Perfect Greens by Josh Sens
By his own admission, Joe Simons is an awful golfer. But he spends a lot of time around Sand Valley, so he knows just what to do with local greens. Take rainbow chard—Simons sautés it into a vegetable medley, which works nicely as a side dish with grilled meats and roast chicken.
As for Tuscan kale, it calls for a different treatment. Simons cuts it into ribbons, tosses it with cabbage, carrots, onions, and jalapeños, then bathes the crunchy tangle in a cider vinaigrette. The resulting spicy slaw makes for a vibrant garnish on pulled-pork tacos, although, as Simon points out, “it’s pretty darned tasty on its own, too.”
A seasoned chef who serves as culinary director at Sand Valley, Simons, 58, has boundless stores of recipes to draw on. But anytime he feels the need, he doesn’t have to look far for extra inspiration. He simply steps outside and strolls across the grounds to Aldo’s Community Garden, a half-acre Eden near the resort’s main entrance that brims with vegetables, fruits and herbs.
Named for Aldo Leopold, a pioneering Wisconsin conservationist, the fertile plot is emblematic of the ethos at Sand Valley, a bustling destination that aims to operate in harmony with its surroundings. It’s also a centerpiece of the resort’s ambitious culinary program, which is bent on bringing fresh food to the table as surely as a crisp shot goes from tee to green.
“From the day we opened, we were hearing a lot of positive feedback on our food,” says Sand Valley managing partner Michael Keiser, who developed the resort with his brother, Chris, and their father, Mike, of Bandon Dunes fame. “Pretty soon we started thinking, ‘What if we could keep improving and make the food as good as the golf?’ And since it starts with fresh ingredients, growing our own made perfect sense.”
Cared for full-time by a professional green thumb, the garden yields a varied and abundant harvest—some 80 pounds of produce, every other day, all of it destined for Sand Valley’s kitchens. It shows up at Craig’s Porch, the dune-top comfort station with commanding golf course views and $1.50 tacos and sliders. It enlivens entrées at Aldo’s Farm & Table, a smart new spot with a seasonally driven menu. It brightens cocktails at the Mammoth Bar.
What doesn’t grow on property, Simons and his staff like to acquire nearby. Along with its garden, Sand Valley has cultivated ties with more than 60 local producers and purveyors who supply the resort with everything from fresh meat and seafood to artisan cheeses and charcuterie.
The idea is both straightforward and forward-thinking: that the cuisine at Sand Valley should be like the golf courses—a celebration of Wisconsin’s best.“
When people think Wisconsin, they often think of cheese,” Simons says. “And it’s true there are a lot of really great cheesemakers here. But there are also incredible meats and poultry. There are terrific local lake fish. There’s fresh produce. Almost anything we could want is right within our reach.”
The more I’ve learned about food, the more I’ve come to appreciate that simpler is better.
Walking golfers get hungry
A native Californian, Simons is no stranger to farm-to-table cooking, having cut his teeth in kitchens around the Golden State. But he also has a good grasp on how golfers like to eat. In a gig prior to assuming his post in Nekoosa, Simons worked as the executive chef at Bandon Dunes, a sister property, of sorts, to Sand Valley that doubles as a role model for its midwestern sibling.
As at Bandon, the menus at Sand Valley are built on a basic truth: that golfers walking 18 holes get really hungry, even more so when they hoof it for 36. Hearty dishes are a must. So are generous portions.
Yet even belly-filling fuel goes only so far if energy is all it offers. It must also be delicious. And the fresher the ingredients, the better they taste. Just as Bandon spotlights local specialties such as line-caught steelhead and day-boat scallops, so does Sand Valley showcase regional favorites, like pan-seared walleye and beer-braised brats. This being Wisconsin, cheese curds are a requisite, and Sand Valley’s aren’t composed of industrial gloop. They come from an artisan producer in Milwaukee.
Simons prepares the curds both plain and ranch style, but he doesn’t do a lot of fussing with them.
