Anna Dickson is Madison Magazine’s chef of the year

At the hip, friendly and farm-to-table Merchant, executive chef Anna Dickson is practicing her craft in a style all her own
Anna Dickson is Madison Magazine’s chef of the year
Line cook Eric Thayer and executive chef Anna Dickson of Merchant. Photo by Sharon Vanorny.

By Michelle Wildgen

On a humid summer night, I station myself near the kitchen at Merchant and watch Anna Dickson work. It’s still early in the evening, when a lot of folks in the restaurant business tend to tense up in anticipation of the rush. But executive chef Dickson is pure calm, trim in her short-sleeved black chef’s coat and glasses, her red hair pulled back in a neat ponytail. She keeps the counter before her spotless, periodically removing a speck of fresh parsley and re-folding her towel each time. As the cooks complete plates of French fries, burgers and mussels, each one must go through Dickson. She looks each plate over, wiping away a stray dab of sauce and sometimes conferring with a cook, who takes it back for a correction. Only when she is satisfied is the plate released to the waiting server.

In the back of the kitchen at the cold station, two cooks prep salads, cheese and desserts, while on the opposite side of the wall five others cluster around the fryer, the grill, the range and the pass. A cook tastes a pot of simmering water and then seasons it with kosher salt; another tips a splash of white wine from the bottle to a sauté pan of cream sauce. Tickets filter in with an easy rhythm and the staff knocks them right back out, but by now I have talked to enough people to know that even
if the kitchen were slammed, Dickson would remain unruffled.

There is nothing uncertain or tentative about her, no sense that she feels any need to downplay her skills or accomplishments. (All those young girls out there whose every sentence sounds like a question could learn a lot from her.) Instead, Dickson knows exactly who she is: the rural girl who grew up preserving apples from the family farm in New Glarus and the confident, culinary-school-educated chef who worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant in California. She is a manager and a cook, a businessperson and a gracious host, self-possessed and comfortable with her own authority, a pragmatic idealist. She has formulated answers at an age at which most of us are still figuring out the questions. Heck, if I were a cook I’d work for her too, but I’ll settle for eating at her restaurant.

Merchant‘s cavernous, high-ceilinged square space is many things to many people. Turn right from the entrance and it’s a bar so devoted to its craft cocktails that its menu offers a paragraph—long on charm and short on pretension—on each house drink. True to the restaurant’s name, the wall to the left is stocked floor to ceiling with bottles of beer, wine and liquor for purchase. Go straight to the back and you’ll find a retail cooler filled with charcuterie and cheeses. Weeknight specials like Monday’s Beer & Burger—market burger and pint for $13—or Tuesday’s Cheap Date—two entrées, a bottle of wine and dessert for $40—bring in the casual dining crowd. On weekends, DJs spin or bands jam once the dinner rush subsides.

Recent renovations spiffed up existing seating with fresh upholstery and new stained red oak seats, as well as added a row of generously sized booths and a half wall of glass tile, reclaimed wood trim, and glass block unearthed in a warehouse near Delavan. Twenty-eight new sound panels have softened the din of the packed room. Thanks to the dark, patterned wallpaper, the pendant lamps, the big windows and burnished wood and the tattooed and pierced staff, the vibe is at once modern and vintage, the restaurant equivalent of that friend who effortlessly mixes flea market lamps and the occasional antique with stainless steel. The funky atmosphere has been a large part of Merchant’s allure since it opened in December 2010.

The dining room’s casual feel is by design; co-owner Joshua Berkson says they specifically do not require uniforms for their servers and bartenders. But casual doesn’t mean languid. You’d be hard-pressed to make it from the front door to the bar without several staff members making sure you’ve been helped. And the food itself has the same unfussy feel: wide white bowls of mussels, wooden boards heaped with charcuterie and cheese, baguettes and flat bread.

Merchant’s menu, which Dickson made over almost entirely, bit by bit, after becoming the restaurant’s new executive chef in September 2013, is democratic in many senses: one can eat lightly or richly, casually or elegantly, splurge with steak frites or snack on warmed olives. You’re as welcome to pop cheese curds and a PBR with a pal as to split a serious bottle of champagne with some worthy companion. The menu is both firm and flexible, designed to shape-shift with the seasons. Perennial items like a burger or pappardelle with pork ragu may be tweaked, while a house-made tagliatelle will gradually reinvent itself, ingredient by ingredient, morphing from winter greens tossed with vermouth cream to Riesling cream with sugar snap peas and mint chiffonade. “Any time you get it here, it should reflect exactly what is happening in Madison, today or this week,” says Dickson. “The idea is that the menu should be ever changing. It’s just not natural any other way.”

In many ways, her signature radish board is Anna Dickson on a (wooden) plate: an elemental presentation that changes with each season, heavy on market vegetables and the simplest ways to complement them. Her original impulse was to offer the classic French pairing of radishes, whipped butter and salt: delectable, but barely a dish. What came to be is quintessentially Wisconsin, deliciously simple and glorious to behold. The tumble of scarlet-skinned, icy-white radish, the creamy heap of house-made ricotta, chopped spring onion, salty Nueske’s bacon, a hit of sweetness from cherry tomatoes and the golden crackle of the baguette crust. What was once a spare Gallic dish takes on pure Wisconsin abundance. The plate is vivid and inviting to look at, and, though I confess I ate the most, it does ask to be shared.

Dickson’s cooking is a lot of things—locally sourced, creatively made and often communal—but first and foremost, it’s delicious. Nevertheless, one of her first challenges when she took over her post was to inform local foodies that Merchant served food at all. It’s hard to blame the populace, maybe, for focusing at first on a cocktail program so inventive, fun-loving and downright literary (one of Merchant’s most popular drinks is the Regret, with its gentle whiff of rosemary). But Madison caught on. Dickson says Merchant now consistently serves 140 to 180 covers—restaurant speak for customers—any given night. “It’s increased dramatically over the past year,” she says. The accolades in local and online polls now roll in for food as well as booze.

“It’s very hand-driven, hand-made food,” says Berkson. “Anna really brought that with her.”