Story by Sharon Verbeten | Photos contributed
But ask “foodies,” those gastronomes and connoisseurs of all things epicurean, and they’ll likely broaden their perspective—and in the process, learn a bit more about the growing food culture in Door County.
“Wisconsin Foodie,” the Emmy Award-winning television series found on PBS and online, is now in its 11th year, produced by Milwaukeean Arthur Ircink. The goal of the show, he said, was “to really get people excited about the stories in their backyard.”
The peninsula, of course, has made many appearances. Episodes can be found online, including one featuring the Death’s Door BBQ Competition, held every year on Washington Island—a smoky event that draws more attendees every year; Trixie’s in Ephraim, which highlights local sourcing; and Discourse, a coffee lab in Sister Bay whose caffeine drinks defy definition.
“I always try to try something new,” said Ircink, “and every time I come up there, there is something new.”
Ircink and his team, including host Kyle Cherek, have been visiting Door County for the last seven seasons—usually once or twice a season. They talk to chefs to find out what’s interesting and new. “That’s how we approach it,” said Ircink, who, over the years has made many friends and contacts who send him new stories and ideas. “It’s amazing how much we hear,” he said.
Ircink likes to see entrepreneurs taking chances. “I think that’s been the linchpin,” said Ircink, who has a few of his own Door County favorites.
“I love what Mike Holmes is doing at Wickman House [in Ellison Bay],” Ircink said, and he also loves Wild Tomato, which has venues in Fish Creek and Sister Bay.
“I like this young energy that’s going into the community,” said Ircink, noting that the peninsula has successfully moved past its supper club tradition, although respectable supper clubs—and relish trays!—do still exist.
One of the first stories Wisconsin Foodie highlighted was the fact that the wheat grown on Washington Island is used to brew the distinctive Island Wheat beer at Capital Brewery in Middleton. It was on the island that Ircink met Ken Koyen, owner of the KK Fiske—another destination for foodies seeking unique “lawyer” fish.
“I kind of fell in love with Door County because of that [venue],” he said, noting that it was at that restaurant when Ircink—ironically then a vegetarian—first encountered fried fish liver, one of the most unusual treats he’s eaten, he admitted.
Door County is part of a larger culture of food happening not just across the nation, but in our own state. “Wisconsin has to consider itself a culinary tourism destination,” he said. “There are so many good food hubs across Wisconsin.”
Beyond fish boils and cherries
Although he admits there is so much more to experience and indulge in, Ircink doesn’t begrudge Door County its identity that is so tied to fish boils.
“Fish boil is just so classic. I love it,” he said. “It’s fun; it’s a really cool experience, and it’s one of those traditions we can’t sacrifice. It’s just who we are.”
And about those cherries? “Everybody loves cherries,” Ircink exclaims, especially lauding the “phenomenal” work of Seaquist Orchards.
But when he’s just traveling for himself, wanting a good meal? He always lines up in the long--and well worth it--queue at Good Eggs in Ephraim, followed (well, maybe a bit later…) by a classic Wilson’s ice cream, just down the road.
People all over the nation are passionate about their food choices, but Ircink really found that out in an interesting way during one of the more whimsical exchanges he witnessed while filming Wisconsin Foodie.
On an episode about Cherry Fest, host Kyle Cherek tasted a kolache and said it “tasted like being hugged by a hundred Norwegian grandmothers.” It was intended, of course, as a compliment—noting the comforting nature of the pastry.
Alas, the kolaches hail from Eastern Europe, and the show was flooded by feedback telling them they were wrong about the treat’s origins.
“It was like nonstop,” said Ircink, adding, “People take their kolaches very seriously.”