Noshing with Wright: Cooking 3 gourmet dinners in 3 Wright homes in 5 days

Photos and story (c) 2018 Mark Hertzberg

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It took Steven Freeman 18 years before he could prepare to make a gourmet dinner in the minuscule kitchen in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House (1904/05) in Racine in September. Still, he was unfazed by the challenge of cooking a memorable dinner for a dozen people he had never met, in a kitchen he had never worked in, in a city he had never visited. Oh, and by the way, he did it by chef’s instincts and from memory: no cook books or written recipes. How to top his coup de chef? By doing the same thing two more times, with different menus, in the Mollica (1958) and Keland (1954) houses, two other nearby Wright homes, days later. A bonus for him was that he was welcomed as an overnight guest in each house.

Dinner at the Hardy House, Sunday September 23.

Hardy Exteriors Post-Restoration 078.JPGFreeman worked out the menu with each homeowner, and posted it on the refrigerator:

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Below: preparing the appetizer: “Tamus with feta. I created the word as an amalgam of Taboulleh and Hummus. I spread beet hummus, dotted with olive oil, sumac and sea salt. Then I spread tabouleh, topped with olive oil, sumac and sea salt. Then I sprinkled feta (local from WI) chick peas and fresh parsley. move olive oil and salt.”

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Freeman, 48, is an architect from Manchester, New Hampshire who loves to cook. His Wright food road trip extraordinaire began in August, 2000 when he wrote 14 Wright homeowners in the Milwaukee area offering to cook “one of the best meals I can create” in exchange for the privilege of visiting their homes. None replied, likely because as in the case of Hardy they were besieged by requests to see their Wright homes. But in 2018, Tom and Joan Szymczak, the stewards of the Hardy House, learned of his offer to a previous owner and thought it might be the perfect way to host a family get-together. Sylvia Ashton and Nicholas Goodhue (the Mollica House) and Dr. William B. Boyd (the Keland House) also signed onto the architectural food adventure.

Steven has written a thoughtful, extensive reflection on this experience. I have broken it up into segments, in bold face, not to be confused with the bold faced italicized photo captions. An essay by Robert Hartmann, who helped arrange the dinner at the Mollica House, also in bold face, is also included in this post.

What the Wright week in Racine meant to me…..by Steven Freeman

“Planning my Wright week was one moments of joy, followed by excitement and nervousness. We were able to confirm Hardy house for cooking, then Mollica for a place to stay for the week, then the dinner at Keland was confirmed. The flights were booked and then I started to book the public Wright tours and started to search for local foods and farmers markets.

Walking off the plane was just like any, then I walked out to my Uber and the royal treatment began, being driven in a nice car and getting to see the landscape began to fill me with anticipation. The Wright influence is omnipresent from the sky touching down to the shores. such a presence of magnificence.

Southbound on Main St. (in Racine) and the Hardy appeared, as did sweat upon my shining brow, my driver pulled a “Uey” and pulled next to the curb at the south door to Hardy. This was it, I was on top of the world, at least the shores of Lake Michigan, high on the bluff, and  this was the first ever I was walking into a Wright house like I owned it. I could touch the door handle, wear my slippers and pajamas, sit on the furniture, open the windows, lie in bed and watch the art glass windows dazzle about the walls and ceilings, and I was welcomed from the kindest soul of all, Tom S. patient, gentle, kind, wonderful steward to welcome me in.

I think it meant more for me to actually experience the house than it was to cook in it. to see the bending light of dawn flood the living room whilst having coffee and listening to some classical bits on the house speakers. this home was mine for the duration, Tom was insistent that I live in the house, use anything needed, touch, smell, read the books, open the windows, cook up a storm!”

