By Vanessa Herald | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
“Sorry I was late. We are building a pit smoker at the back of the café and we were playing with different times and temperatures. I lost track of time.” Those words from Chef Luke Zahm sum up the curiosity and passion that inspire everything behind Driftless Café in Viroqua. There is a balance between a focus to serve simple food and a constant desire to innovate and push the limits of what can be achieved inside—and outside—a restaurant kitchen. The team at Driftless Café dreams up new techniques and revives classic ones to develop clean menus that highlight the bountiful ingredients provided from local farms.
For most restaurants the magic happens in the kitchen, but for Driftless Café the alchemy really originates beyond the back door. At this small Viroqua restaurant, the back of the house is truly the back of the house, where one can find the new pit smoker, a basement chock-full of summer preserves, and a delivery location for local farmers, foragers and vendors from the region. So much of the magic of this place begins before the ingredients even hit the kitchen.
There is the farm to table ethic, and then there is Driftless Café, which strives to serve a plate chock-full of ingredients sourced directly from farms in Vernon County and the surrounding region throughout all four seasons of the year. Even when the ground is snow-covered and silent, organic greens abound from a nearby wood-fired greenhouse. Spring brings bright foraged finds straight to the kitchen door. Strong ties with growers allow access to the first tomatoes each spring. (Growers even text Zahm photo updates of the first tomatoes as they ripen.) Relationships are key, and the café staff encourages farmers here to find a niche product that works for their individual farms, allowing room for every farm to be successful and grow. They should know; they work with more than 65 farms and foragers.
The café embodies the concept of a community kitchen. This year, Zahm initiated a collaborative “ABC” (access, beauty, community) dinner series focused on partnering with regional chefs to showcase the bounty of local, seasonal ingredients. The dinner series brought together Zahm and two La Crosse chefs, Anthony Swartwout of The Mint and Kevin Micheli of Charmant, for a threepart dining experience held at each of their restaurants—each designed to wow diners' taste buds, bolster the local agricultural community and promote access to fresh, local foods.
Events like the ABC dinner series may appear effortless to diners, but the logistics of ordering, receiving, organizing and effectively using all these local ingredients is a feat in itself. Deliveries arrive Tuesday through Saturday from up to 20 farms a week during the peak season. “It’s taken time, but we have a good system now. People used to call to say ‘I think I can find ramps’ or even just show up at the back door with foraged nettles,” recounts Zahm. Now Sous Chef Spencer Schaller coordinates orders from local growers to streamline the process and track inventory.
“It takes a lot of planning and teamwork to make this a truly seasonal restaurant, and the only reason it all works is because of the amazing staff.
I appreciate them so much.”
- Chef Luke Zahm
As if this cadre of local producers isn’t sufficient, the café even employs a “gleaner” to drive a weekly route to pick up individual items from producers who don’t have delivery capacity, like specialty cheese from Organic Valley and oyster mushrooms from Song's Mushroom Farm. Not to mention the commitment restaurant staff makes to forage ingredients for the café, like watercress from the secret fresh springs in the area. This hands-on effort keeps the work in the kitchen deeply tied to a sense of place and season.
It’s the Café’s attention to small, flavorful details that can make the biggest impact. Every Monday of the summer season, lunch cook and owner of Down Home Farm, Liz Voz, is pulled off the regular Driftless Café lunch line to undertake one very important task: hunt down the ripest produce to pickle, ferment or otherwise creatively preserve. The resulting colorful jars of chow chow, scapes, dilly beans, beets, greenhouse peaches, plums gleaned from nearby trees, apple butter and more line the basement walls. Even in the darkest, bleakest days of winter, diners can still savor “the taste of summertime sunshine” on a charcuterie board or small plate. By mid-April the stash is almost empty, but as asparagus and spring vegetables come into season, the larder is refreshed again.
Driftless Café pays the same attention to protein, too. Whole animals are purchased from local farms then broken down and prepared on-site. Some large cuts of meat or whole animals find their way into the pit smoker for a low, slow roasting that leads to crispy exteriors and succulent, fall-off-the-bone meat. Other cuts are crafted into housemade charcuterie or sausage. Slow-smoked, cured or roasted, every ounce of animal that arrives at the Driftless Café is “used and revered,” right down to the bones, which go directly into the pot for homemade stock.
The real magic in the back of the house at Driftless Café comes from the people who make all of these systems work together fluidly to create dishes that appear simple and effortless. The dedicated staff family of 45 work diligently to serve lunch and dinner five days a week, with pop-ups and off-site collaborations on Sundays. “It takes a lot of planning and teamwork to make this a truly seasonal restaurant,” says Zahm, “and the only reason it all works is because of the amazing staff. I appreciate them so much.”