By Kristina LeVan
Wisconsin’s top-tier restaurant scene continues to gain national recognition, and with it, the innovative chefs who are using the state’s farm-fresh ingredients to produce unforgettable dishes. Head to these uniquely Wisconsin restaurants, where the state’s top female chefs are helping put the state on the culinary map.
Anette Righi DeFendi's path to sweetness didn't start out in culinary school, at least not right away. As a child she loved to bake, but decided to pursue a degree in journalism and mass communications.
While working in Chicago, she enrolled in weekend class at The French Pastry School. DeFendi was hooked, and after enrolling in the school as a full time student, realized that her passion was working with chocolate.
DeFendi began her career at Kohler Original Recipe Chocolates in 2011. As head chocolatier, DeFendi crafts handmade chocolates and develops new flavors for the highly-acclaimed Craverie Chocolatier Cafe at The American Club Resort.
Dessert Professional magazine named her one of the Top Ten Chocolatiers in North America of 2015. Under DeFendi, Kohler Original Recipe Chocolates have been featured in Oprah's O Magazine and Us Weekly, as well as being named to cooking host Sandra Lee's list of favorite picks for holiday gifts.
Along with her spouse, Elizabeth Dahl is the co-owner and chef at Nostrano in Madison. Dahl's love of cooking started with a subscription to Bon Appetit magazine and later simmered at the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts.
She soon found herself working as a pastry chef in Chicago at renowned restaurants such as BOKA, where she became known for her innovative desserts. After a successful stint in the Windy City, Dahl and her husband moved to Madison – her husband's hometown – to start a family. It's also where Nostrano was born.
The Italian restaurant focuses on fresh, seasonal food. From a classic salami board to its pasta dishes, Nostrano's menu features dishes made in house with local ingredients, and of course highlights Dahl's signature pastries.
In 2013, Dahl was nominated as a James Beard Award semi-finalist as Outstanding Pastry Chef. The dessert menu at Nostrano offers everything from the Torta, a dark chocolate sponge cake, to a caramel gelato.
From an early age, Karen Bell knew she wanted to work in the restaurant business. At 15, she started out as a waitress in the Milwaukee area. She continued to work as a waitress while enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but her passion led her to culinary school at Madison College.
After graduating, she worked in Chicago and San Francisco and later embarked on a culinary adventure in Madrid where she opened and ran her own restaurant.
Bell moved back to Milwaukee and opened Bavette La Boucherie, a modern take on the classic neighborhood butcher shop. Bell's Bavette sources whole animals raised on small, local farms.
But the restaurant sells more than just meat. Customers can enjoy everything from a coffee, afternoon sandwich, or glass of wine and a cheese and chartcuterie plate. To honor the heritage and community feel of a traditional butcher shop, Bell offers monthly events and butchering demonstrations at the restaurant.
Peggy Magister may have graduated from Marquette University with a nursing degree, but her true calling led her to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. She was trained by the famous Wolfgang Puck while in California and returned home to start her own restaurant.
She opened Crazy Water in Milwaukee's Walker's Point neighborhood, focusing on American fusion dishes. The restaurant has become a favorite with both local residents and fellow restaurant owners alike.
The casual, European-style bistro is home to favorites like chorizo-stuffed dates and veal tenderloin. Magister's unique take on home-cooked favorites earned her a James Beard Award nomination for Best Chef-Midwest.
In 2013, she opened her second restaurant, AP Bar & Kitchen, further cementing her place as a top chef in Milwaukee's culinary stage. At AP Bar & Kitchen, diners can enjoy craft cocktails and plates featuring rustic North American fare.
For more fine dining in Wisconsin, check out more rising chefs from across the state!