Photo: ©Isabel Subtil 

Many semifinalists for a James Beard Award, the food industry’s Oscars, work in the nation’s largest cities and in uber-competitive environments. Count two-time nominee Lisa Carlson as an exception: She busts stereotypes about fine dining and where to find it.

Carlson and partner Carrie Summer, (who are both Kansas City Barbeque Society Certified judges; Summer’s also a pastry chef), co-own the cozy Chef Shack in Bay City (population: 500), within a block of the Mississippi River. Their weathered clapboard building, a former tavern, is open—at most—three days and 14 hours per week.

Why here? The price and vibe were right.

“Ranch-rustic-country-French” is the cuisine, and this version of fine dining is far from pretentious. Notice the use of reclaimed materials, inside and out. Read the chalkboard for specials. The concise dinner menu morphs with the seasons.

Think brisket in lettuce cups with artichoke dressing, smoked duck with ramps, pasta made with beet juice and charcoal honeycomb ice cream. It’s fine to nosh at the bar, in front of the fireplace or linger in the backyard. Check out the chefs’ outdoor garden and brick oven, used for pizzas and more.

Carlson and Summer worked at high-end restaurants in New York City, San Francisco and London before heading to Minnesota to build their own brand and business. Th at began in 2006 with Twin Cities food-truck grub: bison burgers, beef-tongue tacos and Indian-spiced mini donuts with cardamom. Forbes, Saveur and Bon Appetit took notice.

“Street food inspired by our travels,” is how Carlson describes it. Now three Chef Shack food trucks are dispatched almost daily to different events, like farmers’ markets, catering events and lunches in the Twin Cities. The couple also operate Chef Shack Ranch, a more casual Minneapolis restaurant specializing in smoked meats.

But all is not Midwest in their world. Summer is a board member for Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, which fosters industry connections nationwide. And, winter rejuvenation happens abroad—typically in Asia.

This article originally appeared in the 2018 spring/summer issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.

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The Midwest U.S., environmental sustainability and regional food quirks are specialties for longtime Madison freelance writer and columnist Mary Bergin. Wisconsin Supper Club Cookbook is her fifth book.