Forward-thinking food in a small town
Willard’s breaks the mold with delicious modern food rooted in Scandinavian traditions
Kelsey K. Larson
You’ve probably already heard the story of how Chef Erick Harcey and Grant Johnson—the former a celebrated Twin Cities chef and native son of Cambridge, Minn., the latter an industry expert whose great-grandfather first bought Cambridge’s legendary Leader building on Main Street in 1918—came together, built a partnership, and took their skills back to their hometown. Several renowned Minnesota publications have reported on this, and, as a Cambridge native, I couldn’t be more thrilled. However, I’m also very excited about how Willard’s—with a Swedish-inspired menu brought to you by the incomparable Chef Harcey and Sous Chef Bradley Day—serves its community by keeping tradition close and innovation closer.
Cambridge is a small town about an hour’s drive from the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul). Historically a farming community, it’s surrounded by fields, forests, and rural areas. Willard’s—named after Chef Harcey’s grandfather, a Swedish immigrant whose big heart for hospitality made him well known in the area—boasts a modern Scandinavian fare that Chef Harcey doesn’t see as traditional at all.
“I don’t think of it as a tradition; it’s just what we grew up with,” he says of his Swedish roots. “Meatballs, lefse, pickled herring. It wasn’t just for special occasions; it was part of the meal table all the time.”
The menu at Willard’s ranges from very Scandinavian, with open-faced sandwiches—the shrimp skagen, with simple touches of lemon and dill, and the smorgas, with gravlaks and radish—that rival any sandwich I ate in Norway, to true Midwest: at dinner with my family, my niece enjoyed a bowl of macaroni and cheese with crushed Cheetos sprinkled lovingly on top. And nothing gets more Minnesota than the ham and pickle tots with a dollop of cream cheese on the side.
“I have a lot of Midwestern palate,” says Chef Harcey. “As a chef, once you get your skill set, you tend to fall back on your roots. You cook what you want to eat.”
Though Scandinavian food has become trendy on restaurant menus across the country, there’s a difference at Willard’s: this food is no trend. It’s the beating heart of this community. “It’s just a different level of realism, truth that we get to do here,” says Chef Harcey, and many of us who grew up in the area can relate. In central Minnesota, Norwegian and Swedish roots run deep.
Johnson can attest to that. His great-grandfather, A.W. Johnson, immigrated as a teenager from Norway. After he bought the Leader building, named for its signature department store, it stayed in the family for generations; the pair bought the building from Johnson’s uncle. “The building spoke to both of us in different ways,” says Johnson. “There’s a lot of things that commonly pointed to the heritage of the building.” In renovations, they kept true to that spirit. The wood floorboards are original, as is the exposed brick wall on the north side of the restaurant. Leader, the retail side, has been re-imagined as a combined gift shop and clothing boutique, carrying such conspicuously Swedish brands as Grundens, with old Leader advertisements found during the renovation framed on the walls.
I’ll admit, initially, I had some questions about a star chef opening a restaurant in my hometown. How would people in the community react? What would they think about a menu with words like “pyttipanna” and “kroppkakor” on it?
“They are set at ease before they even eat the food, because the service is welcoming, the space is warm,” says Chef Harcey. “Our staff is trained to that default of ‘trust me, you’ll love it.’ Once someone orders the pyttipanna and we make it delicious, they love it.”
And love it, they do. Chef Harcey’s Minneapolis following is such that many don’t think twice about making the drive, and people from Cambridge and the surrounding areas have come in droves. The fact that Willard’s is something different is exactly what works in its favor. “If you make assumptions about what people want, you fall into a cliché,” says Chef Harcey. “If you do something out of the box, something really different, you’re not setting an expectation. At the end of the day, if you’re delivering superior products and superior service, people will come.”
In a time when many people are leaving small towns for the big city (including me!), it’s certainly refreshing to see the opposite occur in my hometown. Willard’s brings something new and exciting to Main Street at the same time as it honors its legacy.
“You have to keep your toes in tradition, but you have to be forward-thinking. Keeping status quo isn’t going to attract a new crowd, or tempt a family to move here,” says Chef Harcey. Johnson also points to the press surrounding Willard’s, which has put Cambridge on the map in a whole new way.
As far as long-term goals, Willard’s isn’t going anywhere. “This is the long game for us,” says Johnson, adding, “I think as far as Main Street, it’s a goal of ours to invite and work with other people to create a landscape for new investments to come into the city, as well as promoting existing businesses.”
Now that’s a community-forward attitude.
“This is our town,” says Johnson. “There’s a heritage, a legacy, and a reason why.”
Kelsey K. Larson is a Minnesota transplant to the greater Seattle area, a fiction writer, and a former managing editor of The Norwegian American. Find her fiction in Red Queen Literary Magazine, L’Éphémère Review, The Vignette Review, and Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal.
To learn more about Willard’s, visit www.willardsmn.com.
This article originally appeared in the May 31, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.