Eric Benedict, the new The Rockwell Lake Lodge chef, has turned the lodge’s restaurant into the only 100 percent Michigan-sourced kitchen in the state.
In May 2018, Benedict became the chef and Hospitality Manager of Rockwell Lake Lodge, which is a bed and breakfast owned and operated by the college and located in Luther, Michigan. Benedict brings his 9 years of experience — from cities like New Orleans, Grand Rapids, and Chicago — to the small town of Luther. Benedict said the purely Michigan sourced kitchen has been a dream of his for some time.
“I’ve had this vision for years,” Benedict said. “But I knew it would only be possible in a small-scale restaurant.”
The restaurant at the Rockwell Lodge is a rustic restaurant with some international and New Orleans styles sprinkled in. Benedict describes it as a “traditional French country-style restaurant.”
Luke Woltanski, a junior at Hillsdale College, was doing research at the biostation in Luther, and had the opportunity to eat a lot of the food Benedict cooked.
“I’d always see a big trailer full of plants,” Woltanski said. “I’d see them later in my salad or crushed up in the dressing.”
Benedict said the new opportunity of serving the lodge’s visitors in the Lakeview Dining Room, which seats 30, has not come without its challenges. In order to sustain a completely Michigan-sourced restaurant, he sometimes has to take ingredients out of his recipe.
“Ginger is one of my favorite ingredients,” Benedict said. “But since there is no Michigan-sourced ginger, I have to do without it.”
Benedict said the greatest challenge is planning out the menu while considering the resources available to him, as well as keeping ingredients fresh and in stock.
“I’ve put thousands of miles on my truck just from driving around Michigan and trying to track down the best sources of ingredients,” Benedict said.
For Benedict, a locally-sourced restaurant is important for a few reasons.
“We are at a point in our culture where people are so separated from their food,” Benedict said. “People don’t know where their food comes from.”
Benedict said his mission is to connect ingredients with people. He also noted that Luther is one of the poorest areas per capita in the state, and keeping the money in the community by purchasing locally-sourced ingredients helps grow the community.
“There is both a philosophical and practical appeal to locally-sourced ingredients,” Benedict said.
Over the summer, Woltanski had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Benedict.
“He’s the type of guy that can talk about a lot of different things,” Woltanski said. “He always asked how we were doing and asked if we needed anything.”
Woltanski mentioned that he and Benedict bonded over their mutual love for guitars, as Benedict used to work in a guitar shop.
Woltanski ate multiple meals at the restaurant and said Benedict is as good a cook as he is a man.
“He put a lot of work into making sure everything looked good and tasted good,” Woltanski said.
One meal that Woltanski remembers in particular was a salad with homemade dressing and chicken.
“I had four plates of food that night,” Woltanski said, “and I’m proud of it.”
One day while Woltanski was at the lodge, Benedict gathered him and a few other students to make them a meal. Benedict called it his “Summer BBQ” and together they all ate baked beans, salad, and ribs.
“Those were some of the best ribs I’ve ever had,” Woltanski said.
Aaron Tracey, director of hospitality operations for the Dow Hotel and Rockwell Lake Lodge said that Benedict is ambitious and extraordinary.
“We were quite lucky to find a chef who is talented inside and outside the kitchen,” Tracey said. “Eric treats his guests like family.”
Tracey noted that being the hospitality manager is a big responsibility and over the summer Benedict hosted over 1,500 guests.
“He handled it with grit and excellence, Tracey said. “He’s the perfect fit for the role, and it’s a joy to work with him advancing the mission of the college through hospitality.”
Benedict said that constant learning inspires him in his work.
“There are always new flavors to discover, and the push to be better has directed my life,” Benedict said. “The constant quest for more keeps me going.”
You can follow Eric Benedict on Instagram @the_pub_chef