Cheryl Bernacchi was only eight but she could already cook up a batch of spaghetti from scratch. More than that, she knew she wanted to keep cooking way into the future, a view fostered in party by helping her mother and aunt who ran a popular catering business. But when it came time to go to college, her father deep-sixed the idea, saying she needed to get a business degree instead. And so for the next few years, Bernacchi, who grew up in LaPorte, studied marketing at Indiana University.
“I didn’t like it at all,” says Bernacchi. “I just wanted to cook.”
But you have to listen to your father and so Bernacchi chucked business school and instead attended the American Culinary Federation (ACF) in their culinary apprenticeship program, a two-and-a-half year program combining on-the-job training and related classroom instruction, learning classic French cuisine along with Italian cookery as well.
“Once you have those basics you can cook just about anything—that’s what I’m doing here, taking upscale comfort food and giving it an interesting twist,” says Bernacchi, noting that she and the chef she apprenticed under still remain good friends.
Here is the Lazy Perch, located on Highway 12 between Michigan City and New Buffalo where Bernacchi helped orchestrate the restaurant’s opening this January and now works as an executive chef.
“Most of everything we make here is made in-house,” says Bernacchi. “And we try to use as much local and seasonal as we can. I like buying from the farmers and food producers in Southwest Michigan and Northwest Indiana.”
Though the menu changes seasonally and according to what’s available, menu items have included the half-pound LP Burger topped with bacon jam, pimento cheese and crispy fried onions and mac’n’cheese which is like no box variety ever but instead is made with cavatappi pasta covered with a blend of Fontina, smoked Gouda and white cheddar and then topped with apple wood smoked bacon, the house-made Italian sausage, panko crumbs and Parmesan crisps. There’s also chicken meatballs, chicken wings basted in a Sriracha sauce, crispy calamari salad with a lemon aioli sauce, pork rillettes and, showing how she combines French with American Midwest, a bison meatloaf in a rich mushroom demi-glacé.
In an intriguing innovation on the traditional crab cake, Bernacchi created perch coquettes and, because it’s part of their name, there are other perch offerings as well including the crispy perch sandwich accompanied roasted tomato conserva (slow roasted tomatoes with olive oil and garlic) and Bernacchi’s own Lazy Perch sauce—one of her many made from scratch condiments and sauces.
“I’ve also been using a lot of pork cheeks because they have such a rich taste when you braise them," says Bernacchi.
Their best-selling dessert, which Bernacchi describes as a “killer” is tres leches, a classic Mexican cake made with different types of milk. But in terms of popularity, the caramel pot au crème, peanut butter and chocolate beignets and Chocolate Turtle Torte Filled with Mascarpone Cheese with house made caramel and toasted pecans topped with freshly whipped cream aren’t too far behind.
“One of my kitchen staff is from Mexico,” says Bernacchi, “and she says that my tres leches is as good as the one her mother makes.”
There’s an emphasis on handcrafted artisan microbrews and wines from Southwest Michigan’s fertile wine region.
“We have a couple of really great bartenders who make some remarkable cocktails,” says Bernacchi. “Like Rhonda’s Rambling Rose Martini which is named after the owner and is made with White Godiva Liqueur, Tequila Rose and Chambord.”
The full bar also features The Lazy Perch Mug Club where for a one-time membership fee, members get 22 ounces of draft beers for the price of 16 ounces and also get in on the weekly beer on tap special for only $3.50 for 22 ounces along with special appetizers.
In its former incarnation, the building where the Lazy Perch is housed was formerly the Beachwood Inn, a roadside supper club type place in the Grand Beach area. First opened in the 1950s, the original owner sold it the 1980s and the restaurant closed about five or six years ago, standing empty until Pat and Rhonda Kowalski, who formerly owned The Clubhouse on Highway 20 in Michigan City, brought it. Remodeling included adding big new windows in one of the two rooms and work on a patio for the warm weather months.
The Kowalskis asked Bernacchi to help create the new menu and open the restaurant besides working as their executive chef. Menu development is nothing new for Bernacchi who, before a landlord-tenant dispute closed the Pump House in downtown St. Joseph, worked with the restaurant staff in revamping their menu. She also has worked as the executive chef at Swan Lake Golf Resort in Plymouth, Indiana where she was hired to revamp the entire Food and Beverage Department for 2011 season and assisted with the opening including creating the signature cuisine at Frankie’s Place in Union Pier. Other resume highlights are working as a restaurant consultant when the Miller Bakery Café reopened a few years back and also worked for the Great Lakes Catering where her duties were working as a chef for specialty/high-end events and was responsible for working with clients to create specialized menus, presenting tastings and organize event from ordering of product to final execution.
“It can be a challenge,” says Bernacchi, acknowledging the angst of coming into a restaurant and upending things by redesigning a menu that might not have been changed in years. “You have to stay the course. When we were changing the menu at the Pump House which hadn’t been done for ten years, some of the staff would complain and were resistant so what we did is we made up the new menu items and took them out to the customers as samples. Then we could say, hey the customers really like it.”
Bernacchi says that this is the first time in two decades she’s lived so close to work, a real plus in the long days and nights of restaurant work. She also loves being able to adapt comfort food by tweaking it with the latest food trends. But most of all, she’s glad she’s not in marketing.
“My dad is so proud,” she says when asked if he’s disappointed she’s not an MBA. “He comes here to eat all the time. And for me, because cooking is my whole life, I don’t even feel like I’m working.”
The Lazy Perch is located at 19799 US Highway 12, New Buffalo, MI. (269) 469-8001 or visit them on Facebook.