WE PREPARED THESE MENUS IN THE EARLY 90’S when L’Etoile finally had enough local sources to compose regional menus in every season of the year. Back then I felt compelled to include every Farm’s name in the description because many of these ingredients were barely obtainable outside L’Etoile’s network of local suppliers. The resulting menus read like a gazetteer! Explore L'Etoile with its current owner Chef Tori Miller.
Fast forward to the present I would happily prepare any of these dishes again, though I can’t resist linking at least a couple beloved farm names to them.
The Evolution of L’Etoile’s Cuisine
I can think of these key experiences that brought L’Etoile to the place where we could produce these menus. I would start with the way my parents raised me; we had our own garden, canned and had many happy family outings centered on foraging. Then, in what would have been my last year of high school, I continued my higher education on a Luddite Commune in New Hampshire, where we produced most of our food and stored it over the winter by canning and root-cellaring. In 1970, I moved to Wisconsin and worked with a visionary named JoAnna Guthrie. She was attempting to link a working organic farm with a restaurant in Madison, both of which she started for that purpose. Though the restaurant was extremely popular, neither her farm or her restaurant had the benefit of surrounding infrastructure to succeed as originally envisioned. At that point we hadn’t addressed the idea of year round regional reliance. By the standards of ’70s this was something a scruffy band of communards could attempt to pull off but still unthinkable for a fine dining restaurant in the Snow Belt.
When I opened L’Etoile in 1976, I was integrating these earlier experiences into my menu strategies and I included the words “Cooking for the Seasons” in my logo. At that point, the Dane County Farmers Market across the street from us in Madison was in its third full year, but there was still no local infrastructure to allow us to purchase locally produced dry staples, fresh water fish, meat, or poultry on a scale the restaurant needed. Like many of the farmers who were attempting to practice organic agriculture at the time, we had altruistic goals, little experience, no mentors, and no societal support. I don’t know how I stayed in one piece. It was like having to build a boat while learning to sail it, all the while bailing constantly to keep from sinking!
In 1983, I had an epiphany on a retreat on Whidbey Island off the coast of Seattle. For two weeks in the middle of summer, our group had eaten almost exclusively from the center’s garden and surrounding region. I experienced directly how the foods we ate shared their power of place with us and offered healing and wholeness. I realized that whole octaves of nutrition, meaningful livelyhood were being bled out by large-scale agriculture. The food paradigm founded on “any thing-any time-any where” not only defers the cost of the production to other generations, but it de-values one of the roots of culture; the artisans of food.
Galvanized by this insight, I knew I could trust the tastes I learned growing up despite my lack of formal training and correct approaches to fine dining. I sought out native and adapted species from the region and sought to stay within regional and climactic boundaries. This was by no means an original act; all the great cuisines of the world are founded on this tenet, but my decision to source locally showed the way to what we could achieve in the Midwest.
The next key shift, around 1989, involved a wonderful group of people at UW-Madison in the Center for Integrated Agricultural systems. Steve Stevenson, Jack Kloppenburg and John Hendrickson among others were identifying and working with the ideas of “bio-regionalism”, “food sheds ” and “regional reliance”. Their concepts and contexts helped me explain to others as well as myself this fuzzy revolution we were in. The Center also took on some of the thorny issues of infrastructure and began providing essential support through interdisciplinary seminars, research and feasibility studies.
By 1980, we were routinely relying on winter keeping vegetables and many varieties of fruit that we processed or froze for winter use. Our menus were always seasonal, but in winter we were still dependent on California for green vegetables. We had local eggs and an erratic supply of free-range chicken (still no reliable processing infrastructure) and experimented with buying a whole milk fed veal calf from an Amish family who lived 60 miles west of Madison in the Kickapoo valley watershed. That entire transaction was done by post card because the Amish don’t use phones. ˇ
Ten years later we still had only an erratic supply of locally produced meats, but local vegetable farmers were experimenting with wintered over crops held under un heated hoop houses and cellaring loads of squash and roots and we bought every thing they had. Locally grown leafy vegetables, roots, syrups, nuts, eggs, poultry, cheeses, fresh and preserved fruits made up over 60% of our winter menu.
Fast forward to 2004. This last winter, with the exception of leafy greens, about 80% of our vegetables and fruits were either local “put by” or locally grown winter keepers. Our farmers continue to figure out low-tech affordable ways to extend the season and every year I see availability grow.
At this point area farmers now directly supply all of our chicken, lamb, bison, beef, pork and veal. Most of this is certified organic, and all is from innovative, sustainable, small family farms
I must emphasize here that we have never been, or will ever be regionally exclusive. The completely regional meal that I used to make my point at the Chefs Collaborative conference can be drawn from a typical winter menu. That said, in order to stay on the fine dining radar, there always will be some ingredients that we bring in from out side our region; wine is a good example, ocean fish, or the citrus crops. The point is, as much as possible the ingredients we select for L’Etoile’s menu are from the mid west or come to us in our winter having been grown in native soils and harvested in their natural cycles. Shad roe during their run, yes! Meyer Lemons, yes!
Most recently, I would reference the insights and opportunities that my husband Terry Theise has contributed to this process. Terry selects and imports wine to this country from small family wineries in Europe. He likes to talk about how these wines can impart their spirit of place to us, and how this can help us locate our selves in an increasingly placeless world. Through getting to know the vintners and their dedication to the land, I have come to understand that these artisans are also farmers and that farmers can also be artisans.
These extraordinary people have taken us into their homes and cooked for us and revealed to us the whole context of love and fealty and art that goes into the making of their wines. They and most Europeans enjoy very day access to artisan food and wines, beautiful cities and accessible countryside all anchored in a sense of place and a cultural appreciation of limits. They’ve preserved the culture in agriculture and have great food to show for it… Its like going back to what could be our future.
This is a future that will need to be cultivated and taught. To that end, I envision a school founded on the principal that respect for nature and all that grows is the beginning of understanding good food. The campus would include a self supporting restaurant and farm, and work study programs which present the arts of organic farming and cooking as an integrated curriculum.
Farming track students would work in the kitchens learning the culinary side of regional reliance. Culinary track students would work in the fields in order to understand the foundations of flavor. At the school of organic Arts, students will be taught to work with ingredients that are cultivated in accordance with their natural cycles, and are grown in their native and adapted soils. We’ve observed that this cooperation between people and their environment is at the heart of all great cultures. Our goal is to nurture the artisan traditions of our own.