from there. They’d make family meals for us, and it was some of the best food I’ve ever eaten in my life. They were really inspirational to me and influenced the way I cook.

We started in Bangkok and then headed down south towards Khao Sok National Park, where we slept in a treehouse for three days, then traveled out to an island called Ko Samui. We also went to Chiang Mai, the temple region—old-school Thailand, you could call it. It’s now more modern and developed, but they have kept a lot of very old buildings and temples intact. We went to eat, but also to get inspired. It would have been easy to take a few Thai dishes and put those on the menu, but instead we took bits and pieces from the experience we had and things we saw on the street.

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What was your inspiration for the beets and peaches salad recipe you shared with us?
Right now is peak season for peaches, and I don’t know where it came from, but I was thinking that golden beets and peaches actually look really similar. I put the two flavors together and it worked really well. We also make our own yogurt here at the restaurant, which we usually strain several times so it’s really thick. We had a batch that was a little thinner, which I seasoned with orange-blossom water and coriander.

You grew up in Michigan, near Traverse City. What brought you back to your home state?
I had been traveling and working all around the world and hadn’t been home in a while. I’m from a town called Lake City, Michigan, about an hour south of here. I came home for a summer and my sister was pregnant, so I decided to spend a few months at home. I’d planned to head to Chicago and stage at a few places I knew to see where I’d end up next. I had been traveling and cooking on the East Coast and Cape Cod for a while, then Boston and Austin. I was there for about three years, and then I made my way through Portland and San Francisco.

While I was home, I ran into Pete Peterson, a former culinary instructor of mine who’s also a good friend. He owned Tapawingo restaurant for 25 years, has numerous James Beard Award nominations and is nationally recognized as one of the best chefs of his era. We started doing some catering and talking food, just hanging out and cooking. He brought me in, pitched the idea to them and here we are.

But I have to be honest—I never thought I would come back and have a restaurant here. After growing up here and coming out of high school or college, you think, “I need to get away from home and never come back.” I did have some of that, until I got out into the world and realized, “Man, Michigan is really special.”

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What’s it like working at the Warehouse MRKT?
It’s really inspiring to be around other creatives. That’s one of the reasons I agreed to join the project. The coffee shop that’s in the Warehouse, called BLK MRKT, is possibly the best coffee shop I’ve ever been to. They’re very, very detailed and passionate about what they do. We’re constantly talking about new products and drinks together. They’re incredible.

What made you want to be a chef and devote your life to this work?
I had always wanted to cook and own a restaurant. My dad is a really good cook, and we had a family dinner seven nights a week with a home-cooked meal. Subconsciously, that inspired me and my belief that food is really important. I actually went to college at Central Michigan University for a business degree first, even though I wanted to cook and have a restaurant. I got burned out on some of the subjects required, like global economics, and things I just wasn’t interested in. I went to culinary school after that at the Great Lakes Culinary Institute and busted through that program in about a year and a half. It’s actually just a mile and a half from the restaurant.

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What are some of the challenges you’ve come across with this type of work?
In the beginning, getting experience is obviously a huge challenge. I was put into management and leadership positions pretty early on, and that was tough for me. I don’t know if I was necessarily ready for it, in a maturity sense. To manage people older than me and gain their respect—that was a challenge. We also work close to 90 hours a week on our feet, with sharp knives and hot fire and very little sleep. There’s incredible pressure each night. But I could never do anything else. That all really came together when I was in college. I felt like I was wasting time and not following what I really wanted to do. It was more what I thought I should be doing. When I was 21 and sent in my forms for culinary school, that’s when I really thought, “This is it. I’m dedicating every minute of the day to this.”

This story originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 5, 2017. Purchase Issue 5 and become an ALIVE subscriber.

Photography by Attilio D’Agostino

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