Essential workers, earthquakes, and a chef’s support

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Photo: Süleyman Kanal (far left) and Blu chef Randy Chamberlain (far right).

By Ross Boissoneau

Sun contributor

Randy Chamberlain is well-known as an innovative chef. His experience at multiple restaurants around the region led to his establishing the fine dining experience, Blu, on the water in Glen Arbor. He and his sommelier wife Mari have received numerous accolades there, including a James Beard nomination for Best Chef-Great Lakes and praise from Wine Spectator and Travel+Leisure.

Running a successful restaurant requires a dedicated staff. Like virtually every other restaurant (and practically every industry), the Chamberlains have been scrambling to find enough workers. They eventually opted to hire foreign workers to make up for the shortfall, much like others before them in the hospitality industry.

One of those workers, Süleyman Kanal, returned to his home in Turkey after working at both Boonedocks and Blu last summer. “Süleyman was an outstanding worker. He’d get up at six, work out, then be at Boonedocks in the morning, then walk to Blu,” says Randy. “His energy was just amazing.”

He returned to his homeland when his visa expired, with plans to come back to work here this summer. But the massive earthquake that struck his home country in February changed everything. Chamberlain says they were unable to get in touch and they were left wondering what had happened to him and his family. “It took weeks to get hold of him. His phone was buried” in the remains of their home.

“His father is a furniture maker, and his shop was gone. Their home was gone. They had to dig through the rubble for mementos.” Chamberlain began a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the family. To date it has raised more than $3,400. “He was so grateful. He said he’d come back and work for free to pay it back,” Chamberlain says, even though he’d explained to Kanal that the money was donated and he didn’t even know many of those who contributed.

Chamberlain says that attitude is typical of many of the foreign workers. They are motivated by the fact there may be few opportunities for them to earn money in their home countries. Many send the bulk of their earnings back to their families. “There are so many wonderful stories with the kids,” Chamberlain says.

All that said, he wishes he didn’t have to hire them. Chamberlain says he would love to hire more local people, but there simply aren’t enough applying. He says those who maintain that foreign workers take away jobs from people here in the U.S. are simply wrong. “Kids would knock on the door to find a summer job. I always had a folder full of applications,” he said. “That just doesn’t happen anymore.”

Chamberlain says other restaurateurs and business owners have asked him about the program, which enables workers to work for just 90 days. He says he has to stagger his applications for workers to cover May through September, and he has to schedule them throughout the week.

Places like the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island and Grand Traverse Resort have been utilizing the programs for years. The workers are all students in their home countries, and their availability is based around their school calendars. Chamberlain says he had five foreign student workers last year, and was hoping to have six this year, but one has been delayed. “He’s in a lottery, so I’m back to five.”

The need for additional staff is due to both the influx of visitors throughout the summer and the reputation the restaurant has developed. Randy’s vast experience and dedication translates to an ever-changing menu boasting both the best from local farms and suppliers, and foodstuffs from outside sources he has come to know and trust. Mari curates a wine list that complements those items and stands on its own as well.

The cozy restaurant beckons with its wall of windows overlooking Lake Michigan, and crowds often gather to watch the sunset. The combination leads to superlative reviews on Yelp and Trip Advisor, and a steady stream of customers.

Which again leads to the need for enough cooks, dishwashers, waitstaff and others to keep up with demand. “It’s still difficult the rest of the year,” Chamberlain admits.

But it’s especially true this time of year. “In summer in Glen Arbor, any day could be our busiest day of the week. Every day is a Saturday.” Which makes him reluctant to close one day per week, as some eateries have been forced to do. And he will absolutely not compromise on quality, from the staff to the meals. “I don’t believe there’s any turning back,” he says.

To support Süleyman Kanal’s family in Turkey, click here.