The absolute best way to cook fresh-caught Michigan perch? We found out, thanks to a fun catch-up with Executive Chef John Clements, who oversees all things tasty at Mission Point resort on Mackinac Island. We also know when to add herbs to our dishes and how to make a mean potatoes confit.
What’s Clements’ favorite entrée on this idyllic island resort’s menu? Grab your appetite and join Michigan Blue for an insightful chef chat:
Michigan BLUE: Where did you work before coming to Mission Point two and one-half years ago?
John Clements: Country clubs mostly, in the metro Detroit area and in Harbor Springs.
MB: You live in Harbor Springs, now right?
JC: Yes. But I’m at the resort just about all the time when we’re open and then I come up about every week in the winter when I’ll take the ferry from St. Ignace or fly in.
MB: The Mission Point restaurants are known for serving fresh fare. Is that difficult, given you’re on an island?
JC: We strive for farm-to-ferry fresh. Most of our food is from local providers, like the mushrooms (we get great ramps and fiddleheads in the spring, from Upper Peninsula foragers), greens, vegetables, herbs, even some of our proteins. We also get a lot of root vegetables and micro greens from a company north of Petoskey called Local Eats Delivery, and they work with farms in the U.P. When I came to this position it was fun to rebuild some of the relationships I had when I was a chef, for 12 years, at the country club in Harbor Springs. So, for example, our fish is from local tribes from the Mackinaw City area. We serve the big three, including whitefish, walleye, and perch. Right now, we’re enjoying Michigan-grown tomatoes and corn!
MB: We want to know your secret to those yummy breakfast potatoes confit. What are the herbs in this dish and how do you cook the potatoes?
JC: Parsley, oregano, and thyme. And we just cook them in oil.
MB: You mentioned perch as one of your “big three.” Fresh perch dinners are hard to find on the island. Mission Point’s is great. How do I do that at home?
JC: Dip it lightly in a seasoned flour, like a special mix, first.
MB: And that special seasoning is?
JC: Well (he laughs here), well, I guess I could share a few secrets. We mix in with the flour some thyme, oregano, paprika, salt, and pepper. We sauté it in a clarified butter so it’s not as fatty. (When you clarify butter you remove milk solids and water, leaving only the butterfat, which has a higher smoke point ideal for cooking and sauteing.) We sauté it on a medium heat. Regarding heat and cooking temperatures, I instruct my staff to put water in the butter or oil to test it first. It should pop, and there shouldn’t be any smoke. That’s the time to sauté.
MB: We’re hungry for perch! What’s next?
JC: We throw it on the plate northern Michigan-style, which means with mashed potatoes and asparagus, lemon-butter sauce, and capers.
MB: What’s a signature Chef John move?
JC: My wife tells me we always have to wait because I like to throw on fresh herbs right at the end, right before we eat. They give food that bright pop. You know, when you’re cooking, once you put fresh herbs in, any herb that heats to above 140 degrees will lose its bright color because the heat destroys the chlorophyl. One of the first chefs I worked for was French and we had to always have a container of parsley near us. He insisted on us topping everything with parsley. It’s been drilled in me over the years to throw on fresh herbs on top of dishes when plating. That also often breaks up all the plainness in color. You’ll see for example fresh greens on a unique carrot dish and the sea bass from our special Chianti restaurant menu.
MB: Lots of people have allergies or food preferences these days and we see a lot of gluten-free and a few vegan items on your menu. Thanks for that!
JC: If someone has a food allergy or a preference we can make items to suit them. Our menus are simple. We’d leave off flour for a gluten-free fish dish, and just sauté the fish, for example.
MB: What’s your favorite item on the menu?
JC: It’s down at Bistro on the Greens (one of three restaurants here, including Round Island Kitchen and Chianti). It’s the branzino, a European fish, like a sea bass. It has Mediterranean flavors but with a Michigan twist. You’ll taste fennel, dill. We make our own tartar sauce so if you request that you’re in for a treat. It’s made of mayo, Worchester sauce, pickles, capers, lemon juice, and parsley.
MB: Who are some of your favorite celebrity chefs?
JC: I enjoy watching Eric Ripert. I also like Sean Brock. A commitment to food culture is lacking, in my opinion. My grandmother canned and those types of traditions just aren’t being passed on. We need to be the drivers on that.
MB: What inspired you to become a chef?
JC: My grandmother. She lived in Kentucky. She could do amazing things in the kitchen and make things simple. My mom was one of 12 kids, so cooking for her was more utilitarian. My grandma would buy food at farmstands, day to day. She’d make peas, dumplings, fresh corn … ahhh.