“Hyper-Local” at the Wickman House
By Erica Krug | Photos By Erica Krug 1
Door County, the peninsula of Wisconsin that juts out into Lake Michigan, is known for beautiful beaches, cherry orchards, packed campgrounds and a restaurant with goats on the roof. But despite being an agricultural area, it's not an easy place to grow food. With a short growing season and rocky, sandy soil, it takes a lot of moxie to have a garden here, let alone try to grow all of the food for a restaurant menu. But that is exactly what the people at Wickman House want to do.
In its fifth season, Wickman House, a gorgeous three-story structure located on four and a half acres in the unincorporated town of Ellison Bay (pop. 165), is open from April until January or February. It is a farm-to-table spot with a seasonal menu that puts its money where your mouth is; when owner Mike Holmes first opened in 2012 he immediately turned his attention to the land with the goal of being a "hyper-local" restaurant.
"My dream is to source at least 50 percent of every plate from right here," Holmes says.
Like many of us who grew up in Wisconsin, Holmes spent lots of time visiting Door County as a child. While in college in 1999, he decided to head to the peninsula for a summer job and ended up at restaurant T.Ashwell's, which is now the site of Wickman House. He worked there for three summers before moving to New York City to run a non-profit and work as a bartender.
About ten years later, when Holmes heard that T.Ashwell's was for sale, he and then-partner Joe Fahrenkrug created a business plan to buy the restaurant. On April 1, 2012, Holmes and his girlfriend (now wife), Sarah, headed for Ellison Bay to meet up with Fahrenkrug and his wife, Katie. On May 25, 2012, Wickman House—named for Andrew Wickman, the first owner of the property who came to America from Sweden in 1872—opened to the public.
You can't have a farm-to-table restaurant without a farm, so Holmes and the chefs got started on a place to grow food. They first cleared out all of the sumac that filled the field. Next they scraped the sod to create a garden space and turned their attention to the soil, which was barren and didn't retain water. Holmes brought in horse manure to start building up the soil; more organic matter means better soil structure and water holding capacity. To help counter the short growing season and unpredictable weather, in 2015 they built a greenhouse and this spring they added a water source for the garden.
It was snowing on the day I visited Wickman House in mid-May, but it was toasty warm inside the greenhouse, where tomato and pepper plants, already several inches tall, waited for warmer weather to get transplanted outside. During peak season, Holmes says that all of the kale, collard greens and tomatoes are grown on the Wickman House grounds, and all of the produce during this time comes from a local farm or garden.
Executive chef Matt Chambas also enjoys foraging for food for the Wickman House menu. In the spring this means ramps, morel mushrooms and fiddlehead ferns—a delicious combination when sautéed in butter. And many things on the menu, like the fermented ketchup, are made from scratch.
In addition to a seasonal menu with specials that change nightly, Wickman House has an innovative, rotating cocktail list. On the night I ate there in May, I sipped on the El Tigre—rye whiskey, elderflower, lime, cherry liqueur, hot sauce, cilantro and soda. It was one of the most delicious concoctions I have had. For dinner I had the grain bowl, a combination of toasted farro, wild rice, bok choy, marinated kale, ramp kimchee, peanuts, shiitake mushrooms and lemon miso vinaigrette (fear not carnivores, you can add soy-braised Waseda Farms pork shoulder to this dish.)
Trellises for vegetables pop up on each return trip, and the attention and care being given to the garden is obvious. It's easy for restaurants these days to claim to be a "farm-to-table" establishment, but theWickman House staff is dedicated to sourcing as locally as possible. Usually just out the back door from the kitchen.
Wickman House is open for dinner Wednesday through Mondays (closed Tuesdays) from 5:00 p.m. until 11:00 p.m. Reservations are recommended.