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Freeman grills chicken breasts stuffed with prosciutto and gruyere cheese on the dining room balcony. They were served with a dill and three-mustard sauce. One of the challenges for the chef was cooking on a grill he had never used before:

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Sundays were a special time at the Hardy House for the late Eugene (Gene) Szymczak and his family. Gene was also a gourmet cook. His brother, Tom, and sister-in-law, Joan, felt the same sense of family with the gathering of family and friends when Freeman cooked for them that September Sunday afternoon. Wrote Joan in an email, “How fortunate we were to  celebrate Ethan and Ashley’s post wedding celebrations with a Hardy House gathering. Steven’s visit and culinary talents made what Gene would have called  a win win! Dinners with Gene were always a unique experience. Steven’s dinner was unique and unforgettable as well!”

“My stay at the Hardy house was originally giving me  thoughts to be intimidating, the stewards were welcoming a total stranger to stay, cook and enjoy the jewel box they were preserving. What if they didn’t like me? What if my cooking bombed, What if the house didn’t feel Wright to me? The experience taught me more than I could have ever imagined, schemed or dreamed. After all, this is my life long dream coming true and I was living it. What meant the most to me after dinner is when Joan was cleaning up with me and she turned to me and said she wasn’t sure what the night and this whole thing would turn into, but she was delighted with a houseful of guests enjoying a meal, her children and friends all gathered and I was the catalyst that brought the spirit to the House and Gene (the late Gene Szymczak who bought the house in 2012 and saved it) back to life. “This was the first gathering since he left us.” To hear that and be told that, that blew my mind and made me feel like a very welcome spirit and was the most sincere and highest praise I have ever received and I am still beyond belief with that compliment. it was like Gene was there with us and he cooked the meal. I don’t think that compliment will be topped, no matter what my future of Wright in My Kitchen will bring me….

I almost forgot, my 4 mentors-influences in life are Neil Young, F.Ll.W, Julia Child and Ralph Lauren. I forwent a weekend of Neil Young volunteering at Farm Aid, close to home, to make this trip happen. Saturday night settling into Hardy with Curtis (Szymczak), I asked to get the wifi signal, Curtis had forgotten the PW, so I continued to tear apart the kitchen while he sought for the password. finally I got wifi and at that moment i remembered I could stream Farm Aid live, so I did. at the moment I got connected Neil was walking on stage in a majestic moment, I walked out to the patio, plugged in my headphones and enjoyed the full moon rising over the lake while listening to such an influence on me while enjoying an even bigger influence in one of his earliest works. He opened with TELL ME WHY…. which is all I kept asking the stars… was I really in a Wright home streaming Neil, reading a cookbook by Julia, of course enrobed in Ralph? Yes I was, this life is mine, I’m living it, chasing dreams and having as much fun as any celebration. This night set the tone for the joy of the week, discovery, making friends, hearing stories and celebrating a life filled with passion.”

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Both Wright houses in Manchester meet with Freeman’s culinary approval because they have “great” kitchens. One of his favorite Wright kitchens is in the Allen-Lambe House in Wichita. “It was designed to work.” While the Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo is considered one of Wright’s greatest and most important Prairie-style homes, it doesn’t pass the test for Freeman. “I wouldn’t be excited to cook in that kitchen at all. It’s dark. It’s cramped even though it is decent-sized. It is way off from the areas where people eat. It was very poorly designed as a kitchen to produce good food. The house itself was absolutely mind blowing, but I’d rather cook in the Gardener’s Cottage on that property.”

Freeman reacts to seeing me take yet another picture of him as he emerges from the kitchen:

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For dessert: maple yogurt parfait with berries, chocolate nibs, and cinammon:

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At the end of the meal, Freeman, left, relaxed on the dining room terrace as an almost-full moon shone across Lake Michigan:

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“Next was a surprise (day) visit to Penwern, words, photos, film, media, animation, models cannot describe this house and how it feels to experience this house in person. I didn’t cook there, but when I do, I will write about that experience. Like most Wright houses I’ve studied by reading, studying the floor plans, looking at the pictures, to be able to experience the details, light, textures and scale of materials in person is a priceless experience.

