Behind the Scenes: Jim Stoutjesdyk of Flat River Grill
by Patrick Misner
The Gilmore Collection’s first restaurant was the Thornapple Village Inn, which opened in Ada in the 1970s. Since that time, the collection has increased to 14 unique restaurants known around Michigan and Colorado for providing fine and fresh dining experiences. Flat River Grill, downtown Lowell’s Gilmore Collection restaurant, first opened in 2002.
Their website describes the restaurant thusly: “neighborhood restaurant located in the heart of downtown Lowell and is comprised of two unique spaces–the dining room, housed within the first floor of the Bergin building (est. 1931), and a four-season patio, which is situated alongside the Flat River and the historic Lowell Showboat. Dining options include wood-fired feasts with an emphasis on classic American cuisine. The menu is highlighted by line-caught fish, grass-fed beef, wood-fired pizza and an impressive variety of wood-grilled burgers.”
Jim Stoutjesdyk has been working at Flat River Grill since 2004 and has been the Executive Chef since 2006. Part of what makes Flat River Grill unique is its ever-shifting menu, which Stoutjesdyk is instrumental in developing. “We change our menus two to four times a year depending on the seasonality of the product,” said Stoutjesdyk.
He is quick to point out the many other people who have helped developed the menu.
“There are a few dishes that have been put on by two of the former chefs that were here before I was," Stoutjesdyk explained. "And then some of my sous chefs, they still have dishes that became local favorites real fast, so we keep those on the menu. But yeah, a lot of the menus just kind of change with guest requests… We try things out on our features, our daily features. If they sell well and are well received, then we’ll [keep] them out. There is direction from Greg Gilmore as to how they would like their menus designed. So we try to follow their recommendations as to how big they want their menu or what kind of items they want on their menu.”
He gets his own ideas for menu items from a variety of sources.
“I look at what is trending," Stoutjesdyk said. "We pay attention to the magazines as to what is trending in the year. Most of it is, 'What food am I interested in playing with?' I pull a lot from the people I work with. It’s more of a collaborative effort.”
His humble introduction into the world of cooking was pragmatic.
“[Cooking] is what I was doing in high school to get money," Stoutjesdyk remarked. "I started at Burger King. And then I think I worked at Little Caesars for a little bit. And then I got into Thornapple Village Inn, while I was still in high school so that was a Gilmore Collection restaurant in 96’… way back then.”
He thought about working outside of the culinary arts but eventually felt drawn back in after studying criminal justice in college.
“I decided to go into the culinary arts field because that is what I continued to always do," Stoutjesdyk said. "I got my Associate’s [from Grand Rapids Community College] in 2001 I think I graduated from there.”
Stoutjesdyk gets further inspiration for his cooking from his home life. His wife now stays at home to watch their three daughters, but she is also a chef. They have a large garden that requires him to find ways to add in an assortment of vegetables in his meals at home. Even though he loves working creatively with food, he often finds himself making less formal meals after work.
“It’s a comfort food thing for me, so if I’m going to go home, it’s going to be just like a grilled cheese sandwich because I’ve been here all day and I want something that’s going to be quick," Stoutjesdyk said.
Still, he does enjoy developing his cooking craft at home.
“Right now, a lot of smoked meats are what I like to do," explained Stoutjesdyk. "When we hit towards the end of the growing season then I have a garden full of fresh vegetables, so we create a lot of stuff with that. And then I like to incorporate a lot of ancient grains into all of my dishes when I am at home. So that is the stuff I am drawn towards personally, all the quinoas and couscous and barleys and things like that; I like to incorporate those into my dishes at home. But also at home we try to eat healthy versus bringing in a lot of processed foods into our diet. So that is kind of how I try to create food here also. I don’t want to have pre-processed and pre-packaged food. Everything is fresh, we keep it low on the amount of processed sugar we put into it.”
This trend for local food and drinks particularly in the Grand Rapids area has been influential since he started in the restaurant industry. Although this creates more competition for restaurants like Flat River Grill, he ultimately appreciates the shift in culture.
“We’re oversaturated with restaurants in a small area, and that is what is going on across the nation," Stoutjesdyk said. "But it forces us to be more creative and to draw people here so that helps. And it really starts to educate a lot of the guests. The guests know what they want. Years ago, you didn’t have a lot of choices of restaurants to go to. Now there’s, 'What do you want? what style of food do you want?' I enjoy seeing the good breweries and the good barbecue places. All of the local craft people have a very small niche, but they do whatever they do very well so I think it really educates the general public as to different styles of food and different methods of cooking. When I first started, I couldn’t word a menu a certain way because people were unfamiliar to a term. Now, [with] the [increase of] knowledge of people in the fifteen years I’ve been here, it’s amazing.”
Flat River Grill just released their spring menu which includes ten new items that, according to their website, includes a fried chicken sandwich, tomato bruschetta, veggie chorizo quesadilla and a wood-grilled Kansas City strip steak. Stop in to Flat River Grill, 201 E. Main, and try some of Stoutjesdyk and his staff's creations. They are open Monday through Thursday from 11 am to 9pm, on Friday and Saturday they are open from 11 am to 10 pm and on Sunday they are open from 11 am until 8 pm. They have "happy hour" Tuesday through Friday from 2 pm until 6 pm and wine specials on Wednesdays.