Follow the Mississippi along the Great River Road (Highway 35, in Wisconsin) for no shortage of woods, bluffs, curvy waterfronts and pastoral landscapes. Common are riverfront hamlets with historic charm. Rare are restaurants with a discerning menu that changes often.
One big exception is Chef Shack in Bay City, population 500, where the co-owners are quietly busting culinary presumptions one dish at a time.
On the eight-item dinner menu during my visit: butter-poached lump crab on lettuce, garnished with chive buds, tiny dills, capers. Smoked beef brisket arrived in lettuce cups, too, but with artichoke dressing.
Cocktails? Many options. A ten-spot would buy a Bay City Chili Zephyr: vodka, tonic, simple syrup, black pepper bitters, red chilies.
Four choices, for dessert: a chocolate torte with caramel, chocolate mousse in ganache-topped cream puffs, vanilla lavender pot du crème with rhubarb, charcoal honeycomb ice cream.
“Ranch rustic country French” is how the owners describe their cooking.
The small restaurant is open, at most, three days and 14 hours per week. It got on my radar during winter, as semifinalists were announced for James Beard Foundation Awards, the Oscars of the restaurant industry. Lisa Carlson, Chef Shack co-owner, made the elite list of 20 for Best Chef: Midwest.
Chef Shack wasn’t the only Wisconsin restaurant on the list, and Lisa didn’t make the cut into finals, but I’ll wager that no other nominee in the nation represented a smaller town. Excellence in the nation’s biggest cities is so much more likely to get noticed and praised.
Meeting Lisa and partner Carrie Summer, a pastry specialist, was a challenge. They were in Thailand as winter turned to spring, and Chef Shack wouldn’t reopen until April. They scooted off to a Women Chefs and Restaurateurs conference in Seattle in May (Carrie is on the board).
The women use Bay City as a part-time business address, but their pedigree resumes include work at high-end restaurants in London, New York and San Francisco. They aim to make fine dining more accessible by lessening the pretentiousness.
In 2006, six years before opening Chef Shack, they began wowing Twin Cities folks with a food truck that fried mini doughnuts (with a kick of cardamom), tacos (some with a grassfed beef tongue filling), burgers (bison) and ice cream (“trailer-made organic”).
Their food truck cuisine gained positive attention from Forbes, Saveur, Bon Appetit, long-respected food writer John T. Edge and others.
“We do street food inspired by our travels,” Lisa says. Now three Chef Shack food trucks are available for dispatch to farmers markets, catering events and downtown Minneapolis at lunchtime.
Was it big step to move on to a bricks-and-mortar business? “It was a big step to just buy a doughnut machine,” Lisa says.
On the Friday we were to meet in Bay City, Carrie called – twice – about the dinner reservation. Did Lisa need to be there? The chefs in 2013 opened a second restaurant, in south Minneapolis, and were swamped with prep for a 200-guest graduation party. Plus food truck prep for three weekend farmers markets.
I already was in the Twin Cities for another reason, so I drove through rush-hour traffic to their newer and casual Chef Shack Ranch, where smoked meats are a specialty. The chefs call it “American food truck picnic” cuisine.”
On the Big Boy Ranch Plate: smoked brisket, pulled pork, bacon sausage, biscuits, slaw, beans, pickles.
It was all interesting but irritating because of one problem: Lisa had left – for Bay City.
By the time we all met, sundown was near and Lisa had been up since 6 a.m., first to work at Chef Shack Ranch, then to stalk the central business district of Minneapolis in a food truck, to snag a prime lunchtime parking spot at 9 a.m. Her afternoon grocery shopping included a stop at a local tortilla shop.
Why do business in Bay City? “For us, it made sense to purchase this (former) tavern and have a place in the country,” Lisa says. And the price was right, especially when compared to downtown Minneapolis real estate.
Many chefs don’t own their restaurants, Carrie notes, and a consequence is “unsustained increases in overhead” that can force a business to close. “Owning our properties outright gives us leverage in our destiny.”
The Mississippi? It’s a block away. In the back yard is room for lounging, a brick oven and the chefs’ organic garden of veggies and flowers.
The owners seem to work hard and play hard. A part of their routine is to travel extensively during winter. Thailand, Indonesia, Laos and India are among the destinations that inspire and recharge them.
“This industry is shifting and changing,” Lisa notes. “So we need to stop and enjoy the coffee.”
Chef Shack, 6379 Main St., Bay City, is open 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday; chefshackbaycity.com, 715-594-3060. Chef Shack Ranch, 3025 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis, is open 5-10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, plus 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; chefshackranch.com, 612-354-2575. Reservations are advised for both locations.
In Minneapolis, look for a Chef Shack food truck along Second Avenue downtown during lunchtime, at the Saturday Mill City and Fulton Street farmers markets and at the Sunday Kingfield Farmers Market. minneapolismn.gov (search “farmers markets”)