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Area Dining: A southern infusion is happening at Cragun's

New Cragun's Resort Executive Chef Wayd Lovaas looks over the menu he created for Irma's Kitchen in East Gull Lake. Jeremy Millsop / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 3
The bacon wrapped scallops at Irma's Kitchen at Cragun's Resort are a hearty way to start a dinner as the crunchy bacon envelops the delicate scallop. The protein pair is nestled on a roasted corn puree with a blackberry gastrique for added flavor. Jeremy Millsop / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 3
One of the featured menu items at Irma's Kitchen at Cragun's Resort is the Bouillabaisse. A light broth mingles with mussels, shrimp, scallops, langoustine, leeks, fennel, tomatoes, celery and potatoes. Jeremy Millsop / Brainerd Dispatch3 / 3

EAST GULL LAKE—Food fusion.

Seems like a funny term until you meet Wayd Lovaas, the new executive chef at Cragun's Resort in East Gull Lake. Lovaas has come full circle geographically speaking. Born in the lakes area, Lovaas later moved to St. Paul, but summered in the Sylvan Lake area. His first introduction to cooking came from his Grandmother Lovaas where the two would spend many weekends creating Sunday family dinners. As he grew older, Lovaas returned to the area to work with his Grandmother Duell and her food truck.

"My grandma had a food truck and for a young kid at that day and age, minimum wage was $4.25 and my grandma was paying me $8-10 an hour to flip burgers in a little food truck and it just became fun," Lovaas said. "It was the pressure of a big rush that you had to work through. That adrenaline was always fun."

From there Lovaas went on a food journey. He started in the deep south hitting up Biloxi, Miss., and New Orleans to get his professional foundation. He returned to the area and picked up jobs working at Madden's Resort, Ernie's on Gull, Ski Gull, Sibley Station and Cragun's Resort.

After getting married, Lovaas transplanted to Clearwater Beach, Fla., where he secured his first corporate sous chef position at Tate Island Grill at the Sandpearl Resort and Spa. After gaining recognition in Florida, Lovaas took his talents to the JW Marriott in Tucson, Ariz. There he oversaw five different restaurants, including a farm to table theme.

Lovaas' reputation grew and Marriott transferred him to Charlotte, S.C., and then to Fargo before he landed back at Cragun's.

It didn't take long for Lovaas to put his imprint on the resort. He revamped the menu at Irma's Kitchen, Cragun's fine-dining option.

"This is all brand new," Lovaas said. "Last year's menu was probably four times the size so the difficulties we had were timing issues. Some of the stuff, like the 32-ounce steak, is not cooking in 20 to 30 minutes. It was cooking in an hour. Those were some of the issues we had. I took the feedback from years past and I just came up with this menu.

"With this menu, I tried to start small so we can work our way into bigger things."

Lovaas is easing his southern cooking roots into the menu. He highlighted the bouillabaisse with an abundance of seafood and seasonal vegetables swimming in a delicate broth. He talked about his frizzled chicken, which has become a favorite at the restaurant.

"I tell people I really grew up working with southern food," Lovaas said. "That's where my foundation started. One of the things we want to do is change the menu seasonally. One of the things that my family and the people that know me remember is my gumbo. So this fall or late summer we'll add that to the menu."

The key to Lovaas' success in the lakes area, however, might be his youthful influences and his ability to, as he puts it, infuse his southern foundation with his northern background. On the social plates portion of the menu there's a shrimp ceviche de aguachile, which incorporates cucumber, red onion, chilis, cilantro, lime and a crispy wonton with the shrimp. But right next to it is the classic poutine, a Canadian dish of fries, cheese curds and normally gravy, but Lovaas puts a twist on it by using a demi.

On his bay and field po'boy, there's a lemon dill aioli placed a top two beef patties and fried shrimp.

Lovaas sprinkles in his southern style by using an avocado mayonnaise on his club sandwich. He's got agave and cracked pepper bacon. He's throwing in avocado into his roasted tomato bisque.

"You hear about Asian fusion, but I like to take little pieces of the soul food that I make," Lovaas said. "For instance, Minnesotans love fried chicken. I took some different ideas that I used down south and we call it frizzled chicken. I didn't want to call it fried chicken because it's not. I wanted people to ask questions about it because what we do is we buy the best chickens you're going to find from one of the local farms and then we put them in a brine. We add all these flavors to it. That way it's not just the initial great flavor of the skin, but the chicken itself is juicy and flavorful, too."

As for his leadership style, Lovaas has taken a Marriott philosophy and made it his own.

"I'm not that old-school chef that rules by intimidation," he said. "I try to partner best with my cooks and all the lateral departments to build relationships with them and so far it's working here. If you take care of your staff then they'll take care of your guests.

"I have a calming presence on people so the kitchen is never overwhelmed. I delegate and I only give so much to each person. I tell people they need to just worry about this one piece and I'll take care of everything. Then everything comes together and people have learned to trust me a little more."

As will the dining public and the many local farmers Irma's uses to create its menu. Irma's is now open seven days a week starting at 5 p.m. Cragun's now has a dedicated dock just for dining guests.

Jeremy Millsop
My career at the Brainerd Dispatch began May 11, 1999 after graduating from North Dakota State University. My areas of emphasis includes local high school sports, Central Lakes College, the lakes area golf mecca and once a year I dabble in the NHRA when the Lucas Oil Nationals come to Brainerd International Raceway.
(218) 855-5856
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