The Wright Fit

Barbara Wright’s new cooking career at Holy Wisdom Monastery

Barbara Wright

Barbara Wright

PHOTO BY NANCY CHRISTY

One wouldn’t expect to find a great deal of similarity between working as a chef at a popular Monroe Street restaurant and cooking at a monastery, genuine articles though they both might be.

In fact, Barbara Wright, who owned and operated the Dardanelles for thirteen years, admits the two experiences are “opposites.” Restaurants, she points out, “are incredibly difficult. Every little detail has to be taken care of. And so it seems a little crazy, but some of us find that tremendously satisfying. And I do miss it. But you feel like you’re just trying to stay on your surfboard on top of a wave. It’s always changing. And here, there’s none of that.”

Here is Holy Wisdom Monastery, one of Madison’s best-kept secrets despite its presence since the 1950s on County Road M just across the road from Governor Nelson State Park on the north shore of Lake Mendota. Holy Wisdom is many things, most importantly the home of Benedictine Women of Madison, an ecumenical monastic community. Roughly 350 people attend Sunday worship. Others use the facilities for weddings, funerals, and personal and group retreats. In other words, says Wright, “people come here with a purpose, to learn things, to recoup their inner peace. I really think that monasteries, especially in our crazy world, serve such a great purpose, to help you fill up all that stuff the tremendous pressures of life grind down. This is the place to fill it back up again.”

It is perhaps an unlikely landing spot for Wright, who was looking for something else to do when the Dardanelles closed in 2010. “I took this job sort of on a fluke,” says Wright. “I had just come back from Turkey and my favorite place there was Hagia Sophia, which means ‘holy wisdom.’ So when I saw a little ad that said ‘Holy Wisdom,’ I clicked on it when I probably wouldn’t have otherwise because I would have figured it was a religious thing.”

Wright isn’t really into religious things, describing herself as a free thinker. “I had a job where that was a problem. But I was very up front with the sisters and said I wasn’t interested in a lot of religious talk. But I’ve never learned more about spiritual things and my own reaction to spiritual things than here, because people are very respectful. And just the fact that the sisters are open-minded enough to allow that speaks volumes to their dedication to respecting everyone.”

That dedication to respect includes the land, which, along with hospitality, is part of the core mission of the Rule of Benedict. “What better way to care for the earth and to care for ourselves than to grow our own food?” says Wright. The monastery sits on 138 acres of land, including restored prairies, a small glacial lake, woodlands, four miles of nature trails, gardens and orchards. The gardens and orchards are the source of much of Wright’s cooking, including preserving, canning and freezing. “And the sisters work really, really hard. It’s not easy growing a huge garden and then harvesting the huge amount of things that come out of it and processing them, but we use it through the year.” Wright says she cooks daily for a core group of about eight people who live on the grounds. But on any given day she may cook for as many as two hundred. “I get to cook whatever I like and it’s one of the tremendous freedoms I love about this job.”

Wright, who turned sixty in the last year, says she has ten to fifteen more years to work, “and I’d love to do it here, because I feel like I’m a part of something that for the first time aligns with my principles. In the restaurant that was partly true but I also had to deal with the credit card companies and the evil landlord and various other people. But here, there are no negatives.”

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. 

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