Chefs connect with farmers on their own turf

This “Roads Traveled” is for release on or after Sept. 3, 2005. Up to 850 words. Artwork to customers has been sent under three separate files. JenEhr and NoMI are cq. If you have questions, e-mail mary@roadstraveled.com.

By MARY BERGIN
Midwest Features

I do not know Brandon Wolff well, but I am accustomed to seeing him in a crisp, white chef’s jacket – not a blaze orange Oklahoma State T-shirt and Nikes.

Brandon is one of Milwaukee’s culinary leaders, having set the standard for high quality at Dream Dance, then Bacchus. Both are critically acclaimed, fine dining spots.

Most recently, though, I saw him and more than a dozen other upscale restaurant chefs plucking raspberries, wandering through prairie grasses, feasting on fresh melon, sampling micro radishes and Laotian vegetables.

The day ended with Brandon and his sous chefs grilling a simple meal of free-range poultry and newly picked veggies – eggplant to zucchini – while standing between fields of beans and strawberries at the JenEhr Family Farm, near Sun Prairie. Owners of the 110-acre farm say all acreage will be certified organic in three years.

This was a feast for the chefs, most of whom work in Chicago, as well as the farmers whose products help give the restaurants their fine reputation.

These culinary experts are far from identical, and you can say the same about the four Wisconsin farms that they visited recently. The tour was organized by Home Grown Wisconsin, whose 20 members are certified organic farmers.

Many of them are vendors at the weekly Dane County Farmers’ Market, which averages 150 vendors on Saturdays and is considered to be one of the best in the nation. Gourmet magazine is among the most recent to describe the market this way, both because of the range of products sold and the scenic Capitol Square setting.

Even Wisconsin’s smallest cities seem to have at least one weekly farmers market in summer. Each is a good reminder of how good and fresh locally grown food can taste.

It is one thing to buy fresh produce from a booth, but quite another to see where it is grown and hear about the challenges of producing it.

A caravan of eight vehicles swelled to more than a dozen before sundown, traversing Rock, Green and Dane counties – past the bright patches of golden rod and sunflowers, the clank of bells on Brown Swiss and the hum of tractors at work.

Almost all the ingredients that Melissa Yen of Vella Café uses for her panini sandwiches come from other Green City Market vendors in Chicago. This was the chef’s first visit to a Wisconsin farm, but not her first introduction to Blue Skies Berry Farm of Brooklyn (Dane County).

Blue Skies’ owner Paul Maki sells 100 pounds of beets and carrots (including cosmic purple) per week at the Chicago market. There also is a pick-your-own option at the farm, for eight types of raspberries, but only on Sundays this summer because of the heat’s effect on crop yields.

Paul is a substitute teacher when he is not tending the 3 acres of crops.

Scott Williams, at Garden to Be (on the Little Sugar River, near New Glarus), makes sustainable farming practices a priority. A walk-in cooler is insulated with “bricks” of straw. A corn burner warms the hoop house in winter, less expensive than propane. Some crops are planted for the good of the soil, instead of the human appetite.

Specialty crops include micro vegetables and herbs, tiny in size but powerful in flavor. Restaurants already buy them by the flat, and Garden to Be produces 250 flats per week, on top of its more conventional garden harvest.

Four miles from Stoughton’s recent and devastating tornado damage is West Star Farm, 40 acres of organic vegetables, fruits and flowers. George Kohn’s operation includes a tented farm stand that is open daily.

Come fall, there will be a ton of salsify to harvest. It is a root vegetable with a Mediterranean history, one with ornamental as well as purported medicinal value.

Tim Isaac, chef at Hopleaf in Chicago, says he and his customers like “the peace of mind” of knowing restaurant ingredients are organic. So he came to Wisconsin for reassurance as well as an education.

“My favorite herbicide is called ‘hoe,’” Ruben Yoder, a Mennonite who farms near Hillsboro, was telling a colleague later in the day.

The farmers were full of stories and had an appreciative audience. “We can tell our customers that our ingredients are from a small Wisconsin farm,” notes Jon DeCamp, chef at Thyme in Chicago.

And they care? “They love it,” says Jon, who brought his 7-year-old daughter along for the day.

It also was a great way for chefs to meet and compare challenges. Dave Swanson introduced us to Braise, a new restaurant that he will open this fall in Milwaukee’s Third Ward.

The business, Dave says, is named after one of the first cooking procedures that culinary students learn. “It is about getting back to basics,” he says of the restaurant’s cuisine. “People have gotten so disconnected from their food” as preparations have become overly complex and elaborate.

The former Sanford restaurant chef was especially glad to meet Tory Miller, the new executive chef and co-owner of L’Etoile restaurant in Madison.

“It makes sense for us to talk to each other about our business and our producers,” Tory says. “When they do well, we do well.”

For more about Home Grown Wisconsin, go to www.homegrownwisconsin.com or call (608) 341-8939.

For more about the Dane County Farmers’ Market, go to www.madfarmmkt.org or call (608) 455-1999.

For more about Bacchus restaurant in Milwaukee, go to www.bacchusmke.com or call (414) 765-1166.

For more about L’Etoile restaurant in Madison, go to www.letoile-restaurant.com or call (608) 251-0500.

For more about the upcoming opening of Braise restaurant in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, go to www.braiserestaurant.com.

Chicago restaurants with chefs at the recent farm tour included Moto (www.motorestaurant.com), the Green Zebra (www.greenzebrachicago.com), NoMI (www.parkchicago.hyatt.com), Thyme (www.thymechicago.com), Vella (www.chicagogreencitymarket.org) and Hopleaf (no e-mail address).