Spooner Market and Grill’s Harvard chef serves the educated palate.
BY FRANK ZUFALL
How many restaurants in northern Wisconsin, much less all of Wisconsin, can say that its chef is a graduate of Harvard (as in Boston) and the Western Culinary Institute (as in Portland, Ore.)?
Well, believe it or not, the Spooner Market and Grill, in Spooner sports a chef who graduated from the Ivy League school and also spent a year studying the finer aspects of cooking in Oregon.
Her name is Betsy Helgesen. She and her husband, Joel Weiner, are owners and chef, and all other positions, at the Spooner Market and Grill that opened July 1.
If you walk into the restaurant, you will probably meet Joel first at the cash register, and then maybe you will see Helgesen going from table to table inquiring about the fare.
The two from Chicago and southern Wisconsin moved to Spooner because of relatives.
“I’ve traveled to Spooner many summers to visit my Uncle Mort Dahl,” said Helgesen.
Harvard to Portland
Helgesen grew up on a dairy farm in southeastern Wisconsin.
During high school, she spent a couple of summers working, as a nanny in Cape Cod for Susan Olsen, another Spooner native, the daughter of Dr. Lester Olsen.
While working as a nanny, she was told that Harvard needed some diversity to go with all those East Coast prep school grads, so a daughter of a dairy farmer with good grades might actually have a shot.
She applied; Harvard accepted; she went to school.
In 1991, Helgesen graduated with a degree in English and American Literature.
After graduation, she wasn’t exactly sure what to do with that Harvard diploma.
She worked a year for a medical company. Along the way, she got a part-time job cooking and surprised herself about how much she loved it.
Other kitchen jobs came later, and she even worked as a professional baker in Madison, working at Victor Allen’s Coffee and Tea, creating her own line of baking goods called “Baking with Betsy.”
While she was throwing the yeast in the dough, a young University of Wisconsin graduate from Chicago caught her eye – Joel.
Like Helgesen, he wasn’t exactly on the career track that his psychology degree would suggest: He was working as a mechanic.
Soon more was cooking than the bread. The two knew their destinies were tied to each other.
In 1995, Helgesen wanted to take her cooking up a notch and she applied to the prestigious Western Culinary school. Weiner followed.
While Helgesen was learning the finer points of kitchen work, Weiner was fixing Nissan cars, something he had done on and off for 10 years, and he was in the process of becoming a certified Master Technician.
For her internship, Helgesen worked on the TV show “Frugal Gourmet.” She even appeared in three of the last 13 episodes of the show.
Three important events happened in 1996: Helgesen and Weiner were married, Helgesen graduated from cooking school, and the two headed back to the Midwest.
Portland to Chicago
Helgesen may have thought her next move was as an executive chef in some swanky hotel, but Starbucks had other ideas. The company, famous for its coffee, offered her a position in Chicago.
She started off as a store manager, and she was good at the job – she was nominated store manager of the year for the entire corporation in 1997.
She went on to become district manager and eventually opened the first Starbucks in Wisconsin, in Brookfield.
Starbucks hired Weiner to work on equipment in stores north of Chicago into Wisconsin. Helgesen was later given more responsibility in Chicago and to the south of the city.
The couple were literally going in two directions and living a very fast-paced urban life that they both were finding more and more unacceptable.
After Helgesen had been at Starbucks for seven years and Joel for three, the two decided they wanted a new start in a new place.
“I told Joel we should go to Spooner,” said Helgesen. “We both liked the city a lot. It seemed like a great community, and I had relatives in the area.”
Spooner – it’s not Harvard
The couple found a 20-acre farm to live on near Trego and their business site on Walnut Street.
Helgesen said she loves Spooner and is pleasantly surprised at what she has found.
“I’ve meet some fascinating people, and I discovered that there are two yoga classes offered in town. Where we lived in Chicago, there weren’t any yoga classes.”
The couple purchased their restaurant site in December 2002.
They both admit now that they were a little naive about what it would take to convert a former retail store into a restaurant/retail store.
