German-born master chef takes over Black Forest, Three Lakes

As most U.S. teens were just learning to drive, 15-year-old Marcel Biro was a world away, navigating culinary school.

The year: 1988. The place: East Germany.

Within five years, the student was certified to teach others to cook and moonlighted at Michelin-starred restaurants. By age 24, he earned the title of master chef and already had worked as a chef for then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Biro traveled to America in 1999, first to prepare traditional German foods at the annual Christkindlmarket in Chicago. Then he moved to Wisconsin, where the resumé building continued.

“He barely spoke English,” recalls wife Heather Biro, whose work with him began as a communications specialist for the growing culinary enterprise.

The endeavor was about more than cooking workshops and fine dining in Sheboygan. Classroom material, inspired by international cuisines, turned into cookbooks. The business – Biro Restaurant and Wine Bar – became the subject of a 26-episode, syndicated reality series, “The Kitchens of Biro,” broadcast nationwide on public television stations. Then Biro and Regal Ware teamed in 2007, to launch a line of cookware.

A subsequent stint took the chef to Augusta, Ga., to develop Edgar’s Grille as vice president of hospitality for the culinary program at Helms College, named after the founder of Goodwill Industries.

“A lot of what we did was push Marcel as a brand,” Heather acknowledges. That’s not a priority anymore.

Now the chef, wife and their two daughters – ages 7 and 2 – live in a Northwoods town of 2,100. “It feels like it’s come full circle, bringing authentic German food to Americans,” she says.

Their Black Forest Inn, Three Lakes, opened as a tavern in 1934. Then came the addition of a bowling alley and dining room with hand-chiseled beams. Outside is a mural painted by Skip Wagner, a longtime local musician, known for his ability to play two trumpets in harmony.

The building was vacant for more than one year and in disrepair when it went up for auction. Heather’s father alerted the Biros, who were contemplating their next steps, personally and professionally. Being closer to family was a strong pull.

As they waffled, Heather says three community leaders bought the building “and were willing to wait for us to make a decision.” The Biros took over in 2014, opening on Dec. 31, after making repairs and upgrades.

“We wanted the feel of a living room,” Marcel says. A new fireplace adds a stay-and-don’t-feel-rushed vibe.

The Biros used Facebook to ask what the menu should include. One repeat answer: German food, without knowing Marcel’s heritage and expertise.

Out came longtime family recipes, including “oma’s rezept” for rouladen and apple strudel, mother’s version of sauerbraten with dumplings.

Traditional pub fare – burgers and pizza – made the cut too, as did an unexpected twist: Katzu Curry, buttermilk-fried chicken with a Japanese curry. “We want to make sure there is something for everyone,” Marcel says.

The Friday fish fry took a while to perfect, the chef admits, and the batter is similar to a tempera.

He cooks from scratch and with the seasons, using the products of local farmers, cheesemakers and others, preserving when possible. One recent example: marinating cabbage for use in “the dark days,” winter.

Heather welcomes the quiet of winter as “family time,” unlike tourist-heavy summers when Marcel works six nights a week.

They cautiously introduce a higher level of dining to the area. A recent farm-to-table dinner for 75 sold out. A five-course tasting dinner is in the works. “You have to trust us,” Heather tells prospective partners. “People will splurge for a unique experience.”

A few employees followed them to Three Lakes from Sheboygan and Augusta. That includes a sommelier who set up the beverage program. Craft beer is sold by the pint or growler. Among the craft cocktails: Supper Club Punch, a mix of brandy, vodka, bourbon, fresh citrus juices, raw sugar and honey.

“Everyone wanted to see this place succeed,” Heather says. They give back by offering a Halloween party to children, end-of-school-year meal to teachers, Wisconsin Dells outing to employees.

The couple has learned that good things, indeed, can come in small packages. And for Marcel, much is like life in his homeland.

He compares the rhythm of life to where he grew up, Paluen, in the Saxon region of Germany. “Grandparents take care of the children while the parents work. It is very German that way.”

He mentions the four seasons. The friendliness of Wisconsin. The terrain, “except the mountains are missing,” and ice skating in winter.

“What we really like about this town is that it’s little,” the chef says. He walked to school as a boy and likes the notion that his children could do the same someday.

Black Forest Inn closes during the first two weeks of November, last week of March and first three weeks of April. blackforest3lakes.com

Six more reasons to visit Three Lakes:

Three Lakes Winery – Cranberry wine is a specialty of the state’s second oldest winery. The roomy tasting room, in an 1880 building, allows up to six wine nips for free. tlwinery.com

Big Stone Golf Course – The unusual nine-hole course, established in the 1940s, gained a new clubhouse with bar and food in 2017. bigstonegolfcourse.com

Three Lakes Center for the Arts – The hot spot for live music, movies and the visual arts is an art deco theater in a Quonset hut built during World War II. One six remain nationwide. tlca.com

Three Eagle Trail – The peaceful, paved, mostly flat and 8.4-mile path between Three Lakes and Eagle River veers onto boardwalks over wild cranberry wetlands and flanked by a grove of black spruce trees. 3eagletrail.com

Eagle River-Three Lakes Chain of Lakes – No freshwater chain is larger than this one, which has 28 lakes that, at one point, are linked by the unusual 1911 Burnt Rollways Dam. Seasonally, it hoists boats from one level of water in the chain to the next. wvic.com (click “recreation”)

Events – Cranberry Fest is Oct. 6-7 in Eagle River, just down the road, with marsh tours, cranberry product tastings, vendors, music, 5K run/walk and more. The festival coincides with the area’s five-county Northwoods Art Tour on Oct. 5-7. eagleriver.org, northwoodsarttour.com

Beer lovers know the start of autumn means Oktoberfest. The popular German event began Oct. 12, 1810, as a royal wedding celebration in Munich. It grew from there, throughout Bavarian, involving horse races, agriculture show, amusement rides. Beer stands grew to beer tents and beer halls.

As the length of Oktoberfest increased, the starting date shifted to September because weather was warmer. The 16-day Oktoberfest this year ends on Oct. 7, and the largest beer tent seats nearly 10,000. muenchen.de

Closer to home, these Oktoberfest events still remain.

Dorf Haus, Roxbury, opens a Bavarian-style buffet (think sauerbraten, smoked pork chops) at noon Oct. 14 and the 16-piece Dorf Kapelle Show Band performs music from Germany and Austria. Cost is $42, and reservations are required. foodspot.com/dorfhaus

The monthlong Oktoberfest on weekends in Glendale ends Oct. 6 in Heidelberg Park at the Bavarian Bierhaus. The site has room for than 3,000, and this is the event’s 60th year. Admission is $10. thebavarianbierhaus.com

Al and Al’s Oktoberfest on Oct. 5-6, arranged by a longtime and family-owned Sheboygan restaurant, involves wiener dog races, indoor and outdoor entertainment and traditional German foods. Free admission. alnals.com

Milwaukee Oktoberfest, Oct. 5-7, is the first event for the plaza that is outside of the new Fiserv Forum, the Milwaukee Bucks new home. Expect brat-eating and stein0hoisting contests, cornhole tournament and traditional music, foods, beer. milwaukeeoktoberfest.com