Elkhart Lake: A hidden gem for auto racing fans, foodies and pottery buffs
ELKHART LAKE, WISCONSIN – Towards the end of this past summer, I decided to participate in a press tour to the charming resort town of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. After enjoying what this small town – located 40 miles northwest of Milwaukee in the heart of the state’s Kettle Moraine State Forest – had to offer when it came to its breathtaking natural scenery and its wide range of attractions, activities and events that expands its year-round population of only 967 people to thousands of visitors and cottage dwellers every summer (not to mention autumn and Christmas time), one impression came to mind: Elkhart Lake is a hidden gem.
Elkhart Lake has attracted visitors on a regular basis since the mid-1800s, but before city folk came to this town as a means of a serene retreat from the hustle and bustle of urban life, Native American tribes from the region were attracted to the Elkhart Lake area not only for its natural beauty, but for the curative effects of the lake’s crystal clear, blue-green water (which is still a major selling point for the town).
However, what really struck me was how this town, which is neatly tucked away in the forests of southeast Wisconsin, has become a magnet for certain types of tourists whom you would least likely expect to target as a vacation destination. For example, auto racing enthusiasts.
Because a group of World War II soldiers who visited the town shortly after the war – and were exposed to new makes and models of European cars that were built for speed – were attracted to the hills and curved streets of Elkhart Lake, it sparked the members of the town’s business community (in particular Jim Johnson, the president of the Elkhart Lake Bank), to establish a major auto race on a 3.35 mile circuit on the north side of the lake. From 1950 to 1952, the Elkhart Lake Road Races attracted a large number of racing fans (a total of 155,000 during those three years), not to mention internationally renowned race car drivers and sports reporters from around the world.
The event was stopped after the 1952 race over growing safety concerns for the spectators; however, the high spirit and excitement that those three races brought to Elkhart Lake was not lost on the town fathers. In 1955, a 640-acre professional motor speedway called Road America (www.roadamerica.com) opened its doors; dubbed “America’s National Park of Speed”, Road America is regarded as one of the first and longest road racing circuits in all of North America.
Its more than four-mile long race track and its expansive facility holds over 600 annual events, as well as attracting over 800,000 racing fans throughout the entire year. Racing fans of all ages will certainly not be disappointed to the wide variety of national and international auto racing events that Road America hosts, such as the Verizon IndyCar Series, the NASCAR XFINITY Series, the Pirelli World Challenge Series, the MotoAmerica SuperBike Doubleheader, plus three highly-attended vintage car events.
That highly-charged, “need-for-speed” feeling that Road America promotes hit me the moment I arrived there, as I heard the highpowered roar of race car engines fill the air (which was courtesy of the local Porsche Club, in which its members were spending a couple of days taking their souped-up vehicles for a few spins around the track). I was impressed with the look and scope of the entire Road America facility, and it can be compared to some of the best international auto racing speedways, whether they be Daytona, Indy, Watkins Glen, Monte Carlo or even the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve.
After watching those Porsches zip by on the main circuit, the friendly Road America staff were more than happy to help us satisfy that need for speed fever that myself and my fellow journalists on the tour caught. This was done by getting the chance to don some pro racing gear and drive a few laps around its 1-mile paved go karting track (in which the karts can reach a speed of up to 40 mph – or about 65 km an hour – and many of us reached that speed). After that, we were tested on our race car driving skills with a challenge called the “Champagne Slalom”. We got behind the wheel of a sedan with a plate mounted on a small pedestal – and a ball on a string attached to it – that was fastened onto the hood. Our challenge was to drive the car at normal speeds along the short track in the briefest time possible (that included a downhill slalom course), while trying to prevent the ball from falling off the plate. I managed to keep the ball on the plate during my turn on the slalom course (the trick is to never look at the ball while you are driving).
By the way, if you want to take something home from your visit to Road America, check out its newly opened Paddock Shop, which sells a large variety of Road America and racing gear (I bought myself a Road America tshirt with a map of its 4-mile main track – which includes the “Canada Corner” -- on the back of the shirt).
What also struck me about Elkhart Lake is that for a town of barely 1000 year-round residents, there is certainly no shortage of fine dining establishments of all cuisines and tastes, whether you like your meals simple or extravagant. Whether they are located within the three main resort hotels that anchor the town – the Osthoff Resort, Siebkins Resort and the Victorian Village – or along the town’s main street or immediate vicinity, visitors are in for a culinary treat, not only because of the unique flavour of these unique local restaurants (21 in all), but how many of them use local ingredients, of which a good deal of them are grown in gardens that are part of their respective establishments. I highly recommend the following restaurants for its respective signature cuisine and atmosphere: the Paddock Club, the Back Porch Bistro, the Stop Inn Tavern, Lola’s Restaurant and Lounge, and the Lake Street Café; and for some good old fashioned locally-produced ice cream for dessert, check out Sissy’s Coffee & Ice Cream Shoppe outside the Sibkins Resort, and Gosserts, which nostalgically takes you back to those ice cream parlours and soda fountains from about a century ago.
Another attraction for the foodie visitor to Elkhart Lake are the culinary experiences that the town offers, and gives residents and visitors a hands-on approach to the recipes, produce, beers and wines that are exclusively created in this area.
I decided to partake in a cooking class that was held in the Osthoff Resort’s own L’Ecole de la Maison
www.cookingschoolatosthoff.com . Led by Benjamin Sommerfeldt, the hotel’s master chef (who is also the executive chef at Lola’s Restaurant, which also makes its home at the Osthoff), the school offers guests oneand two-day courses, as well as workshops, with the aim to further enhance, or develop, a passion for good food and the art of cooking it. The recipes that are taught have a traditional angle to them (and are easy for the home chef to follow), and can range from making breads, to pasta and sauces, to soups and stocks, to dishes that are exclusive to Wisconsin, or are familiar dishes that use made-in-Wisconsin ingredients. And the school’s visually stunning kitchen/classroom, complete with state-of-theart cooking appliances and every type of cookware imaginable, certainly encourages that passion for cooking and fine dining.
The morning-long class that myself and seven other journalists took part in was called “Wisconsin Roots”, in which we were paired off to create a dish that was made in Wisconsin, reflected the state’s German heritage, or were popular with many of Wisconsin’s supper club restaurants. The ingredients were all laid out before us (along with each respective recipe), and our task was to prepare and cook the dish in question so that we could enjoy them for our lunch. The menu included French Onion Soup, Potato Crusted Walleye fish, bread, salad, and a new twist to Black Forest Cake.
As for myself, I was tasked with the delectable job of preparing two dishes: roasted tenderloin with natural jus lie, and twice baked potatoes, complete with a stuffing made with a combination of aged Wisconsin cheddar cheese and Wisconsin bacon. At first, it was a bit intimidating (especially the fact of how was I going to incorporate all those ingredients into an edible dish within a couple of hours’ time); however, thanks to the skills, patience and tireless flexibility of Chef Benjamin and his souschef, all of us managed to prepare our recipes on time, so that we could savour them course-by-course a couple of hours later. The verdict: a memorable meal that was dee-licious.
As well, we were given three mini lessons throughout that morning at the cooking school: how to properly slice an onion; how to identify and sample some of Wisconsin’s internationally-renowned, award-winning cheeses; and how to mix Wisconsin’s most-requested drink, the Brandy Old Fashioned Cocktail, complete with brandy, bitters, mashed up oranges and cherries and a spray of Sierra Mist lemon-lime soft drink.
Chef Benjamin Sommerfeldt conducting a cooking class at
the L'Ecole de la Maison cooking school