This trip was 7 Wright places, Hardy, Wingspread, Penwern, Mollica, Keland, Burnham, SCJ and a drive by Bogk. and some Calatrava too. What was most learned is there is no mistaking a Wright design, each one of these structures is so wildly different from another, yet unmistakably Wright. There is no other medium like his Architecture, nothing even close.

Back to Hardy- upon a long study, that house is so wonderfully rich with simplicity that takes a while to appreciate. If you folded that whole house as a paper model in any direction, there are but a few lines and they follow each other front to back, side to side. Meaning you could draw 19 lines to make up the interior elevation of the North bedroom, and those 19 lines are on every wall on the North plane, mirror image and they parallel on the South planes. Likewise for east and west. A CGI model could show this and just amaze with delight at how simplistic design is such a challenge to achieve, strikingly rich upon observation, brilliantly masterful for Wright to create at such a young age.”

Dinner at the Mollica House, Wednesday September 26:

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From Robert Hartmann: “What could be more enjoyable than spending an evening with good friends at their Frank Lloyd Wright designed home? How about having architect and Master Chef Steven Freeman prepare a gourmet dinner for you while you are enjoying your visit. My wife Jill and I recently had the opportunity to savor Steven’s efforts while visiting good friends Nick Goodhue and Sylvia Ashton, owners of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mollica House in Bayside on the northside of Milwaukee. Steven was given a special challenge to prepare a meal that would work for my wife who has several food allergies and he was up to the task.

The kitchen in the Mollica house is large for a Frank Lloyd Wright house, in fact the Mollica house,designed by Wright in 1956, is the largest of the nine known Erdman prefab #1 homes to ever be built. It served as Freeman’s preparation area with room to spare. Steven served his creative efforts in the dining area just off the kitchen which has dramatic views of the massive Lannon stone fireplace, living room and upper terrace. But, it was Steven’s meal that took center stage. A beautifully presented salad of mixed greens was followed by a main course of grilled pork and vegetables, all perfectly prepared and beautifully presented.

Before the evening was over we discovered Steven’s interest in Wright’s architecture was driven by his seeing Wright’s Zimmerman house in Manchester, New Hampsire which is near his home. Nick Goodhue, the grandson of another one of America’s greatest architects, Bertram Goodhue, shared a color rendering of his grandfather’s award-winning design for the Nebraska State Capitol.”

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Nicholas Goodhue reflects on the evening: “We received an email from Bob Hartmann saying you had asked him to inquire if we would be interested in having Steven prepare a meal in our home in exchange for a tour. We told Steven that we would be glad to give him a tour even without the inducement of a meal prepared by a master chef, but he insisted that he wanted to prepare a dinner for the stewards of each of the Wisconsin Wright houses that he would be visiting. The prospect of enjoying an elegant dinner in our home certainly was an attractive one, so we accepted his offer without further ado. We were very pleased that you and Cindy, as well as Bob and Jill Hartmann, were able to join us for this memorable repast.

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And, once again, from Steven: “Tuesday night, onto Mollica for a few nights’ stay with more total strangers. We had a few phone calls before arrival. I remember while on phone, perusing my Wright books, Maps, Google earth, imagining what this house would feel like, the neighborhood, the stewards, the landscape. I felt like I would have a good understanding of the site and surrounding and I even found a topo map to help with the grading. nope, could not have imagined or envisioned arrival at this house or its siting.

Approaching this house was like the approach to the Boynton house in Rochester, surrounded by the melancholia of suburbia cookie cutters, we were rounding the circle and then she appeared, the jagged edge of the garage, whose stone was laid in Wrightian fashion, alternating courses, staggered, casting delightful shadows and light. I knew this was Mollica, from that first edge. Then Cindy turned into the generous drive and we approached the entry, That sense of royalty came back. This was my house for the next few days, what a spectacle. the large stone wing against the batten wood bedroom wing. The stewards were at the door to welcome us in. what a living room, this is a modular home? I don’t think so, this was a Wright home, every last detail, every piece of stone, every nook, every intersection of materials. Just Wright.”

