Aster Farm to Table Restaurant in Midland Focuses on Seasonality, Sustainability and Community

Jake Newby

| 6 min read

When chef Evan Sumrell left Chicago for his wife’s hometown of Midland, Michigan in 2020, he envisioned building relationships with the vast community of farmers Midland County is ripe with, on the way to opening his own farm to table restaurant. 
That vision became reality in short order.
Beef from Stoney Grove Farm in Rodney. Whitefish straight from Lake Erie, caught and smoked by one of the oldest butcher shops in the state, Plath’s Meats in Rogers City. Fresh heirloom tomatoes from Good Stead Farm in Hope. These are just a few of the family-owned farms and businesses Sumrell has carefully nurtured relationships with over the past four years to help make Aster the successful restaurant is today, in a city that ironically lacked a farm to table concept.
“Midland is a farming community and there’s no farm to table restaurants, so why’s that?” said Sumrell, who cut his teeth for more than a decade in Chicago, with experience working as a chef in Michelin Star restaurants. “I like mom and pop restaurants, but it gets old. You shouldn’t go out to eat and order something you can buy and cook yourself. That just seems very silly to me.”
Toward the end of his time in Chicago, Sumrell got a metaphorical taste of how rewarding – and from a culinary perspective, exciting – the farm to table concept was when he joined a restaurant that sourced its food locally. But the lackluster produce there bothered him. The produce isn’t lackluster in mid-Michigan.
“Even just simple stuff, onions, celery, green onion, carrots, different varieties of carrots. Turnips. Leaks. I can go on and on,” Sumrell said, of Michigan veggies. “All these things I kind of took for granted at the restaurants I worked at because some of them go into stocks, some of them go into things that create flavor. So, if you’re going to strain the vegetable out and throw it away, I understand it’s going to be difficult (for restaurant owners) to go, ‘OK, we still need to pay for good stuff to make this.’ But my thought was, ‘What if we did this as a whole, and everything we bought was going to be from someone on that line that values the same things we think about. We thought, ideally, that would translate to the food, and ultimately translate to making guests happy.”

Aster staples: Burgers, hush puppies and quality vegan offerings

Aster’s menu rotates based on what’s in season in Michigan. But one entrée that never goes anywhere is their burger.
“Our burger is stupid good,” Sumrell said. “I call it a diner burger.”
Aster’s diner burger consists of two four-ounce patties on a sesame seed bun with aioli, dill pickles, cheddar cheese and shaved red onion.
“The beef comes from Stoney Farms. It’s a dairy cow, so it’s a steer, it’s had a life,” he said. “Usually, these cows live to be 8 or 9 years old, they’ve had their time, they’ve had a great life. And that’s the huge difference between our beef and where other people are getting their stuff from.”
Sumrell is a southern boy, born and raised near Atlanta, where hush puppies are iconic. He took the foundation of a good hush puppy at Aster and put a Midwest twist on it. 
“We actually make a dough called Pâte à Choux, which is how you make an éclair. Instead of making the dough sweet we make the dough savory. And then, we put smoked whitefish in it,” Sumrell said. “We add herbs into it as well, and we actually deep fry it. So, when you get it you have this giant puff ball with folded, smoked whitefish inside of it. We serve it with cocktail sauce and a lemon wedge.”
Summer is around the corner, which means Sumrell’s seasonal menu is about to flip. When it changes this year, guests can expect a whole lot of tomato-based recipes.
“We do this really beautiful tomato toast,” he said. “We make Boursin cheese in-house, it’s essentially sheep’s milk. We do that, pickled shallot, microbasil and pistachio. And it’s on a piece of brioche bread. It’s so simple but so delicious. That’s definitely a showstopper in the summer.”
Sumrell’s wife was vegan for 15 years, so he holds vegan cuisine near and dear to his heart. There are always at least a couple of vegan options on Aster’s “From the Farm” section of the menu.
“Most of the stuff from the farm is vegan,” he said. “We want to highlight really great vegetables. We’re able to get some of the best produce in the world here in Michigan, because we have all these beautiful seasons. Most of the things from the farm can be made vegan.”
Aster also makes vegan and vegetarian items off the menu, by request.

The challenges and rewards of running a farm to table restaurant 

Sumrell maintains that he’s not trying to get rich with Aster. Instead, he wants to put out a great, sustainable product. Some restaurant owners say that, but Sumrell backs it up by circumventing the cheap and easy wholesale food supplier route and going out of his way to source strictly local proteins, ingredients, and vegetables.
Beyond being more time-consuming and expensive, sourcing with local farmers can be tough because many of them are weary of doing business with restaurant owners. Sumrell learned this firsthand.
“It takes time to build relationships with farmers,” he said. “From talking to a lot of them around here, a lot of them had short business relationships with restaurants for maybe a few weeks. Then restaurants may ghost them and not talk to them for months, then suddenly hit them up and say, ‘Hey, can I get this?’ And they respond with, ‘All that is sold, I haven’t heard from you.’
Those relationships have been nurtured for nearly four years now and are in a great spot. Meanwhile, in house at Aster, Sumrell is trying to walk the tight rope between running a chef-focused, elevated kitchen and presenting a casual, laid-back restaurant reflective of its community.
He said it can be tough to avoid coming off as pretentious or intimidating to guests with menu items like his Coq Au Vin deboned half chicken dish or the dry-aged Rohan duck entrée. It’s a big reason why the diner burger is so popular; guests tend to fall back on a comfort food item when they feel overwhelmed. Sumrell said his team has paid close attention to that dynamic over the years. Aster regularly educates guests on its concept, processes, ideas and ingredients, while simultaneously learning from guests on what works and what they’d like to see more of at his casual fine dining restaurant.
“I think what’s changed the game drastically for us is having that open line of communication with the guests to explain to them what we’re doing in a very conversational, homey way,” Sumrell said. “That’s a challenge I didn’t think about when we opened this place.”
Sumrell says Aster – located at 134 Ashman Street in Midland – has exceeded his expectations in terms of general success and community support. He attributes that success to the three elements Aster was founded on when it first opened its doors.
“My thing when I opened the restaurant is, I wanted this restaurant to be based off seasonality, sustainability and the community,” he said. “That’s what we’re all about.”
Photo credit: Evan Sumrell
Continue reading:

A Healthier Michigan is sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, a nonprofit, independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.
No Personal Healthcare Advice or Other Advice
This Web site provides general educational information on health-related issues and provides access to health-related resources for the convenience of our users. This site and its health-related information and resources are not a substitute for professional medical advice or for the care that patients receive from their physicians or other health care providers.
This site and its health-related information resources are not meant to be the practice of medicine, the practice of nursing, or to carry out any professional health care advice or service in the state where you live. Nothing in this Web site is to be used for medical or nursing diagnosis or professional treatment.
Always seek the advice of your physician or other licensed health care provider. Always consult your health care provider before beginning any new treatment, or if you have any questions regarding a health condition. You should not disregard medical advice, or delay seeking medical advice, because of something you read in this site.