Since opening in 2010, Grand Rapids’ Reserve Wine & Food has served as a leader in the city’s farm-to-table restaurant movement. Working closely with local growers, the Reserve staff builds simple and artful dishes around seasonal ingredients. Wine is also a big star here; Grand Rapids’ Reserve serves more than 100 varieties of whites, reds and bubblies.

We sat down with Executive Chef Mathew Green and General Manager Peter Marantette to learn more about the Reserve, Grand Rapids’ farm-to-table food scene, and where to go when you’re craving late-night tacos.

Reserve Grand Rapids dining room

Before the evening rush at Reserve Wine & Food.

Q & A With Reserve Grand Rapids

Tell us how the Grand Rapids food scene has changed since you first opened, and how your restaurant has evolved to accommodate the city’s taste.

We’ve seen a tremendous amount of growth in the past four years. More restaurants are opening up downtown. From everything we’ve heard, you didn’t come downtown after dark 10 years ago. There was nothing to do. But money is being invested in downtown to make it the place to be.

Now, Grand Rapids has a new downtown market that was modeled after the Pike Place Market in Seattle. The Grand Rapids Downtown Market has a great butcher, fishmonger, a demo and a teaching kitchen, and a phenomenal bakery.

When we first opened, our concept was originally small plates, designed to be shared. It didn’t work. Grand Rapids is, in a lot of ways, a very traditional town: people wanted to come in and have that experience of having a soup and salad, an appetizer, their own entree. The way our menu is set up now, you can do that, and you can also have the small plate experience.

Reserve Grand Rapids Lamb

Lamb kielbasa served with pork fat panzanella, tomato, cucumber and pickles.

Can you tell us about the Grand Rapids farm scene and the growers you work with?

It’s amazing here. I think Michigan is the third in the country for agricultural diversity, and the second in agricultural volume. Michigan is a great place to be a chef. You have all this amazing stuff being grown year-round. Our winters may be long, but we have a lot of greenhouse growers here. We also grow a lot of root cellar vegetables like potatoes, parsnips, and beets.

We work with an amazing lamb farm about two hours away. We also use cheese from Evergreen Lane Creamery, about 45 minutes away. The farthest farms we work with are in Traverse City, about 140 miles away. There is amazing fruit being grown by the lakeshore there: blueberries, strawberries, peaches, plums, melons.

Are there dishes and ingredients unique to this area of Michigan that someone has to try when they visit?

Blis is a company run by a Grand Rapids chef. He makes Michigan maple syrup, and smokes a delicious local trout roe. His products are distinctly Michigan. Also, we’re a huge beer town. Founders is great. We just had a dinner last night with Brewery Vivant. Coffee is big here too. MadCap coffee is sending baristas to national competitions and winning big. They work with single-origin, small farms around the world.

There’s also some serious winemaking going on in Michigan. We grow a lot of the same varietals as France’s Alsace region: Rieslings, pinot grigios, pinot blancs. The geographies in Michigan and that region of France are quite different, but the climates are similar.

Rieslings are one of my favorite wines to drink. Riesling has this reputation for being the wine you buy in the blue nun bottle that rots your teeth out. In truth, Riesling can be super racy and mineral-driven or bone dry. It has so much diversity.

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A wine flight from Reserve. The Rieslings were indeed quite tasty.

Your restaurant is beautiful. Can you tell us more about the space?

A century ago, this building was originally a bank. We’ve tried to keep many of the building’s original details. Also, all our furniture is from Grand Rapids’ companies.

The painting above our bar is called Open Water. It was done by Ran Ortner. The painting was the winner at the 2009 ArtPrize, an international art competition held every year in Grand Rapids.

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Ran Ortner’s Open Water hangs behind the bar at the Reserve.

Ran Ortner’s story was the typical starving artist tale. He literally couldn’t pay the $50 entry fee; his friends entered the painting for him. He won a quarter of a million dollars and sold the painting for much more.

(Editor’s note: We hope Ran is still nice to those friends.)

Ray’s second piece is in Eric Ripert’s NYC restaurant Le Bernardin; it’s hanging in the dining room. But we have his very first piece. Beat that Eric Ripert!

In your words, why is it important to embrace local ingredients?

It just makes food taste good. It feels more authentic. For example, if it’s summer in Michigan, we’re going to serve things that taste like summer in Michigan. You can get commodity products like apples, carrots, or strawberries year round. Those sell all year, but they’re not always the right things to be on your menu.

Also, I think it gives our guests something to connect to. When they learn that our lamb was raised by Pierre, who they’ve seen at the Fulton Street Market every day for the last 30 years, it makes the meal more interesting.

In wine they do a lot of blind tastings. We did some for a while, but we’ve moved away from that. So much of the enjoyment of a glass of wine comes from knowing the story of where it came from. The people we work with, their families have been making wine for generations. The people we buy our whitefish from, they’ve been fishing out of Lake Michigan for four generations. Our hog farm has been raising pigs for seven generations. Those are powerful details. The food tastes great as it is, but it heightens the experience to know that story.

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Lake Michigan whitefish with fennel and currants.

Tell us why you think some restaurants don’t embrace locally grown foods?

At end of day, a restaurant is a business. We buy our food from more than a dozen local farms and companies. The ordering, receiving, accounting that goes into that? It’s a lot of work! Or you can buy everything off of one truck. It’s a whole lot easier, and I can understand why people do that.

I’d guess it takes up to 10 hours a week extra for us to buy local ingredients. We go to the Fulton Street Farmers Market; we have relationships going back years with the growers there. We talk to them about what’s going into season, what’s coming out. Our staff is trained every day in the intricacies of the menu: where the oysters came from, that the blueberries served today might not be here tomorrow because the season’s ending.

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It takes time to learn the ins and outs of Reserve’s extensive wine list.

Chef Matt, this one’s for you. What’s your role in the kitchen? What’s your style? You hear about some chefs who are, for lack of a better word, total jerks. Then you also have guys like Eric Ripert who are calm and more supportive.

I would follow more in Eric’s style. My job is to support what everyone else is doing and make sure they’re able to complete their jobs. I occasionally get mad, sure, but I try to always treat people with respect. I usually end up plating a lot of the food. I also spend a lot of time developing recipes, planning new menu items, and addressing any issues that come up.

What’s the hardest thing about running a restaurant of this caliber?

Consistency: hitting the same marks every night. You deliver an experience, and hopefully it’s exceptional. Now you have to live up to those expectations for the guest’s next visit. It’s an art for the front of the house as well as the back.

Finally, what are your favorite restaurants in Grand Rapids?

The Grove and Terra are great. Osteria Rossa serves great rustic Italian food. There are also some amazing taquerias in town. Taqueria San Jose is fantastic.

(Editor’s note: Mmmmm, tacos.)

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