The kitchen in the Mollica House, unlike the one in the Hardy House, had ample room for Freeman to work in:

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“We spent a few hours chatting, settling in, while my reality was catching up to me. We decided early in the day, with Penwern, I would not cook Tuesday night, so we went out.

Wednesday, Nick took me to breakfast and we talked about how he came to Bayside, his father being quite the architect, and planned out the menu and all the local foods we would search for. lucked out with a bounty at a farmers market, where I stocked up for the week. There is nothing like fresh local foods, so I seized the opportunity to gather my crop for the rest of the week.

Back to the kitchen, I began to tear that one up looking for the tools to make dinner for 7 of us. The day afforded me a wonderful experience and a new way to enjoy cooking and being in the kitchen all day.

They had a great double wall oven with four racks in each chamber, so I played around with all the veggies and herbs, their plethora of spices and made some magic. What was such a joy is knowing I had all day to cook and plenty of time to make it right! In between meals I would wander out and study the house, take pictures and enjoy the house and its stewards. Of course like any Wright home, there were plenty of Wright books to enjoy as well.”

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The main course: Moroccan Java-rubbed pork:

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“The weather was just perfect for a day of cooking with the windows open. the kitchen window faces West, so there was not much direct sun/heat, which is a welcome kitchen design. This kitchen was large and generous, spacious, wrapped in windows and just a joy to cook in with a unique island to work upon. I have the built in stereo playing music all day. Like Hardy this house and its stewards gave me a great sense of belonging, ownership and joy. I’ve cooked in many kitchens, many styles of homes, some really  great 6 figure kitchens, but none were as magical as Wright in my Kitchen and feeling like we belonged together.”

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Minted maple fruit with coconut yogurt for dessert:

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Dinner at the Keland House, Thursday September 27:

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“Onward to Keland, this house, was this really happening? Was I going to this Usonian Zimmerman on steroids? I woke early to make sure I had a long day at Keland. greeted by all the staff and Bill with a great welcoming feeling. this was my castle for the day and I was the Prince who would be putting the kitchen to good use and exploring another necklace of rich jewels.

As I settled in and got to work on upending this kitchen and developing the menu, the staff were more than eager to help the meal come to be, planning, decorating and setting the table. Mind you, the dining room has about 40’ of built ins filled with accessories for the dining table. What stood out for this meal was the two nurses digging through all the textiles to set the table and telling me how much they enjoyed this. Little did I know, for this table had not seen guests or meals since Karen (the late Karen Johnson Boyd, who, as Karen Johnson Keland, had commissioned the house in 1954) had left us (she died in January, 2016).

This created some great anxiety in me to make sure this meal did not disappoint. After learning about Bill’s life and how he came to Racine and his past and his years with Karen, this day was becoming more and more sentimental as the meal was coming together. This house meal came to be less and less about the meal and more about what it meant for Bill, his guests and the house. Me? I was the catalyst that brought Bill to come to the dining table again, as he had done for so many years and with so many worldly guests, yet he hadn’t dined here since  her passing. He enjoyed the Marsala, he was happy and bright, with a great bright dress shirt and great friends laughing around him.”

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“I was lucky enough to find a brand new copper fish pan that had never seen the light of day, tucked back in the closet, covered in cobwebs. as with so  many meals ive prepared and portioned, it was meant to be and was perfect size for cooking for 10 fo us. Happy to report this pan has become the new staff favorite to cook with. the meal was delightful but became quite tertiary for my well being. I was overjoyed to see Bill enjoying his house and life with friends and it created such a spirited and joyful feeling for me to be part of this event, part of the homes history and the reason why it had come to be. I couldn’t have been prepared for this emotive event and still delighted to be able to do that for one man. Honored. I hope we can do this again.”

The kitchen or “workspace” (in Wright’s term) is tucked into the “hinge” or junction of the public space wing and the wing with private spaces. It is smaller than the Mollica House kitchen, but larger than the one in the Hardy House:

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Dr. William B. Boyd was married to the late Karen Johnson (Keland)
Boyd who commissioned the house in 1954. This is one of the family pictures on the refrigerator. Freeman used Mrs. Boyd’s linens and dishes to serve his dinner.

