We at Wisconsin Cheese are extremely excited that the American Cheese Society Conference and Competition event is being held in Madison this year. Being that the event is a national affair and visitors will be present from many different parts of the country, will you be featuring any items at L’Etoile that you would especially like to note for new visitors?
What I love to do during this time of year is celebrate the best produce the market has to offer, paired with the best Wisconsin Cheese we can find. While I love to eat Wisconsin Cheeses as they are, I really enjoy putting them into our dishes as a supporting cast member of a dish, such as a 10-year aged-cheddar polenta or SarVecchio risotto. We have a lasagna dish combining Wisconsin Queso Fresco with squash blossoms and charred sweet onion that is really tasty. One thing I would always recommend to our new guests – try our Wisconsin SarVecchio. I use it in a ton of dishes, just as I would a Parmigiano-Reggiano, and I love it.
The L’Etoile philosophy is to support the local farmers and artisan producers, and you have done an outstanding job using the local food products in your cooking, earning you most recently the James Beard Foundation’s 2012 Award for Best Chef – Midwest. Where does your local food inspiration stem from – working directly with the farmers and producers face-to-face, the continuous cycle of seasonal produce or maybe from hosting collaborative events such as your dinner with Odessa Piper?
Getting to work with a pioneer like Chef Odessa was definitely inspiring. She has an incredible spirit and a true passion for local food. My daily inspiration today comes from the farmers themselves and the work that they put into producing the best produce, livestock and cheeses they possibly can. It really does rev up our staff’s engines to see the farmers rolling in with the fresh produce every day, but especially Saturdays during the farmers’ market. I am also lucky enough to be working with some of the most talented people in the state – in the front of the house and in the kitchens. It takes an army to run the two restaurants the way we do, and I’m so happy to be a part of it. Witnessing so much passion around me every day keeps me going.
Speaking of Odessa Piper, L’Etoile’s former owner, how has L’Etoile and Graze’s philosophy of farm-to-table food evolved since the transition of ownership? What has remained the same?
Well, the saying goes, “the more things change, the more things stay the same,” right? I guess that’s true in our case; all we did was expand the buying power a little bit by adding Graze to the mix. We always wanted a place that could follow the same philosophy as L’Etoile, but at a lower price point. It is a hard thing to do – I mean, good, clean and fair market food isn’t the cheapest. It costs a lot to produce, and therefore it has to make sense for us as a business to be able to sell it at a fair price in order for us to remain sustainable ourselves. I’m sure lots of things are done differently from back in the day, but seeing how I worked for Odessa for 2 1/2 years before becoming a co-owner, I was already doing things the way we do them and didn’t need to change too much. One thing I will say that’s different was that when I first started as a cook at L’Etoile, we had 3 cheeses on our cheese plate, Hook’s 7-Year Aged Cheddar, Upland’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Emmi Roth’s Buttermilk Blue. Now we have over 30 cheeses at L’Etoile and 12 at Graze – I guess I like it cheesy.
As a local chef and restaurant proprietor, what are you most looking forward to at this year’s American Cheese Society Conference and Competition?
As a fan of great cheese, and knowing what I know about Wisconsin Cheese, I’m really excited for us to be on center stage. Our cheese deserves to be shown off a little bit – we don’t just wear this stuff on our heads. I’m also really excited for the national media to see that Wisconsin has great products to offer beyond cheese – great beers, restaurants and the rich food scene in general. Odessa and I are going to put on one hell of a show tonight at the Farm-to-Table Pioneers Dinner, so there’s a lot to look forward to there. But the best part is that I will be getting to see friends from around the country coming together in my town for once; we are always traveling to other venues, so it is going to be nice to be able to get done with work and hang out near home.