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Uncommon Chef

July-August 2006

In the summer of 2003, a new eatery popped up among the numerous meat-and-potato diners and Sunday-morning-Bloody-Mary bars in Spooner, a northwestern Wisconsin town with a population of fewer than 3,000. A cheerful red rooster was painted on the window on one side of the entrance of the historic main-street building; on the other, a menu offered breakfast, lunch, and dinner dishes containing ingredients not found in the local grocery store: soba noodle salad, tofu satay with Thai peanut sauce, chicken Tagine…It was rumored that one of the owners was a Harvard graduate.

Betsy Helgensen's culinary skills (left) keeps patrons coming back to the restaurant with the rooster.
Photograph by Eva Apelqvist

Almost three years later, the restaurant with the rooster on the window, Spooner Market and Grill, owned and operated by Betsy Helgesen ’91 and her husband, Joel Weiner, has become a landmark in its part of the country, a place to stop and enjoy a gourmet meal on the way from “somewhere south” to “somewhere north.” Weiner, a mechanic turned “facilities manager,” fixes whatever needs fixing and covers the front of the house, cooking breakfast as well if needed. Helgesen, with the help of an apprentice Stacie Hammersberg, manages the kitchen.

In 1987, when her peers headed off for the local college or the University of Wisconsin, Helgesen, a southwestern Wisconsin dairy-farm girl, took off for Harvard, claiming adventure and her personal philosophy, “Life is a journey, not a destination”, as her main motivations. Her years in Cambridge taught her about “balancing tasks and prioritizing,” but she admits to overwhelming feelings of bewilderment and confusion upon graduating. “I was adrift,” she says. “I had no idea what to do with my life.”

It took a Harvard friend asking the all too obvious question, “What do you like to do?” to set her on track. “I love to cook,” she answered, remembering conjuring up five-course meals for her family as a 10-year-old. “I love to read about cooking. I love to talk about cooking. I love to eat. I love to spend my day with food. I think about it before I fall asleep.”

While part of her argued that she didn’t “go to Harvard to become a cook,” the part in tune with “the journey” pursued her dream. She soon graduated from Western Culinary Institute in Oregon, where she interned as a sous chef on Jeff Smith’s television series, The Frugal Gourmet Keeps the Feast. Then she learned to run a business while working for the Starbucks Corporation; she was chosen manager of the year in 1997. When the opportunity arose to buy a small downtown building in her uncle’s hometown, located in a resort area popular with visitors from Minneapolis-St. Paul and even Chicago, Helgesen was ready.

For someone motivated to search out adventure, running a fresh-foods restaurant in a Friday-fish-fry town might seem frustrating. Not for Helgesen. She likes to feature local produce and fulfill culinary requests from people in the community. Challenges energize her. Even with a nine-month-old son and a four-year-old daughter to tend to, she has great dreams for her restaurant: raising her own beef, growing organic produce, expanding the catering part of the business and always, always, trying new foods. “This is a great way to have harmony in life,” Helgesen says. “Even when it’s sweaty and messy, it’s still fun.”  

~Eva Apelqvist