Each summer Isaac Spicer and his wife Huvvah invite guests for dinner at their home, an idyllic spot in the Wisconsin countryside near Spring Green that they call Milkweed. But this isn’t just an invite or two; this past summer they sent around 150 postcards with a simple invitation to: “Please join us for dinner at Milkweed.”
Whether by invitation or referral, diners of all types may indulge in this intriguing opportunity by calling Milkweed. No matter food knowledge or dining style preference, Milkweed — a six-course dining experience in a casual, yet elegant environment — guarantees culinary delight.
After driving through miles of winding country roads, guests arriving at the Milkweed get the first peek at what’s in store for this “unique, outdoor dining experience” with one glimpse at the gardens. Fruit trees, squash, tomatoes, and berries skim just the surface of the bounty grown at the Milkweed farm — bounty that is sure to take part in the evening’s meal.
Soup Course: Sweet potato bisque with shallot. Candied sweet potatoes, toasted pumpkin seeds, and pumpkin seed oil.
Six years ago Spicer moved back home to his parents’ farm with visions of renovating a small structure on the property into a home for himself. He had trained for two years in the culinary arts at Waukesha Tech in Wisconsin and had gained experience cooking in kitchens like The American Club in Kohler, WI, the Beard Award-winning L’Etoile Restaurant in Madison, and even a short stage at the renowned Frontera Grill in Chicago. But he was ready for a kitchen of his own.
“The creation of Milkweed was more just a creation of my home. And it kept going and now we have this,” says Spicer, chef and mastermind behind Milkweed. “I always had dinner nights and entertaining in mind. It was definitely in the back of my mind, that thought of ‘if it’s great enough’ to charge them.” The vision took off from there; Milkweed has now served guests for three summers.
“There’s a lot of things I’m really, really bad at, but envisioning things like far into the future — what it’s going to look like — it’s my second gift next to cooking.” It is this gift that perfected the details that define Milkweed.
“I was always kind of seeing these things moving around me; I knew they would fall in place and have a certain look to them.” One example is the metal sculptures that Spicer makes, an integral part of the Milkweed experience.
“We grew up respecting architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and there is a zero-impact aspect to their architecture. All those sculptures were piles of farm junk. and I was like, I’m not going to pay to get rid of these, I’m going to make them into something. Me and my little sister built the first sculpture out there just trying to get rid of some metal. We had a threading kit so we came up with the sculpture.”
Additional sculptures are found throughout the property, including a functioning faucet near the outhouse. Although the kitchen is outfitted with professional kitchen equipment, including an espresso machine, the outhouse is a quiet reminder that you aren’t dining in a trendy, urban locale — you are, in fact, in the country.
Salad Course: Fall spinach, Black River blue cheese, Asian pear, apple, bacon and radish, cider vinaigrette, housemade bread, and sun-dried tomato and morel spread
The sweet pears and salty bacon combine with earthy spinach and creamy blue cheese in this bounty of fall salad. The morels from the spread came from a fifty-five pound haul Spicer and his daughter discovered while morel hunting on the property.
An evening at Milkweed entails 16 guests dining by candlelight under the large white tent in the backyard. The tent was one of the first investments made specifically with Milkweed’s growth in mind. When the weather fails to cooperate, like the night we visited, some dining can be accommodated in the house at tables set in their living room and in the kitchen.
“It’s always a little bit of a balance because we do live in the space. This is our biggest hiccup right now — the size of our growth compared to what we can put into our physical space.” Plans to expand Milkweed include a transformation of the shed in the backyard into a cottage and an additional building on the property that will specifically house the kitchen. Until then, Milkweed is not marketed for growth. They send invitations each year to prior guests and accept referrals, but beyond this, no further marketing is done.
Currently, the majority of the guests who dine at Milkweed are from Chicago and other parts of Illinois, but they have had guests travel from other states specifically for dinner at Milkweed. Spicer describes diners last summer from Indiana who “weren’t here for House on the Rock or Taliesin, but here only for this.”
Seafood Course: Seared scallops in cornmeal with roast vegetables, roasted red pepper puree, and crispy beets
The scallops gain a slight structure from the light cornmeal coating. Contrasting this are textures of the tender scallop interior, sweet red pepper puree, and crispy beets.
