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‘It’s like the Oscars for the food world’: 9 Wisconsin chefs, restaurants named James Beard Award semi-finalists

The James Beard Foundation, which recognizes and awards culinary excellence, is a hallmark of the restaurant industry

A Wickman House dish with potatoes, meat and microgreens.
Wickman House owner Mike Holmes said the “bar-centric, farm-to-table” restaurant grows much of its produce in the restaurant’s garden. Photo courtesy of xoMe Studio

Nine Wisconsin chefs and restaurants across the state were named semifinalists for the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards on Wednesday.

The James Beard Foundation, which recognizes and awards culinary excellence, is a hallmark of the restaurant industry. It’s often described as the Oscars of the food world. The organization, founded in 1990, recognized the semifinalists across 23 categories.

The Wickman House in Ellison Bay was named a semifinalist for Outstanding Restaurant this year. The restaurant, on the Door County Peninsula, is owned by Appleton native Mike Holmes and opened in 2012.

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He said the nomination will help draw more talented restaurant professionals and is a huge boon for Door County.

“Millions of people come through here in the season, but it’s a small town,” Holmes said.

Diners sit in an old farmhouse built in the late 19th century, with a “dark, real cozy” interior Holmes describes as having “clean lines, pre-prohibition style,” with a screened porch that wraps around the building.

Much of the produce is grown in the restaurant’s garden.

“It’s true farm-to-table,” Holmes said. “Since day one, we wanted to work with all of the local farms and purveyors.”

All the wines, he added, fit one or all categories of sustainable, organic, biodynamic, or female-owned or operated.

Wickman House exterior in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin
The Wickman House is a “bar-centric, farm-to-table restaurant,” according to owner Mike Holmes. The restaurant, on the Door Peninsula, was named a semifinalist for Outstanding Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation’s Restaurants and Chef Awards. Photo Courtesy of xoMe Studio. 

Andrew Hutchison, co-owner and baker at Madison Sourdough, was named a semifinalist in the category of Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker. He said it feels good, yet “strange to be recognized.”

“As a baker, I feel like, you know, we work in the middle of the night and we’re kind of always around but not always at the forefront,” he said.

Hutchison attributed the success to his team of bakers and the community. Madison Sourdough’s breakfast pastries, desserts and cakes have drawn visitors from all over Wisconsin and the region. Its two most recent additions to the menu are the Kouign-amann — a sweet, flaky pastry cake — and the chocolate babka roll.

Hutchison got most of his training in Madison, where he learned from Madison Sourdough founder Cam Ramsey.

“If you get really into sourdough, it really kind of gets under your skin, kind of sinks, kind of gets its tentacles into you, and it becomes a little bit of an obsession,” Hutchison recalled Ramsey telling him.

After just three years baking for Madison Sourdough, he bought the company from Ramsey. Since then, it’s been “a constant flow of education,” he said, including traveling to Paris, France.

With its early, long hours, baking demands “intense focus, a bit of solitude,” Hutchison said. For the last 17 years, his workday has started at 2 a.m. — if not earlier.

“It’s the moment where we’re finishing the baking of loaves that were processed that day prior, and I always feel like it’s this moment of anticipation,” he said. “Even if I’m doing a new bread or something like that, it kind of just gets me up in the morning, or in the middle of the night, so to speak.”

With a young family, Hutchison is starting to back away from the early morning schedule to spend more time with them.

“It’s really hard. And it’s physical work. And in the last couple of years, my body has started to take a little bit of a toll,” he said.

People in Madison Sourdough watch as a baker throws flour on some dough
People watch as Andrew Hutchison, co-owner and baker at Madison Sourdough, throws flour on some dough. Photo courtesy Madison Sourdough

He’s not alone — other restaurateurs said the business is not without sacrifices.

“This is not an easy line of work. It’s very rewarding if you’re in it for the right reasons,” said Gregory León, who was named a 2023 semi-finalist for Best Chef Midwest. He hosted pop-up dinners at The National Cafe before his restaurant Amilinda got its own space in 2015 in downtown Milwaukee.

“We work 14 hours a day and we deal with burns and cuts and maybe sometimes customers who are not the most gracious,” León said, but he considers himself “lucky that I get to do what I love for a living.”

Gregory León, chef and owner of Milwaukee-based restaurant Amilinda, smiles.
“It feels amazing. It’s an honor to think of all the other people who have been in this category over the years,” said Gregory León, chef and owner of Amilinda in Milwaukee. He was named a semifinalist as Best Chef in the Midwest. Photo courtesy of Gregory León

Other states in the award’s Midwest region include Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. For León, the news came as a surprise. His close friend Daniel Jacobs, also nominated as Best Chef in the Midwest, pinged him with a congratulatory text.

“It’s like the Oscars for the food world,” León told a delivery guy, while speaking to Wisconsin Public Radio.

With an open kitchen, León interacts with customers as they walk through the door. Amilinda, described by León as an upscale, casual restaurant, seats 42 people in a building constructed in 1851.

“We really encourage people to sit and linger and share the experience with whoever they’re dining with. Because that was always a big part of meals when I was growing up,” he said. “We want to get people, when they come in here, to forget their day, and whatever might be troubling them and just melt into that chair and enjoy some good Spanish and Portuguese-inspired cuisine.”

Amilinda is in the Milwaukee downtown area.
Amilinda, which seats 42 people, is in the Milwaukee downtown area. Owner and Chef Gregory Leon was named a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef Midwest. Photo courtesy of Gregory León

For Madison Sourdough’s Hutchison, he said he wants to redefine what it means to have a bakery.

“I just want to continue to have a place in Madison that feels like it should always be here, and is relevant and people care about and want to support,” he said.

Finalists will be announced on March 29. Winners will be named at an awards ceremony at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on June 5.

Wisconsin semifinalists on this year’s list include:

Emerging Chef

  • Jamie Hoang, Ahan, Madison

Best Chef: Midwest

  • Dan Jacobs and Dan Van Rite, EsterEv, Milwaukee
  • Gregory León, Amilinda, Milwaukee
  • Francesco Mangano, Osteria Papavero, Madison
  • Itaru Nagano and Andrew Kroeger, Fairchild, Madison

Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker

  • Andrew Hutchison, Madison Sourdough, Madison

Outstanding Restaurateur

  • Amy and Jason Kerstein, Joe Muench, and Dan Snider, Black Shoe Hospitality (Story Hill BKC and Buttermint Finer Dining & Cocktails), Milwaukee

Best New Restaurant

  • Lupi & Iris, Milwaukee

Outstanding Restaurant

  • Wickman House, Ellison Bay
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