“It took seven months of doing, mostly construction, doing the change-of-use to meet state codes,” said Helgesen. “It was a full-time job, and we weren’t doing anything else.”
In a small town like Spooner, people talk a lot about a new restaurant coming to the downtown. There were many looks through the papered front windows to see how progress was going.
When July 1 came and the doors finally opened, the couple finally had the opportunity to put their culinary/management/maintenance/selling skills to the test.
Helgesen describes Spooner Market and Grill’s fare as fresh, nourishing, healthy, comfort food, food that is not fried, and if possible, only organic.
“We don’t have a deep fryer in the place,” said Helgesen.
Because the emphasis for many is healthy and organic, Spooner Market and Grill buys many of it supplies from area organic farmers, including Depeis Family Farm in Spingbrook, Little Shepherd Farm in Spooner, Heimshrot Family Supplies in Shell Lake, Chieftain Wild Rice in Spooner, and North Star Bison near Haugen.
The breakfast menu includes items such as Huevos Gringos, Breakfast Burritos, Eggs Benedict/Florentine, omelets of many varieties, Asparagus and Potato Frittata, and pancakes.
The lunch menu starters include interesting entrees such as Quesadillas, Thai Quesadillas, Grilled Chile-Cheese Toast, Vegetarian Antipasta, Tofu Satay, and Soup of the Day.
Salads include a special combo called the Spooner, Morton’s Chinese Chicken, Karen’s Caesar, Rustic Italian, Spinach, Soba Noodle Salad, and the Pacific Northwest.
Sandwiches come in all varieties, too: California Turkey, Smoken’ Turk Turkey Ranch, Honey Bacon Club, Baked Spicy Spooner, Heartland, Italian Meatball, Italian Grinder, Bistro Beef, Washburn Vegetarian and Baked Caprese.
They also offer an assortment of burgers, including Bison Burgers.
And they have a kid’s menu.
Pastas include Penne Medley, Pasta with Pesto Cream, Penne Rustica, Macaroni and Cheese, Spaghetti with Meatballs, and Pasta with Marinara Sauce.
On Friday and Saturday evening the Spooner Market and Grill has a special evening dinner menu that changes week to week, but always includes two fish entrees, two pastas, and one chicken dish.
A recent evening menu included Pasta with Porcini, Lasagna, Poulet au Cider (chicken with cider, apples, and brandy), Trout Amandine, and Maple Glazed Salmon.
An earlier evening menu had Coq au Vin (chicken browned and then slowly braised in red wine with pearl onions, mushrooms and root vegetables added), Grilled Tuna and White Bean Salad, Eggplant Parmesan, Pasta Pomodoro (organic tomatoes with fresh garlic basil, oregano, fresh mozzarella and spaghetti), and Salmon en Papillote.
The couple said the evening meals have been very popular and that soon they will be adding a Thursday night menu.
Restaurant and More
Upon entering the restaurant, customers will notice three things immediately: 1) The restaurant is very long (it feels like one of those shotgun homes in Louisiana); 2) Breakfast and lunch are self-service (the owners said that cuts down on service time and service pay, which they can’t afford right now); and 3) The restaurant is also a store, with one side dedicated to selling fine kitchen goods.
As far as the retail section goes, one of the main product lines is Oxo, utensils with a firm, black, hand grip, designed by a man for his wife who suffered from arthritis.
Joel and Helgesen said they are very pleased at the level of success they have experienced so far and they look forward to expanding their menu and refining their operation to suit the taste of the area.
They hope that everything goes well because they say their wandering days are over and they’d like to put down some roots in Spooner.
Many in the community hope the two stay around, too. The food gets a lot of compliments around town.
And after all, think about it, how many times in your life will you have a Harvard graduate cook for you?
People can contact the Spooner Market and Grill by calling 635-6833, or by visiting spoonermarketandgrill.com, where one can view the latest evening menu, some images of Helgesen on the “Frugal Gourmet,” and photos of Weiner renovating the store before it opened.