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The Abbey Resort and Spa: A surprise foodie retreat in the Midwest
When you stay at a resort like The Abbey Resort and Spa on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, chances are that you'll eat many of your meals at the property's on-site restaurant. This can sometimes mean dining on uninspired dishes like rubbery "hotel chicken" or resigning yourself to the fact that you'll be spending a fortune on each meal in order to avoid heading offsite in search of better or cheaper food.
So one of the things that impressed me most about The Abbey Resort was the clear dedication to quality food at affordable prices. Over the course of my stay, I had the chance to sample several of their signature dishes, from a hearty dinner that included grilled scallops, tender beef filet and rich espresso creme brulee to a light meal from the spa menu that featured an Asian chicken salad, fresh veggies and a dessert of grilled pound cake with strawberry puree. I'm a picky eater with a former chef for a husband, so I can be hard to please. But there was not one dish I tried that I did not like. Even more impressive: almost everything served at The Abbey is made from scratch.
The Abbey's foodie focus extends beyond the kitchen walls though. On summer Sunday afternoons (Memorial Day to Labor Day), the resort hosts "Burning Down the Docks" -an all-day celebration of "brews, blues and BBQ". Nearly 200 people attend each event and indulge in $2 Leinenkugel beers and BBQ straight from the onsite smoker while listing to live performances from local (and local to Chicago) blues bands.
With the season for outdoor barbecues behind them, The Abbey has moved on to a new series of culinary events for the Fall. For three weekends in October and November, The Abbey will host their third "Great Chefs at the Lake" series. Guests who pay for the package ($219 per person for two nights) will arrive on Friday for a welcome reception with that weekend's featured chef. On Saturday, they'll watch that chef prepare some of his or her signature meals and then enjoy a four-course dinner, with wine pairing, created by the chef specifically for the event.
The Abbey has pulled in some pretty big names in Chicago dining for the series. October 23-25 will feature the cuisine of award-winning chef Todd Stein from cibo matto and the trendy ROOF bar at The Wit hotel (and formerly of acclaimed restaurant MK). November 6-8 they'll welcome Dudley Nieto from tapas restaurant, Eivissa. The last weekend, November 13-15, food from Coobah, helmed by chef Jimmy Madla (who is also the drummer for the band Veruca Salt), will be served.
To find out more about the strategy behind the food focus at The Abbey, I talked with Director of Operations, Michael Lucero, who previously worked as Food and Beverage Director of House of Blues in Chicago. Here's what he had to say:
How did working at the House of Blues prepare you to run operations at The Abbey:
When first interviewing at the House of Blues, I realized that [with multiple venues in one] the operations were very similar to a resort, without the guest rooms. The main reason I joined the House of Blues [was] because of their dedication and commitment to the culture. . . They never wavered from the quality and service standards that helped build their brand. This is where I realized broader benefits of "scratch cooking." Although it costs more to do so, the quality is always better and more consistent. It also allows creativity and this is where chefs thrive.
When I joined The Abbey, I wanted to bring that aspect to a resort setting. When compared to stand-alone restaurants, customer perceptions of hotel food tends to be lower - too expensive, inferior food, and relatively "staid" menus. We are changing those perceptions here at The Abbey. It started with our philosophy of "hiring the smile-training the skill" - bringing back service dedicated people. Then we focused on the food. Well over 70% of the menu is prepared with raw ingredients.
A great example would be our new BBQ menu in the Waterfront (restaurant). All meats and fish are butchered by our Chef, mixed with home-made ingredients, and smoked by our Pit Master on our outdoor smoker. The Pit Master is certified with the Kansas BBQ Society. This is as good as it gets. This philosophy extends throughout the kitchens in all food preparations.
Speaking of your Pit Master, Matt Whiteford, how did you select him as The Abbey's BBQ master?
Matt was the perfect person to do the grilling. Our goal was to create a menu and an experience unique to our dockside location, a destination that locals can enjoy frequently, and a dining scenario where all guests would share in the gospel of great BBQ. We realized a great opportunity to align the resort with an award-winning Pit Master. [Matt] has competed for the last five years nationally. . his process was exactly what we were looking for. His "layers of flavors" technique, applying spice rubs and various marinades and glazes during the cooking process, followed by one of Whiteford's gourmet BBQ sauces [which the resort sells], delivers exceptionally tender and delicious BBQ. He truly has a passion for BBQ and his personality is perfect, always interacting with the guests as they enjoy their food.
I didn't get a chance to watch Matt in action (or try his famous pulled pork), but I did chat with him for a few minutes and it's true, his love for what he does is immediately apparent. It's that obsession with quality food that I think makes The Abbey stand out among other Midwest resorts. They not only serve delicious meals at a variety of price points, they recognize that their guests have a passion for creative cuisine too.
Disclosure: The Abbey Resort and Spa did cover the cost of my stay, but the views expressed within my post are entirely my own. Gratis or not, the food here was delicious and I'm carrying the extra five pounds to prove it.