Lake Lawn Resort Delivers Culinary Excellence Across Generations
At the 130-year-old Lake Lawn Resort on Wisconsin’s Lake Geneva, Chef David Ross has spent the last two decades of his career—or, as he says, “seven or eight chef lifetimes”— developing a well-oiled machine that families visit year after year, generation after generation.
As the resort’s director of culinary operations, Ross runs a $7.5 million food and beverage operation and oversees a 40-person cooking team. Everything is made in-house, from scratch, and Ross says he’s lucky to have ample kitchen space, complete with a refrigerated cold-food prep room and a segregated, full-scale bakery in a separate building, to do so.
The resort is home to the 160-seat, fine-dining Frontier Restaurant as well as the Isle of Capri, a bakery café serving stone-hearth pizzas, pastries, coffee, gelato, and panini, and the Lookout Bar & Eatery, a Wisconsin-style pub serving lunch, dinner, and, on weekends, breakfast. Special events are also a significant part of the resort’s foodservice operation, including elaborate weddings (at least 80 weddings were on the books for the upcoming season) and off-premises catering to seasonal golf clubs in the area.
In addition to running the robust F&B program, for the past 11 years Ross has remained committed to recruiting and mentoring budding chefs from local high schools as part of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ProStart program.
“I appreciate the resort allowing me the opportunity to maintain this high school program, since passing on knowledge is a passion of mine,” Ross says. But it is a time-consuming endeavor. “We literally practice three times a week for three months going into the competition. The kids are so dedicated.”
It’s a tough competition, too, with teams of three or four students working with just two burners and an 8-foot- long table to prepare a required menu of two appetizers, two entrées, and two desserts—all produced in an hour. On top of that, those burners are not powered by electricity: They are simply Sterno burners and camp stoves.
“We have to really get creative with our dishes to be able to execute them efficiently,” Chef Ross says. In past years, his teams have brought in a pressure cooker to braise a veal shank in 35 minutes. They also baked cakes via a makeshift oven using a Dutch oven filled with rock salt that’s heated up. “You can bake a cake using a mini cake pan in there for 5 to 7 minutes,” he says.
Ross’s teams have won eight state championships as well as one national win in culinary and one in management. While teaching knife skills is part of the training, he says students must learn focusing, consistency, teamwork, and communication—these are the most important elements for a successful ProStart team. It’s about discipline, just like any high school sport.
“We feel very confidently that we’ve helped make an impact in some of these kids’ lives and we’re proud of that,” Ross says. “It’s not about keeping all this experience to yourself, it’s about passing it on. When you see these kids really focusing, and they finish their dish in an hour and are proud of their work, you can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Many of the students have stayed in touch, coming back to work for Chef Ross or even to help groom and coach others in the program.