(Brutus, Mich.) Tom Foster, owner of Hidden River Golf & Casting Club, didn’t have to cast far to find new chef Ken Willoughby, 51, just a few miles up the road in Pellston and the University of Michigan’s Biological Station on Douglas Lake.
“We couldn’t be happier having Ken as our chef,” said Foster. “He’s talented and experienced in the kitchen and knows quality food, preparation and service are all equally important.”
Located 15 minutes north of Petoskey off US-31, Hidden River Golf & Casting Club is well-known not only for its picturesque golf course, but also for its award-winning Rainbow Room restaurant.
“I’m excited being at Hidden River,” said Willoughby. “It has an excellent reputation and following and I’m dedicated to making it even better known across the region and state. We’ll continue our signature dishes of ribs, sautéed walleye, and the Maple River salad while also branching out with new menu selections complemented by food from local growers.”
Willoughby is an innovative chef in what Detroit Free Press food writer Sylvia Rector called northern Michigan’s “increasingly sophisticated restaurant scene” and “overall passion for and interest in all things food.” He supports local farmers, has a large vegetable garden of his own, raises chickens that “eat on fresh grass every day” and is adviser to the Michigan Small Farm Conference and teaches participants how to cook great foods.
Willoughby moved “Up North” as Executive Chef at the world class U of M Biological Station eight years ago after three years as the Executive Chef at the Michigan League at U-M in Ann Arbor. The Michigan League was the University’s primary banquet and special event venue for important campus luncheons and dinners, including several events honoring former President Gerald R. Ford when he visited his alma mater. “It was always a privilege for the kitchen and dining staff to prepare and serve a meal for President Ford,” said Willoughby.
That followed a career at some of Detroit’s top restaurants including the Golden Mushroom under renowned Master Chef Milos Cihelka and later The Great Dane. He moved on to Ann Arbor and oversaw two restaurants that earned four stars, A Moveable Feast and Kerrytown Bistro.
In Ann Arbor, Ken worked with Peter DiLorenzi and “he was one of the biggest influences in my life. He wasn’t a classically trained chef but he knew of the historical bases of foods, where they came from. We specialized in Italian-French peasant food, earned four stars and an award for Best Wine list in Michigan matched to food.”
After hectic stints at the Ann Arbor restaurants and the Michigan League, Willoughby ended up in Pellston with U of M and called it “the best decision of my life.”
Willoughby’s love for food and preparing it started in Southfield when his sister, Cindy, held him up to the stove and he made omelets and scrambled eggs. “I was six or seven.”
“I learned so much from my mom – she is a great southern cook – and then a first generation Italian family, the Vigis from Naples, moved next door and I started eating a lot of meals at their house. Mrs. Vigi started teaching me about cooking when I was about 10. Then when I was 14, I worked at a restaurant, across from Southfield High School, and they let me wash dishes and cook a little.”
Willoughby took a cooking class in high school, got into a co-op program that let him out at noon and he got a job at Victoria’s Station and then Steak & Ale. After high school, he spent four years in the Navy and spent 14 months overseas in the Middle East, Africa and southern Europe and learned more foods, especially those without meat.
“That helped me at the Biological Station because half of the students and staff were vegetarians.”
A graduate of Oakland Community College, Willoughby also interned at the Bella Rosa restaurant in Taranto, Italy.
For more information about Hidden River Golf & Casting Club call 1-800-325-4653 or visit www.hiddenriver.com
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