By Francis A. Joven
It’s a snowy night in Madison, Wisconsin, and the cozy dining room of L’Etoile is packed. The menu features the region’s best: cuts of Scottish Highland beef, spinach and beet salad, foie gras torchon with local cherries. Wait – cherries, beets, kohlrabi? Parts of the menu read like July, but it’s five-below, and the nearly frozen precipitation hasn’t let up in hours.
As a restaurant focused on locally grown produce, meat and dairy, L’Etoile is among a number of restaurants that are “regionally reliant” – meaning they source the bulk of the food that they serve from their immediate region, turning to the rest of the world only for essentials (like extra virgin olive oil, or lemons) that simply can’t be sourced nearby. This is no easy feat, however, in a region that endures an average snowfall of fifty inches. So how is a restaurant able to stay true its philosophy of featuring local, seasonal products through harsh winters and short growing seasons, and still offer its diners an exciting, varied menu? Chef/proprietor Tory Miller turns to “put-by,” a system that utilizes traditional preservation methods, to maintain L’Etoile’s values – and diners – all year long.
It’s no accident L’Etoile founder Odessa Piper decided to set-up post in Madison, Wisconsin. Known as America’s Dairyland, Wisconsin leads the nation in artisanal cheese production. Local farmstead cheeses do more than just grace L’Etoile’s menu, they form the restaurant’s 26-cheese tasting. ''I think of Wisconsin cheesemakers as farmer-artists,'' adds Miller. The use of local cheese and the interaction with its producer mirrors the relationship Miller has with the vegetable growers, only dairy is perennial.
Madison is home to the nation’s largest producer-only farmer’s market. The area features a large network of small-scale farms that produce year-round. Miller makes the most of this fraternity – and learns from its tricks – citing it as the heart of what keeps his restaurant alive.
The “spontaneous” cuisine of L’Etoile (and its sister restaurant downstairs, Café Soleil)is achieved by what Miller calls “six-months of filling a giant pantry.” Preparations for winter begin during the May harvest. Fruits and vegetables like berries and tomatoes are either individually quick-frozen or preserved. These months leading up to the first frost are the most crucial and busiest, according to Miller, who at this moment is busy not only preserving summer produce, but communicating with local farmers to gauge expected quantities of crops in the fall. He brings in stagiers to take care of the small tasks. Cleaning onions and pickling vegetables are among the laborious jobs needed to ensure a well stocked food store for the cold season.
During the winter months, root vegetables such as rutabagas, crosnes and turnips are placed in underground dirt-packed rooms called root cellars. Root cellars are traditional storage structures that pre-date electric refrigeration. The cellars protect the vegetables from the frost, and keep an ideal humidity level as well.
Hardy ingredients like squash and apples are available in the early months of winter thanks to hoophouses, temporary greenhouses which keep temperatures in the field higher while protecting from harsh winds. Hoophouses are typically made of a PVC frame and clear plastic sheeting. The lightweight design makes them versatile and able to cover a section of crops for a temporary period, as needed. They can extend the growing season by an extra 3-4 months.
With the help of the hoophouse, kale, spinach and cabbage can withstand several frosts, which has its advantages beyond sheer availability. Greens native to the region are conditioned to survive the natural environmental changes in weather – before the first frost, the plant senses the upcoming climate and adapts by concentrating its nutrients (or what Miller calls, its “adrenaline”). The result is a richly textured, extremely strong and flavorful leaf.
This system of put-by produce is realized through the sound network of local farmer and producers in the Madison area. Miller says establishing and maintaining relationships with farmers are the keys to sustaining such a restaurant. For instance, the root cellars and storage spaces used by L’Etoile are located off-premise, and are shared by farmers in the area. He says that flexibility and considering the farmer’s perspective spread a supportive feeling within the community. In exchange for space in an industrial drive-in freezer, Miller barters heavy-duty shelving, as well as meals at his restaurant.
A business such as this is certainly ambitious, but the economical and practical benefits of the put-by system make sense. Freezing surplus and preserving produce for later use ensures less waste; less waste means more value obtained from every product. “At the end of the day,” says Miller, “it’s about not losing money.”
Helping reduce your environmental impact isn’t so bad either. “Instead of purchasing a new freezer, why not borrow space from someone who has extra?” Miller concludes that “to be green, you have to stay local.”
Utilizing all your resources, from foodstuffs to people, is a no-brainer from economic stand-point. Keeping consistent with a philosophy should be just as logical and easy. Next time you’re at your local farmer’s market, spend an extra moment getting to know who you’re getting your food from. You just might find they have more to offer than what is on the table.
25 N Pinckney St
Madison, WI 53703