We are always leaning with one part of our palate to the new and inventive, which is why I was thrilled to meet a true maverick traditionalist. (Kind of contradictory, I know…)

However, Ken Hnilo, owner and executive chef of Gilbert’s, a AAA Four Diamond restaurant in Lake Geneva, is a graduate of the prestigious Kendall Culinary School.

And, to quote the restaurant’s Web site, “Ken will not serve anything that has been genetically modified or treated with pesticides or herbicides.” In other words, he only cooks with what everyone for centuries used to just call “food.”

Moreover, he is truly dedicated to sourcing his ingredients from Wisconsin. Again, a unique distinction these days, but for most of our history, this was the norm.

What intrigued me was how Ken, in such good spirits, invited “Wisconsin Foodie” to visit and dine at Gilbert’s in the depths of a Wisconsin winter. Organic, fresh, and -10 degrees-plus wind chill … these rarely pair well. I obviously had a great deal to learn.

Before the trek to Lake Geneva, I met Ken at Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee, where he found more organic, Wisconsin-grown and just pulled-from-the-ground ingredients than I could have ever imagined would have been available at the inception of August.

Doing the market rounds with great chefs is such a learning experience. The other element Ken stressed is relationships. He shops Outpost once a week. He knows the staff, the guy at the fish counter, and the woman who keeps the produce stocked. That human element, for most foodies, is as much a part of the finished meal as the flavors inherent to it.

From Outpost, we made our way, car heat on full tilt, to Gilbert’s. Even in the winter,
Gilbert’s is picturesque and perfectly placed along the Lake Geneva shoreline. Long ago, it was the mini Côte d’Azur for 19th century Chicago wealth (Gilbert’s address is on Wrigley Drive. Need I say more?).

Ken has taken an 1885 Victorian mansion and brought it to its new splendor for his restaurant — a solid cherry stairway, expansive views of Lake Geneva and some nice wines to boot.

The dish he prepared was a great expression of just how much you can do to remain local and organic even in our challenging winter harvest season. You will simply have to watch the show on Saturday to see what was served. I promise you will be impressed and inspired.

I’ll take my meals, winter or otherwise, at Gilbert’s anytime.

-Kyle Cherk

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