Strengthening Local Food Systems in Madison: Chef Tory Miller of L'Etoile | Civil Eats

Strengthening Local Food Systems in Madison: Chef Tory Miller of L’Etoile

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Chef Tory Miller of Madison, Wisconsin’s L’Etoile Restaurant told me “people [should] understand how important food systems are to our communities. Many restaurants in Madison are using the local farmers market. The more we champion it, the bigger and stronger it gets which is especially important in this economy. We’re keeping each other in business.”

I first heard of him when he spoke at the U.S. Delegates meeting at Terre Madre this past October. He shared the story of his restaurant and the power of community. I was moved by his charm and passion. Miller smiles readily and is just one of those people that seems genuinely deeply happy and beautiful. I am drawn to this kind of person and find that a lot of the folks in the “food movement” embody this spirit as they work to create a simple, beautiful and healthy world.

Chef Miller moved to Madison from New York City in 2003. He just wanted a change of pace and a new environment and sent resumes to a lot of different restaurants, not knowing anyone really. A few chef friends knew Odessa Piper, the former owner of L’Etoile, which has been a Madison favorite since she opened it in 1976; so he sent his resume there as well. She called him back and they hung out when he arrived in town. They connected thanks to similar ideas and beliefs about sourcing locally and while she didn’t have a job for him, she let him do some prep – washing spinach and butchering fish. That was in October of 2003 and by December he was the Chef de Cuisine.

Piper transferred her commitment to the local farmers to Miller. These farmers sell at the market on Capital Square which just so happens to be right out the front door of L’Etoile. Piper took Miller to the market and introduced him to every farmer she’d worked with since the beginning. She invited him into her relationships, into the community, that had been integral to her success. “These relationships are key. We may not buy from the root vegetable farmer in the summer, but I always stop by and say ‘hi’ and see what’s going on. Walking around the market feels like family. And, its just about being real with people,” says Miller. “Another great thing about the market is the flow. It’s the coolest thing. You only walk counterclockwise. Everyone’s doing it, so that all the vendors are on your right at all times. Everyone knows the rule – that you go this way.”

Today Miller has extended those relationships to increase seasonal availabilities at the restaurant. And, they do they loads of preserving and freezing. They dry mushrooms, blueberries and tomatoes. And, of course, they make tomato sauces. “This makes the winter menus more interesting and fun. When you only have eight winter vegetables available, you have to get creative.”

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For Miller running a successful business includes the making sure the people he works with are successful as well. “Some chefs will take the attitude that they’ll only use what’s best. But we all work together here. The difference is if the farmer has only 20 pounds of something left, they’ll call me first to see if I want to buy it. And, there’s a lot of mutual respect. They’ll never put one over on me. I always pay on time and always get great produce. As opposed to working with a big company. If you’re buying produce over the phone with some guy who’s just sitting at his computer, there’s no contact. If you don’t like the produce or meat they send you, they may say ‘Just FedEx it back’ – my friends, the farmers, they’ll apologize and its not as impersonal.”

“As a chef, you need to understand seasonality – a huge help to us in the winter.  A lot of people think good food and local food is expensive.  But commodity foods are just cheap and cheaply made. It’s important to me to see the face of the person who’s raised my food. If it’s okay with you to buy fish from a guy that sits at his computer, that’s okay for you, but its even better to stop by the market and meet these people. It’s the first step to getting in touch with your food. The stronger the food system is locally the stronger the local economy. It’s all tied together. When I visit their farms and I see they’ve added a new hoop house, or a new truck, I see their success and I like to think I play a role in that. We’re all happy and it’s such a cool thing.”

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Jen Dalton is the editor of the Local Eats series, which features how cities all over the United States are rebuilding local food systems from the ground up and conducts interviews for our Faces & Visions of the Food Movement series.  Jen co-produces Kitchen Table Talks, a local food forum in San Francisco and heads up Kitchen Table Consulting which provides strategy and communications services to promote and support sustainable businesses, local economies and good food. Jen is also serves as the Cheese Chair of the Good Food Awards and was the Programs Director for Slow Food Nation '08. Read more >

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