When Chef Terri Milligan creates a new recipe, she begins by identifying a single item around which the entrée can evolve. As Terri explains, “I look at the item and simply ask, what goes well with this?” For example, cherries in season could inspire a new sauce for wild game. Freshly gathered morel mushrooms might prompt the unusual pairing of a red wine sauce with halibut, to highlight the mushroom’s earthiness. Out of the familiar comes a unique creation, different enough to encourage experimentation but customary enough to keep the diner within their comfort zone.
As executive chef for The Inn at Kristofer’s, owner Terri Milligan has responsibility for planning the menu. Guiding her decisions is the desire to strike a balance between gently stretching boundaries while also “keeping items familiar enough that customers aren’t intimidated.” For example, a guest hesitant to order an entrée of quail might be motivated to give it a try when paired with something better known to them, like duck. Or consider fresh whitefish, ubiquitous in Door County, for which the challenge becomes devising a preparation to make it out-of-the-ordinary. Milligan’s solution: Panko crust, Yukon potatoes and caramelized apples with fresh arugula.
Terri received her culinary training at the Postilion School of Culinary Arts, founded and run by Madame Liane Kuony. There, she developed her fondness for French cuisine coupled with an appreciation for good old-fashioned cooking. According to Terri, the result is “generous Midwestern dishes inspired by French culinary traditions.” In her words, “We are not trying to be trendy or cutting edge, but instead offer something that is classic,” and so she devises offerings that are “home-spun with a high-end twist.” This philosophy extends to the overall ambiance she and her husband, fellow owner and restaurant manager Christopher Milligan, have developed at their restaurant. Avid skiers, Terri and Christopher became enchanted with the après-ski vibe they repeatedly enjoyed during vacations at Colorado resorts. They wanted their Door County restaurant to exude the same relaxed attitude for guests on vacation. “Lovely food, comfort…not hush-hush.” says Terri.
Now in its 16th year of business, The Inn at Kristofer’s is both sophisticated and welcoming, designed to make guests feel at home. White tablecloths are paired with a come-as-you-are attitude. “Come in jeans, come from your boat,” says Terri. In fact, because of the restaurant’s location directly across the street from the marina in Sister Bay, many boaters take advantage of the proximity by coming directly from their day on the water to dine with a water view.
The water view truly sets this establishment’s atmosphere apart. Floor to ceiling windows allow guests throughout the restaurant to gaze across the waters of Lake Michigan’s Green Bay. Each evening, the environment becomes décor as the restaurant is bathed in the multicolored hues of the setting sun. Classic cuisine, spectacular sunsets is the restaurant’s tagline.
The Milligans anticipated that the exceptional water view would be a unique attraction for their establishment. In fact, this was motivation enough to prompt their purchase of the property in November 1993, sight unseen. It was a decision based solely on the Milligans’ knowledge of the area and a realization that the marina’s construction, then in its early phases, would result in an amazing view that would remain unobstructed. Terri and Christopher saw it as the perfect opportunity to realize their vision of a restaurant and cooking school in Door County.
The building the Milligans had purchased was originally a family residence. Since that time, it had housed a busy bakery and, later, a seasonal family restaurant. Extensive updates were required, including the need to winterize the structure to make The Inn at Kristofer’s a year-round destination.
It can be a challenge to operate a Door County business through the winter, when tourism slows and the population thins. The Inn at Kristofer’s continues to serve dinner six days a week from mid-October through April (versus seven days a week the rest of the year). Local residents genuinely appreciate having a fine dining option nearby during the depths of winter. Terri and Christopher consider the broader impact of this business decision, viewing it as part of their commitment to their employees and to the area. As Terri explains, “We owe it to Door County and to our staff to be here year round.”
The loyalty that guides them has also rewarded them with many long-term staff members both in the kitchen and on the dining room floor. This in turn provides consistency for their guests and contributes to that wonderful quality of familiarity. Returning visitors to the area are delighted when Terri and her staff remember their unique preferences. For instance, one devoted customer prefers French bread over the rolls that are typically offered. Another has severe food allergies, and often requires customized preparations. Terri notes this information in a computerized log so that her loyal customers are always welcomed with what they want and what they need.
Terri reflects, “The best compliment one can possibly receive is customers that keep coming back.”