By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Jun 15, 2024 at 10:04 AM

Longtime Milwaukee Chef Peggy Magister, 65, passed away on June 7, 2024 after a short battle with cancer.

Best known for her restaurant, Crazy Water, Peggy was a talented chef who introduced the City of Milwaukee to “California Style” cuisine, a predecessor of farm-to-table and New American cuisines that integrated fresh, seasonal vegetables and globally influenced ingredients. Though she didn’t know it at the time, she’d also blaze a trail for other chefs, planting the seed for the restaurant row that developed on South Second Street in Walker’s Point.

I got to know Magister largely through her expertly prepared food. But I also had the privilege of sitting beside her – often at the table in the front window at Crazy Water – to chat about her background, her plans and her hopes for the future. In addition to cooking she loved to garden, and fresh produce from her home plot in Elkhorn, Wisconsin was often the source of inspiration (and sometimes specials at the restaurant).

The Peggy I got to know was humble, passionate and generous. When my first book was released in the autumn of 2015, she was among the first to call and congratulate me on the accomplishment. Even more, she offered to host my book launch party at the restaurant, preparing a generous spread of appetizers for the attendees.

I'm far from the only one to have benefited from her talents and gracious nature. In fact, it’s no understatement to say that the impact of her work – which assisted in changing the palate of Milwaukee diners and built foundations for the current dining scene – will not be easily forgotten. 

A passion for cooking

Sitting in the Crazy Water dining room watching Chef Peggy Magister at work on a busy evening was always a sight to behold. It was almost a blur as she and her small staff whisked ingredients from prep to pan and onto plate. But the motions were fluid, and the timing impressive as they served up dish after dish from the helm of a 10-by-10-foot open kitchen.

Magister, a Marquette University graduate who began her career in nursing, was a relative late-comer to the culinary world. In search of a change, she moved to California at the age of 30 to attend the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. While earning her degree, she got a job working with Wolfgang Puck at his restaurant Postrio.

After returning to the Milwaukee area, she worked at Steven Wade’s Café as well as Chip & Pye’s in Mequon. That’s where she met her partner Tony Betzhold. Together, he and Magister launched a catering company and opened The Fork Café, a boulangerie in Cedarburg. But when the restaurant wasn’t doing as well as Magister had hoped, she decided to move to Milwaukee. There she worked at the newly minted The Knick and North Shore Bistro while searching for a place to call her own.

Halibut dish from Crazy Water
Parsley crusted halibut with whole grain mustard sauce, sauteed spinach and frico caldo at Crazy Water

A trail-blazing restaurant

Crazy Water was born in 2002 when Magister and Betzhold snatched up the former home of German bar Zur Krone and transformed it into an eclectic restaurant serving fresh, California-style cuisine. Betzhold handled the business end of things while Magister took charge of the cooking alongside Chef Emanuel Corona, who’d worked beside her at The Fork Café. 

At the time, there weren’t many restaurants in Walker’s Point. Barossa hadn’t yet settled into the former Dish Night Club and La Merenda wouldn’t arrive until 2006. But Kevin Sloan’s The Social, which had opened in 2001, was doing well on the northerly side of South Second Street gave Magister hope that the nearby location could succeed.

“I wanted to contribute,” Magister noted in a 2014 interview. “Not many people were doing California-style cuisine. And the restaurant was small enough that I didn’t need many people to fill it, so I held my breath and hoped people would embrace it.”

And embrace it they did, swarming to the restaurant for a taste of Magister’s cooking. Starters like yuzu-marinated pork belly, chorizo-stuffed dates and escargot in tomato concassé were served alongside signature main dishes like grilled flat iron steak and “crazy shrimp,” a dish featuring Asian barbecue-sauced shrimp served with chorizo and tomatoes over rice with jalapeño corn bread muffins. 

The restaurant’s reputation for impeccable, inventive fare attracted diners from across the city in the days before the Walker’s Point neighborhood would become a dining destination, attracting restaurants like La Merenda, Ginger Tapas Bar, Transfer Pizzeria, The Noble, Braise, Morel and more. 

In 2010, Magister’s work was recognized nationally when she was honored as a James Beard semi-finalist in the category of Best Chef Midwest. The award highlighted her talent as a chef and further cemented the restaurant’s place on the Milwaukee dining map.

Salad from Crazy Water
Crazy Shrimp Salad at Crazy Water

Passing the torch

Unawares, Magister was also building her legacy as she passed along her knowledge and expertise to a new generation.

In 2013, she took on a new challenge when she opened the upscale small plates restaurant, AP Bar and Kitchen, alongside her nephew Justin Anthony. Anthony managed the front of house and Magister took the helm in the kitchen, serving dishes like fried catfish with malt vinegar, sweetbreads, baby octopus panzanella salad, and fried chicken with soy ginger vinaigrette and kimchee. There was an oyster bar, craft cocktails, and an expertly curated wine list focused on European-style wines. 

After two years, Magister decided that running a hip tapas restaurant wasn’t her dream. So she turned the reins over to Anthony and refocused her efforts on Crazy Water.  “This is another generation, another food craze, and this new era belongs to them,” she said at the time. “It’s their turn to try their hands at changing the food scene.”

It was a sentiment she’d echo again in June of 2020, four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, when she decided to step back and let go of the Crazy Water concept and assist in its transition to La Dama Mexican Kitchen & Bar, a concept headed by her longtime chef and colleague, Emanuel Corona.

"It’s been difficult for the past five years or so," Magister says. "This style of dining has really gone out of fashion. I still enjoy it; but it has had its run. I’ve had my run. I felt like the last year we were barely hanging on. I seriously considered closing and leaving the industry altogether. But what would I do? I still have a lot of energy, and I still love coming to work every day."

La Dama exteriorX

For 18 months, she stood alongside Corona as he took the lead in transforming the eatery into a modern Mexican concept showcasing both Corona’s family recipes and dishes from various regions where Magister had traveled. In January of 2022, she stepped aside, leaving Corona to pursue his dream and success in her wake.

Not one to leave the industry entirely, Magister moved on, taking on a more low-key position as a server at The Union House in Genesee Depot, where she worked until her recent cancer diagnosis made the work untenable.

Corona candidly shared his feelings about the loss of his mentor in a recent post on social media

“Our heart is broken knowing you’re no longer here, you were a great chef and a wonderful friend. I have spent the last 20+ years of my life working and knowing you, we had become like family. There are no words to describe how sad I am feeling, you taught me a lot, you inspired me to become the chef that I am today. You were the best. I will always be so grateful to have known you and to have had you as my mentor. 

“You were one of the pioneer chefs in the Milwaukee food industry. Crazy Water was your baby and you worked so hard every day to run it for so long. I admire you so much. I wish you were still here to call you and chat with about things like we always did. It is hard to know you’re gone, but you will never be forgotten. I will keep making you proud Peggy. Thank you for being there for me and my kids, we will love you forever dear Peggy and I already miss you so much.”

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.