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Canoe Bay’s Chef Creates Menu from Epic Garden

Chef Randall Prudden visits the garden to pick peppers to make a spicy paste for a time when the garden’s dormant.

Randall Prudden went from working in the action-packed kitchen of Spoon and Stable in the North Loop of Minneapolis to the calm serenity of Canoe Bay, a 300-acre country estate in northwestern Wisconsin.

Actually the calm serenity is reserved for guests. As executive chef, Prudden puts in 10- to 12-hour days transforming produce from the resort's garden and locally sourced fish and meat into visually striking meals with a flavor profile that lives up to its looks. 

Randall Prudden has taken over the kitchen at Canoe Bay with delicious results.

Prudden had been the head chef there for a little less than three months when we visited with him in late September. The two-and-a-half acre garden, tended by John Nissen, a Danish transplant, was beginning to wind down a bit, but there was still plenty of produce to be picked, including a variety of peppers and pumpkins on the vine and “elegant mix” lettuces. The pumpkins were a reminder that fall is on the way and the leaf-changing landscape is the backdrop for the resort’s busy season. 

Nissen is the watchman of the garden, informing Prudden what’s ready to be incorporated into the night’s menu. The menu is fixed, offering one option for three courses. If someone doesn’t eat beef, the Saturday night mainstay, there’s no problem coming up with a substitute. Because of the garden, “it’s easy to cook for vegetarians,” Prudden said. 

The garden is in the “bold, romantic style,” Nissen explained, more American than the formal gardens of Europe. Encircling the raised plant beds are expansive flowerbeds, overflowing with a variety of hydrangea, some of which looked as if an artist had flicked his paintbrush on them leaving them dappled with muted color.

Prudden attended culinary school in Chicago and at 21 fell into a three-month stint at Alinea, one of only two restaurants in Chicago to have been awarded three stars from the Michelin Guide. “It was a huge eye-opener,” he said, "I was learning crazy stuff.” Stuff such as being handed a pint of sunflower seeds and being told to only pick out the perfect ones. Or using tweezers to separate the perfect microgreens from the lesser ones. “That level of exactness,” he said.

John Nissen, who has tended the garden for more than 10 years, felt like he had found home when he moved here from Denmark.

At Canoe Bay, he still employs that level of attention to detail, but without tweezers. “We do everything by hand, whatever falls on the plate naturally,” he said. 

Living in paradise isn’t without some sacrifices. Prudden’s commute is now two hours each way, so he’s more than happy to share a “duplex” with his chef de cuisine four nights, and then drive home to Minneapolis where his wife and dog reside. He sometimes takes a canoe out mornings, or takes walk through the forests, which can turn out to be mushroom foraging excursions. 

“I got here and saw unlimited potential,” he said about why he took the job. Most of the diners at the 40-plus seat dining room are resort guests, but there is an option for locals to make reservations after noon. Each morning with their breakfast box, guests receive a menu for lunch and space to reserve a time in the dining room that evening. Once those forms are collected, Prudden said they’ll know how many open reservations are available that evening. There’s years of tradition to deal with, but Prudden would like to grow the menu, offer a tasting menu, perhaps, and two options at dinner. He’s currently taking the set-in-stone directives—cheesecake on Friday nights, and adding his own twist, such as only slightly sweet cheesecake squares accented with lemons and fresh blueberries from the bush right outside the dishwashing station’s window. There are four bushes, but only the one within yelling distance from the window is off limits to the deer. 

“If we can get people to eat here, walk in the garden, sit in the dining room, then we’ll make some noise,” he said. 

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