By Anne Morrissy | Photos by (left) Holly Leitner, (right) Lauren Harrigan
Earlier this year, a locally renowned name joined the team of Williams Bay’s Pier 290 as executive chef: Ken Hnilo. A graduate of Big Foot High School and the Kendall Culinary School, Hnilo has worked in several well-known Chicago kitchens, including Le Vichyssoise, Carlos’ and Charlie Trotter’s. For the past 10 years, Hnilo has been working as the general manager of the Bon Appétit Management Company, a restaurant management company based in Palo Alto, California.
Prior to that, Hnilo was the owner and executive chef of Gilbert’s, a AAA four-diamond restaurant that was located in Lake Geneva in what is today the Baker House. But Hnilo’s passion for cooking began in a much humbler environment. “My interest in cooking began with Sunday dinners at my grandma’s house where the people, environment and the food worked together to create a memorable experience,” he explains.
At Pier 290, Hnilo will be responsible for developing menus and preparing dishes for the restaurant and its affiliate business, Lake Life Catering. He will oversee a culinary staff of 22. “We’re planning to focus on classics with a spin,” he explains. “We want to work with the seasons and use local ingredients as much as possible.” To start, Hnilo says Pier 290 menus will change about twice a year, to reflect the ingredients available and the kinds of foods people are looking to order at different times of the year. “Of course, we’ll always have some of our most popular options on the menu,” he adds, citing the tuna tartare and the island shrimp as fan favorites.
Pier 290 opened in 2012 on a portion of Gage Marine’s winter harbor in Williams Bay. Since that time, it has become a landmark bar and restaurant experience for locals and visitors alike, combining upscale dining and unmatched lake views with a relaxed vibe and family- friendly atmosphere. Bill Gage, president and owner of Pier 290, Gage Marine and Lake Geneva Cruise Line, is excited about the possibilities Hnilo brings to the popular restaurant. “Chef Hnilo’s creativity, skill and leadership experience will advance Pier 290 to a new level of culinary capability,” he says.