The guiding principle of the culinary program is that cooking and course architecture have this in common: when nature shares its gifts, you should treat them with respect.
“The more I’ve learned about food, the more I’ve come to appreciate that simpler is better,” Michael Keiser says. “In that sense, it’s like golf design. If you find the right piece of land, you really don’t have to do a whole lot to it.”
By that standard, the roast chicken at Sand Valley is the culinary version of a top-ranked course. The birds are pasture-raised at a property called NinePatch, a family farm some 70 miles away, where no herbicides, pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics are used on the land or in the livestock. The chickens feed on grass and grain, and, when their times comes, they’re processed and cleaned with nothing but water, unlike a lot of poultry, which gets blanched with bleach.“
People who try one for the first time will tell me, ‘I haven’t had a chicken that good since Grandma chopped its head off on the back porch,” says NinePatch proprietor, Craig Carlson, an amiable man with a Wilford Brimley mustache to match his folksy manner.
Every Tuesday morning, Carlson delivers a small truckload of chickens to Sand Valley himself, 24 in total. Chef Simons debones and brines the birds, then sets them on a grill, pressed under a brick, so that their meat stays moist and their skin turns crisp and golden. He plates them in a pool of their own finger-licking juices.
Call it chicken as it was meant to be. “I’m afraid to take them off the menu,” Simons says. “I worry there might be a revolt.”
Sand Valley has chickens of its own as well. A gaggle of them reside in a wooden coop, laying a steady supply of eggs, which the kitchens turns to omelets, breakfast sandwiches, and more. In a fitting bit of symmetry, the chickens often dine on kitchen scraps.
Next door to the coop stands the culinary garden, which is ringed by a fence and watched over by a scarecrow, cloaked in a caddie’s bib and clutching a golf club. How well the scarecrow does its job is hard to say, but it may not really matter, since the garden’s true guardian is Julie Shutter, a local farmer’s daughter and lifelong horticulturist who doubles as Sand Valley’s specialized groundskeeper.
On almost any given day, Shutter can be found here, doing the kind dirty work she’s always loved, tilling soil or tying up tomatoes or snipping back the branches of young plum and apple trees. When she isn’t in the garden, she often spends her time promoting a different kind of growth by wandering the grounds and scattering seeds of native flowers and grasses.
It’s satisfying work that dovetails with the Keiser family’s long-term goal of restoring this rolling swatch of the state to the sand barren that it once was.
Not all plants flourish in the stingy, sandy soil, which is great for hardy turf grasses and firm, fast fairways but less conducive for root systems that need more nutrients or water. Without Shutter’s help, many of the fruits and vegetables would struggle. But under her care, a garden blooms—at once a source of sustenance and a spectacle.
“I sometimes feel like I’m part of a living exhibit,” Shutter says. “Golfers are always stopping to stare as they arrive.”
Shutter makes sure to let them know that they’re allowed in. Guests are free to wander the garden on their own. With advance notice, guided tours can be arranged. If Shutter had her way, she would have a greenhouse constructed on the grounds. The resort, for its part, plans to expand the garden to make room for an arbor and a pizza oven—a scenic spot for early evening light-bites and casual wine pairings.
Already, though, there’s plenty going on. At least once a day, Simons drops by the garden, on the hunt for fresh ingredients or fresh ideas. Not long ago, on one of his visits, the sight of baby eggplants put him in the mood to make eggplant parmesan, but since the eggplants were too small to become a full-blown entrée, Simons put them on the menu in a different form: as crisp-coated, creamy-centered eggplant parmesan sticks.
They were such a hit that Simons says he intends to continue making them, all through the season, as long as he has eggplants, until the grounds go dormant, and then again next year, when the natural cycle begins again.
Josh Sens, a freelancer writer living in Oakland, is a contributing writer at Golf Magazine, the restaurant critic for San Francisco Magazine, and the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: The Cooking and Partying Handbook.