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.”
To fill any remaining holes in the menu, Miller looks to the farmers market to find the best in fingerling potatoes and oyster mushrooms. Visiting the Dane County Farmers Market on Saturdays and Wednesdays, small-scale farms, ranches, butchers and cheesemakers grease the inner workings of Miller’s farm-to-table menu.
The L’Etoile menu is flush with seasonal greens, berries, cheeses and starches. In spring, you’ll see asparagus, ramps, fiddlehead ferns, soft shell crab and the first run of Copper River salmon. In summer, it’s tomatoes, wild mushrooms and snap peas. The autumn harvest features apples and squash.
But it isn’t just the produce season that rotates regularly. Uplands Cheese and Carr Valley cheeses, Rushing Waters trout and salmon and Sassy Cow Creamery ice creams are all dependent upon demand and aging timelines, which must also be factored into the revolving, seasonal menu.
“It creates more of a pride of place to see local ingredients on the menu. Pleasant Ridge is available year round; extra-aged version is available in the only the spring and fall,” explains Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese. “L’Etoile has been a great customer for the last ten years. They understand the nature of seasonality.”
Constantly adding newly in-season items to the grocery list and crossing out-of-season items off, Miller and his team pull proteins, produce and starches from a market anywhere from ten to 40 local farms deep. Every week, it’s a balancing act of ingredients forming the basis for what will grace each evening’s menu.
“At L’Etoile we may change the whole thing every day. At Graze it may just be a few dishes a day. When the ingredients are so fresh, you can’t wait,” Miller explains. It takes a mastermind, no question on that—a chef who can blindly sort his or her way through a different pantry each day, challenged to conceptualize basic ingredients into complex dishes. “It’s is a challenge for the servers and the cooks too,” says Miller. “The cooks really love it because it keeps them honing their craft every day.”
Sourcing ingredients straight from local farmers markets, chefs have the ability to expand dated notions of regional food and reinvent traditional Wisconsin dishes. “We try to have the majority of things on the plate be local, but we also want to keep ourselves excited about the food, so we keep changing. At times we might only have six or so vegetables to work with, and we just change what we do to them,” says Miller.
Despite this strict and maniacal daily schedule, there is a sense of unending culinary indulgence. For as much as the day is consumed with ingredient building, prepping and menu updating, in the midst of the chaos and the calm, the chef remembers he can do whatever he wants. There’s room for the uncustomary combinations, fantastical inventions and old school adaptations.
“I change the menu based on inspiration and ingredient availability,” says Miller. “Plus, I’m hungry a lot of the time, so sometimes it depends on what I want to eat or am craving.”
At the farmers market and in the restaurant, the obvious sense of caring creates a conversation between producer and consumer that would otherwise never take place. It pulls the chef onto the farm, the farmer into the kitchen, and the diner into both.
“We just had staff from the restaurant out in early June, usually about once a year or so,” says Dorothy Priske. “We always give them a tour and we eat together. It’s good for everybody, but front of the house especially, to see what we’re doing first hand. They’re able to communicate that to diners.”
“L’Etoile was probably one of our first customers and they still bring 20 or 30 staff out here from time to time,” says James Baerwolf of Sassy Cow Creamery.
Miller continues, “We take field trips to farms so our staff gets to feel the sense of community we have all helped to build.”
Sprouted in the region 35 years ago by former owner Odessa Piper, L’Etoile may very well have been the first to explore farm-to-table cooking, but they are far from the only ones doing it today. Madison’s The Merchant, Viroqua’s Rooted Spoon Culinary and Milwaukee’s Sanford Restaurant all print menus dependent on daily harvests. Milwaukee’s Hinterland Gastropub’s menu changes every single day to incorporate local produce, sustainably harvested seafood and house-made charcuterie. Café Soeurette in West Bend offers a “Farm to Table” menu in addition to the regular dinner menu.
“I see it everywhere now,” says Miller. “I don’t think there’s any chef worth their salt who isn’t doing what we or Sanford or Hinterland are doing on some level. Restaurants that always stand out in any town, the best ones are using the best food.”