Chef Odessa Piper began a lifetime of culinary inspiration through her family’s gardening and foraging traditions. After high school, she moved to a farm commune and learned to grow and preserve subsistence crops in the root cellar of their wood-heated farmhouse. In 1970, Odessa migrated to Wisconsin’s Kickapoo River Valley, joining others drawn to one of the Midwest’s first organic farms. Continuing her education in regional agriculture, she picked apples, grazed sheep, milked cows and goats, and tended a large vegetable garden. In 1972, Odessa moved to Madison, Wis., to help open the Ovens of Brittany, a restaurant that served food grown on the group’s farm. From 1972–1975, Odessa developed a line of popular baked goods for the Ovens of Brittany, including the original “Morning Bun,” now found in cafes around the country.
In 1976, Odessa opened her own restaurant, L’Etoile, on Madison’s capital square. At a time when there was no local supply infrastructure, Odessa drew on her early experiences to cultivate a network of local organic farms and artisans to supply her restaurant. She acknowledged their role by naming and locating them on her menu, and encouraged farmers to build their brands, pool their efforts, and diversify their markets with organic products, winter vegetables from solar hoop houses, and pasture-grazed meats.
In the ’90s, L’Etoile’s cuisine evolved to rely primarily upon regional sources throughout the year. Artisanal cheeses, cured meats, and ferments with a local voice found a home on L’Etoile’s menus. The after-dinner cheese selections from the Midwest grew so numerous they required a separate menu to describe each evening’s offerings.
Odessa was named the James Beard Foundation Best Chef Midwest–2002. In recognition of her contribution to the region’s artisanal and sustainable agriculture, the University of Wisconsin–Madison awarded Odessa an honorary doctorate in humane letters in 2006.
In 2005, Odessa sold L’Etoile, and in 2010, moved back to New England.
Odessa often accompanies her husband, Terry Theise, a wine importer and author, to wine regions of Northern Europe. The parallels she finds between wine culture and artisanal foods are the subject of her current writing project. Odessa is also distilling her culinary ideas in presentations and publications for the next generation of cooks, artisans, and farmers. In 2013, she wrote and published The Market Kitchen, a small cookbook of seasonal recipes for the home cook.
On any given day in her village of Roslindale, Odessa can be found exploring the synergies between cooks, food retailers, markets, and farms.