Chef Tory Miller & His Seasonal Pantry

In the Kitchen with... Winter 2012 Issue

Chef Tory Miller & His Seasonal Pantry

By Maureen Post | Photo By Jim Klousia 0

For Chef Tory Miller, the day ends and then immediately begins again around 11 p.m. Scrubbing stoves, storing items in the walk-in cooler and breaking down work stations from the evening’s dinner service, Miller is simultaneously doing an inventory of produce, noting which ingredients he’s run out of and re-working the menu accordingly for the following day. He’s calling farmers, co-ops, purveyors and butchers to find out what fruits, vegetables and proteins will be available for the rest of the week.

The co-owner and chef behind Madison’s L’Etoile and Graze restaurants, Miller operates two very distinctive restaurant scenes under one very definitive culinary concept. He has come to master the workings of farm-to-table cooking. Everything—everything—is changing, critically evolving, determined in part by the whim of the chef but utterly dependent on the local harvest and farm offerings.

Between noon and 5:00 p.m. everyday, L’Etoile’s kitchen bustles with farmers coming and going with boxes of heirloom tomatoes, patty pan squash and samples of lemon basil, and with the staff furiously unpacking baskets, revising the menu from the night before and experimenting with ways to use vegetables as starches and starches as sweets.

Much as how commercial grocers make weekly deliveries, now so too do small farms and co-ops as they come into town between tending, harvesting and preparing for the next season. The interaction is casual and friendly—there are no delivery slips to sign or layers of plastic packaging to remove. Piles of freshly-picked produce, bags of chilled cheeses and baskets of berries are weighed by the pound and then handed off to sous chefs and line cooks.

The symbiotic relationship between the farmer and the chef is not only convenient and opportune, it’s also undeniably obvious. The farmer, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, tan from a summer spent in the field, remnants of garden dirt permanently staining the cracks of his skin. The chef in his white coat and non-slip shoes, running on coffee and maniacally crossing items off an evolving prep list. In many ways, these two professions are one in the same.

Both endure relentlessly long hours, working with factors constantly in flux, fueled more by a sense of creation than of any promise of financial reward. Both the farmer and the chef create something from hand, meant to be both sustaining and satiating—whether it be a bowl of freshly picked blueberries or the resulting blueberry baked custard.

“As chefs, you always want to order the best food, but once you know the people and the stories and farms, it becomes addicting. You have great people who work harder than we do—we use only one farm for our beef and it doesn’t matter how expensive it is, it’s about supporting them,” says Miller.

“Oh, it very much works both ways,” explains Dorothy Priske of Fountain Prairie Farms, which has been selling naturally-raised grass-fed beef to L’Etoile and Graze for ten years. At their routine Thursday delivery, John and Dorothy Priske provide whatever cuts and quantities Miller and his team need; the remaining beef goes to the farmers market for sale.

“We really focused on restaurant sales from the beginning,” Dorothy continues. “It makes up about 75 percent of our sales. And so L’Etoile and Graze, being with us through thick and thin, they’ve enabled us to turn our farm into the ecological treasure that it is.”

Garin Fons of Underground Meats, a Madison-based charcuterie producer, says, “It’s amazing to see these relationships form and burgeon because it’s good business for the farmers and fantastic for the restaurants and restaurant-goers to have the connection to the product.”

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