“A few weeks before this trip I had been emailing (nurse) Ellen and working out details and plans etc. of course I said I would be delighted if I could spend the night as a guest, but certainly no expectations. midday after joking with staff and Bill and teasing them with snacks, I asked Ellen if there was a chance I could spend the night. “Bill would be delighted to have you be his guest tonight.” I have the best luck and stories regarding Wright. Bill had come to tell me himself I could spend the night and to be careful of my head in the bed. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but by morning I had hit my head twice on the built in bookshelves above the guest bed.

The guest wing of this house, I could happily live my life in. En suite bathroom, with my own balcony overlooking the Root River and the whole estate. A living room overlooking the great room and the stone slab where we had earlier enjoyed dinner, a ribbon of windows, woodwork light, artwork, this was the biggest treat for this trip. to be a welcomed overnight guest in the spacious guest suite, the only part of the house with a second floor. after dinner and cleanup, I was so wound to be staying here I didn’t think I would sleep, I was the only one up to the wee hours of morning, just taking it in.”

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The extent of the dining room is this two-ton Vermont marble table set against a side wall of the hearth (right), and at the edge of the living room, left:

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“Staying in a Wright home stops time, creates moments, fulfills dreams, creates the greatest joys, teaches, inspires, cultivates, erases all doubts of what man can achieve. I could stay a week at any of these Wright homes and never leave and never want for more of find boredom, ever. Everywhere you look is a design that is entirely intentional, masterful, brilliant, skillful, crafted with precision and purpose. with every visit to a Wright house, the appreciation that every square inch of every surface was conceived and drawn by the hands of man.  Take a look around any other home and see large canvases of blank walls, spend a day in the Hardy living room and study the lines of simplicity and intention, and see how they carry thru the floors below. Just When I thought I had absorbed the living room of Mollica, I change seats and see more details, connectivity, intention and simplicity. be it complex as it may appear, at its root, many of these structures are absolutely simplistic. Keland entry closet with its tall slender window providing natural light to a coat closet!! I’ve never seen that before, yet have suggested many designs of my own to have natural light in a closet. This was the first and only closet I’ve seen a window in. I will be adding it to my designs and will see it built soon.”

The entry way to the house is center, right, to the left of the distant table lamp. A sitting room, above, looks over the living room:

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Dinner finished with a surprise birthday celebration for one of the guests:

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Freeman packs differently than most people who cross the country in search of Wright adventures. He has an early edition of William Allin Storrer’s Frank Lloyd Wright Companion, to be sure, but he also packs a checked bag with a knife, a small cutting board, a pepper mill, a pair of long-handled grill tongs, and his steel to sharpen his knife.

“For me this trip turned out to be so much more than anybody could have suggested it would be. I created memories for some very wonderful people who are lucky enough to Live in Wright, I made friends, shared stories imbibed with passion for architecture and food, and constantly reminded myself how lucky I was  to be experiencing this and how it came to be because I took a chance and wrote a few letters offering to cook a meal if you open your home to share with me.

There are many moments of my daily life and especially with cooking, that I think of things The Wright Way and whenever I feel a moment of creative genius I think of Wright and thank him for the influence and sending it to me. Every meal I make is made with passionate intention, when I dress a plate I think of Wright draughting a leaded window or a rug design – this has to be organic and in the nature of materials and the composition has to work well within itself and in the context of the materials – they all have to relate to each other. every day I live my life with the Wright intention and for fleeting moments, I do in fact feel Wright with one.

I have a few projects on my table I’m working on, kitchens no less, and every line I lay on paper, I shake from my sleeve in his spirit and amazingly they come to be when they feel Wright and flow naturally, its then I take a photo, send to client and gain their approval. This is Wright in my Kitchen and this is a blessing and joy to experience and I get to share that with my clients and friends and create a small tribute to Wright in all I create.

Thank You Frank Lloyd Wright!”

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