Chefs Collaborative cooks with local food

Back in the 1970s, I spent five summers at the Schwartz Hotel in Elkhart Lake, working as a waitress to pay my way through college.

Those are fond memories, even though we’d get only one meal off – not a full day – during the busiest summer weeks. College students from as far away as England would come to work until Labor Day, and it was the first time this farm girl got an inkling of what people and life could be like away from home.

The resort has since seen other owners and gotten other names. Today it is the Victorian Village Resort, and it’s undergoing a transformation.

One part involves the slow restoration of the Grand Victorian Lady, a worn, gallant and turn-of-the-century hotel building.

Another is development of a dining niche that is good for farmers and the environment as well as the chef and his customers.

Jesse Salzwedel is a self-taught chef who operates the Back Porch Bistro, one of four restaurants in Wisconsin that are members of the Chefs Collaborative, an organization founded in the 1990s “to promote the virtues of local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients within the restaurant community and to the greater public.”

About 90 percent of foods served at the Back Porch are from Wisconsin, says Jesse, who has been building the restaurant’s emphasis for three years.

“I am lucky enough to have the support of my parents, who own the resort, and I owe it to them for having faith in me, to let me do what I do,” he says. The goal is “to buy the highest quality ingredients I can for my menus.”

The Back Porch, Elkhart Lake’s only lakefront restaurant, has huge windows and an inviting décor that is both eclectic and nostalgic. Outdoor dining is available in summer.

There is a monthly “Taste Wisconsin Series,” a $55 fixed price, five-course meal “to showcase the very best of what is available that month from Wisconsin.”

“Open Spit Cooking, White Asparagus and Wisconsin Beer: an Outdoor Festival” is the theme for June 13. There will be beachside dining the next two months: “Summer Berries and Sparkling Wine” is the theme July 14, and “The Fruits of Summer with Wines of Burgundy” will be Aug. 18.

For details, go to www.vicvill.com or call (877) 860-9988.

Chefs Collaborative membership includes some of the most acclaimed restaurants in the nation. “It is a challenge to be in an organization with chefs at such a high level,” Jesse says. “It can raise people’s expectations.

“I don’t claim to be an equal to many of these members. I am, however, proud of them for laying the groundwork to start Chefs Collaborative. Many of them are inspirations to me, and have helped to shape my career path and goals.”

There are about 160 restaurant members. Others in Wisconsin are:

L’Etoile, 25 N. Pinckney St., (608) 252-0500, in downtown Madison – Chef and owner Odessa Piper is a three-time James Beard Foundation award winner; her most recent accolade was Best Chef: Midwest in 2001.

“Some of the finest foods available anywhere in the world can be found in our own communities,” the restaurant’s menu states. “This is the happy result of sustainable agriculture.”

The fine dining restaurant has a French influence. Most ingredients come from “a large network of small scale farms,” many of which are listed at www.letoile-restaurant.com. The present menu includes bison from Colby, organic mushrooms from Eden, organic eggs from Schullsberg, antique apple cider from New Berlin, plus organic meats and produce from several other Wisconsin locations.

“The Flavors of Spring” is the next installment of L’Etoile’s monthly food/wine dinner series, to be May 21. It is a fixed price meal for $35, plus $20 for four types of wine to accompany the meal. Reservations are necessary.

Roots Restaurant and Cellar, 1818 N. Hubbard St., Milwaukee, (414) 374-8480 – One of the city’s newest restaurants, in the renovated Brewers Hill neighborhood, it has only been open since February.

There is a fine dining area, as well as space for entertainment and casual/light fare (sandwiches, salads, soups and tapas – “small plate” dining). Outdoor seating also is available.

“We believe Milwaukee is ready for something new and creative,” says John Raymond, the chef/owner, online. The business also includes 4 acres of organic gardens and a greenhouse, to produce food used in the restaurant.

Entrée choices are big on seafood (Wild King Salmon, Stuffed American Snapper), and vegetarian mixes (Polenta and Chili Dredged Tofu, Pasta Eggrolls). The dinner menu changes monthly; lunch not quite as often.

The result is “American regional cookery with contemporary world-fusion cuisine celebrating the seasons.” For more, go to www.rootsmilwaukee.com.

Sanford Restaurant, 1547 N. Jackson St., Milwaukee, (414) 276-9608 – Well-regarded and in an east-side Italian neighborhood, this restaurant has been a four-diamond AAA property for 10 years.

The menu has a “build-your-own courses” option, plus a seven-course “Menu Surprise” for $75, plus $30 if you want wine pairings for the meal. Chef and owner Sanford D’Amato works in a building that used to be the family-run grocery store.

A spontaneous enterprise, the dinner cuisine ranges from “contemporary ethnic” to “eclectic.” D’Amato’s many claims to fame include being one of a dozen chefs selected by Julia Child to cook for her 80th birthday. He and his wife also operate a more casual restaurant, the Coquette Café, 316 N. Milwaukee St., which is in the city’s Third Ward.

For details, go to www.sanfordrestaurant.com, where the chef also shares an occasional recipe.

“The Guide to Good Eating,” which lists all Chefs Collaborative restaurant members, is free. To get a copy, contact the organization’s Massachusetts headquarters at info@chefscollaborative.com, call (617) 236-5200 or go to www.chefscollaborative.org.