The menus change with each seating and typically contain six courses: soup, salad, fish / seafood, entree, dessert, and cheese courses.
“The menus are driven by what we’re craving and controlled by what’s in the garden,” says Spicer. While this might some limiting, the gardens maintained by his father on the property seem to have endless varieties of any fruit or vegetable Milkweed may need.
Not only are the fruits and vegetables sourced locally, but meats are local as well, like the beef that his father raises along with cows for milking. Other local meat suppliers include Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Black Earth Meat Market. For most seafood he goes through Madison’s high-quality supplier, The Seafood Center.
Palatte cleanse: Raspberry sorbet
Housemade sorbet from garden berries. Spicer adds that they used to hand-crank the ice cream and sorbets but changed to using a Cuisinart when a taste-off failed to distinguish between to the two methods (much to his dismay).
Entree: House-cured corned beef with carrots, Chinese cabbage, bok choi, and crispy shallot rings
Spicer’s wife, Huvvah, moved to Milkweed about three years ago and has fully embraced her husband’s culinary visions. “I always believed in his food. The first summer at Milkweed, I was pregnant and serving. Then I started cooking. I really love pastries and desserts and baking. Now we correlate on everything and Isaac, with his gift, puts the finishing touches on things.”
With their family so intertwined in Milkweed, separating family from business becomes tough, says Huvvah. “There are times when I’m watching the kids and trying to make creme brulee; [trying] to do all the little things that need specific timing. So Isaac takes the kids and I do my stuff, then we switch off.”
On evenings when Milkweed has guests, Huvvah and the kids go to Spicer’s parents’ home next door. “It’s a bummer because I really love serving — the face to face — seeing people enjoying the food. At the same time I love to be with the kids, but it’s hard to take them and leave. Essentially it’s just doing the hard work [food prep] and not seeing the benefits of it.”
Even their daughter has embraced Milkweed. Haven, 2, loves to see the people. “Last night when we got home, Haven wanted to know where all the people were,” says Huvvah. She continues: “It’s intimate. People are walking into our home and meeting our family and our kids and watching them grow over the years.”
If struggling to balance family and business results in food like we experienced last night, we’d like to see what they can do without distractions. To accomplish this, many items are chosen that can be prepared ahead of time, then finished by Spicer at service, with precision. For last evening’s prep, Huvvah prepared most of the soup, bread, and desserts. For breads, she uses the Peter Reinhart recipes, which call for little manual work. The desserts are prepared ahead and brought out later. The creme brulee was set to a silky, vanilla bean-specked texture, accented by lightly sweetened berries. But it was the cookies that stole this writer’s heart — light-as-air molasses cookies with just a touch of spice.
Dessert: Molasses cookies, creme brulee topped with strawberries, cafe Americano, and cappuccino
Family involvement extends beyond Spicer’s wife and father at Milkweed. From his brother (who washes dishes) to his brothers-in-law (Caleb Nicholes of Kickapoo Coffee and Micah Nicholes, a pottery maker in Madison) to his sisters who help to serve in the summers, family is involved in every aspect of Milkweed’s success.
Despite relationships, however, Spicer maintains high expectations for quality service. “I don’t think the human mind is that forgiving. We can deliver a perfect meal but the few things that aren’t perfect are going to stand out,” explains Spicer of his expectations.
This level of dining standards comes from an experience he had in France while dining with his sister. He describes a meal of fondue and wine at a spot in the hills that opened specifically for them as their sole diners. It was “low-impact, non-abrasive, and simple — what a dining experience should look like.”
To achieve this, Milkweed subscribes to the “Excellence in Service” philosophy by Charlie Trotter, which maintains that you should foresee all the things that your customers or guests would ask for. “If someone has to ask you for water, you’ve failed at your job,” states Huvvah.
Spicer adds: “We feel we are cutting-edge food, as good as anything you’ll find in the city — definitely fresher. But, at the same time, catering to our customers’ needs by listening to them. I want to give them a New York dining experience in the middle of nowhere, if that’s what they want. Others like it when you pull up a chair next to them — in [other places] you might be fired if you did that.”
Milkweed accepts guests from mid-June to mid-October. Suggested donation is $70 per meal. Although Milkweed’s 2009 season is over, they are accepting appointments for Summer 2010.