chef's table

Mickey Cannon, Tuscan Bistro

By Patty LaNoue Stearns / Photography By Tracy Grant | July 01, 2016
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Mickey Cannon

Up North’s Little Northern Italy Along the bay, chef extraordinaire Mickey Cannon is celebrating a decade at his Tuscan Bistro, making merry with fresh, creative cuisine.

It’s 9:30 in the morning at Traverse City’s Tuscan Bistro and the kitchen is humming with heavenly aromas. A vat of Bolognese sauce simmers on the stove, bread is baking in the oven and fresh mozzarella’s under way for the caprese salad. Tonight’s special—chicken scarpariello with ground sweet sausage and broccoli rabe—is already being prepped for dinner.

It will be a long day for Mickey Cannon, but he’s used to it.

“I’ve been in the restaurant business since I was 11 years old and I still enjoy what I do,” says the chef, now 57. That’s lucky for his patrons, who flock to the Grand Traverse Bay eatery for the atmosphere, the consistent service and zesty authentic menu. They know that Cannon will be around to every table, chatting them up, asking how they like the food, if they have any questions, if they need anything else. It’s something the amiable Cannon’s done since opening Tuscan Bistro in 2006 and part of the charm.

The other part, of course, is the view of the bay, best seen from the patio or at the bar or from a two-top next to the huge windows, where you can gaze at the turquoise water, sip on a fine Chianti, a red from Montepulciano or another bottle from the large selection of Italian wines and anticipate the courses that you’ll soon devour. Those might include the basket of warm, yeasty bread with a dipping sauce of aged balsamic and bright-green olive oil; the misto salad with big shreds of carrots and a bright, lemony vinaigrette, the handmade cavatelli with wild mushrooms in a creamy ragu, or maybe something from the raw bar that gleams with oysters on the half shell and shrimp.

Despite a menu that changes only seasonally, Cannon says he never gets bored because he makes a different special every night. Some recent enticements: grilled lamb chops with smoked potato hash featuring speck prosciutto and roasted red pepper, or a pan-roasted chicken breast with a savory olive tapenade. How about some of his housemade banana-chocolate and chocolate-hazelnut gelato? It’s dreamy.

TRAVELING THE WORLD…

Among his many culinary achievements, Michael Thomas Cannon, aka Mickey, spent three years cooking at the Italian Embassy in Washington, DC, and over his career has fed four presidents— Ford, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton. In 1987, Cannon was named “Outstanding Young Chef” in DC, where he also served as personal chef to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

From 1991 to ‘93 Cannon opened the first American hotel in Moscow, a place not exactly known for fresh cuisine, but as executive chef at the Radisson there, he made it happen with seven restaurants, banquets, room service and a staff that didn’t speak English. It was there that he cooked for former President Bush. “It was hard to get food,” Cannon remembers. “It had to be flown and trucked in, and then the Russian Mafia would hijack the trucks and steal our food.”

The Pittsburgh native, who moved to Traverse City to help Phil Murray open the now-defunct but celebrated Windows restaurant in the early 1980s, cheffed in New York and Connecticut after that before returning to Traverse City with his Big Apple born-and-bred wife, Dania, in 1995. Cannon opened Marfil’s Bakery on 14th Street, supplying his fresh bread and baked goods to Sam’s Club and others. Five years later, he closed that business and reopened in the same space as New York Pizza. Not just any pizza parlor, either: It featured fragrant dough that fermented a day or so to bring out the flavor; hand-sliced vegetable toppings rather than the soggy stuff in water from restaurant suppliers; and sweet-tangy homemade sauce. That restaurant didn’t last long, but it definitely was a precursor to what Tuscan Bistro would become.

… AND HAPPY AT HOME

Ten years into his latest venture, initially called Gabby’s, Cannon seems to have found the formula that works. He uses all the local produce he can get, like Zenner’s tomatoes from Kingsley, and Cherry Capital Foods and the Traverse City farmers’ market for everything else in season. He also uses 18-year-aged balsamic vinegar from Fustini’s in downtown TC. Every day Cannon and crew roll their own pastas, make their own cheeses, and everything is cooked to order. “We only buy enough to be fresh at every meal,” the chef says.

One of his most popular dishes—the tagliatelle Bolognese—is always simmering on the stove. “We went through 12 gallons of sauce last weekend,” he says. If you figure a cup of the hearty, meaty (pork and veal) plum tomato sauce per entree, that’s a whole lot of loving going on.

Trust that the Bolognese and other staple sauces on the menu will always remain, no matter how labor-intensive, no matter what. “If I changed the menu, my customers would go crazy,” Cannon says. “Here, where people come back year after year on vacation, they expect the same service, food, hours and menu that I had the year before, the last time they visited. So I just have specials and seasonal changes and it all works out.”

Cannon sometimes does his own charcuterie and offers salumi plates as specials with smoked prosciutto, three Italian cheeses and local honey with caprese salad. He also keeps busy in his off hours teaching extended education cooking classes at Northwestern Michigan College, as long as he has enough staffers working his restaurant.

“I have a good core staff,” he says, “but finding good servers is a big problem all over up here. There’s no housing, it’s turning into a retirement community and there’s a real shortage of people who want to do it.”

After ten years at Tuscan Bistro, and 46 long years over his career, Cannon knows his limits and his needs. He stays happy by balancing his life with home and family. And he loves his customers, who always make him feel good about his food. That’s what makes Mickey Cannon tick.

“I love to see the smiles on people’s faces and I love to see them coming back again and again.”


Patty LaNoue Stearns is a veteran Michigan journalist. Find her work at PattyWrites.com.

IF YOU GO:
Tuscan Bistro

12930 S. West Bay Shore Dr., Traverse City
231-922-7795 • TuscanBistroTC.com.

Article from Edible Grande Traverse at http://ediblegrandetraverse.ediblecommunities.com/eat/mickey-cannon-tuscan-bistro
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