In part three of our series highlighting the chefs of America’s smaller cities ( last week we visited Nashville,) we’re going north — waaaaaay north, to the college town of Madison. While it lets its bigger, brassier sister city Milwaukee take the spotlight with its beers, the capitol city of Wisconsin has, over the past few decades, grown into a fiercely locavore city with a sprawling network of farmers, purveyors, and artisans — as well as a restaurant scene which takes pride in showing off their home-grown products. It’s San Francisco with more layers (both in terms of flavor and clothing), basically, and a few chefs who’ve grabbed the national spotlight.
If we missed a few chefs — and when you’ve only got ten spots, you’re bound to do so — let us know! And if your town has ten chefs the country needs to know about, tip us, why doncha?
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Tory Miller, L'Etoile
You can't talk about Madison chefs without paying tribute to the obvious: Tory Miller, winner of the 2012 James Beard Award for Best Chef Midwest, and the current head chef and co-owner of L'Etoile. After New York stints at restaurant including that
other Madison (the "Eleven Park" one), Miller, tired of a food scene where "people cared more about he moved back to Madison. The rest is history: not only has he won the praise of folks like where they were eating more than what they were eating,” Andrew Zimmern for his highly regionalized take on farm-to-table (and Wisconsin has a ton of excellent farms), he also has one of the best senses of humor that we've run across. According to one interview, Miller " characterized the James Beard award[s] as a weird dude who spreads awesomeness around the country."
Christopher Gerster, Graze
With L'Etoile's success, it was inevitable that
Tory Miller would open up a casual dining spot -- and, after posting an ad on Craigslist (of all places) he chose Christopher Gerster to helm it. "The ad said they were looking for a chef de cuisine for a high-profile opening in Madison—the owners of L’Etoile wanted to open a gastropub at the time," he recalled to "So I sent Tory an e-mail to say hi, and gave a rundown of what I was doing. He gave me a call, we talked back and forth and I got hired. My wife is from Wisconsin, [and] we’d been out east for a number of years and were ready to get back.” With Madison Magazine. Graze, he's not only had the opportunity to collaborate with one of Madison's best chefs, but Gerster's begun to make a name of his own with his highly creative take on casual comfort food.
Tim Larsen, The Cooper's Tavern
Sometimes, there's nothing better than just straight-up traditional American pub fare -- but what if it was done with the local ingredients Madison celebrates?
Tim Larsen, a self-taught chef, opened one of the city's first gastropubs in 2010 and ever since, The Cooper's Tavern has been synonymous with things like "craft beer," "pork," and "holy mother, that's a lot of salt and fat but WE DON'T CARE."
[ The Cooper's Tavern]
Michael Pruett, Steenbrock's On Orchard
Another homeboy-turned-fine dining cook-turned-homeboy again, Michael Pruett spent his formative years on the West Coast working for the likes of
Wolfgang Puck before returning to Madison to open Steenbock's, a strange, constantly-changing melange of locavore, comfort food, themed dinners, asian, and molecular gastronomy. (We don't believe that Pruett has heard of boxes, and how sometimes people like going into them.) To be fair, the nod towards molecular gastronomy is influenced by the fact that Steenbock's is hosted on the cutting-edge campus of the research group Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.
[ Steenbock's on Orchard]
Someone get this man a concept he can work with, because though he's been hopping around a few restaurants over the past few years, it's evident that
Nick Johnson has talent. Gaining notoriety for his neo-Scandinavian cuisine at Restaurant Magnus (and a James Beard Award nomination in 2010), Johnson was quickly scooped up by Shinji Muramoto to serve as executive chef of 43 North, but then left soon after to open the more casual locavore cafe Giornata in June of 2012... which closed in August. Seriously, someone figure out what he does best and then let him do it, because no one likes a flameout.
Shinji Muramoto, Sushi and Restaurant Muramoto
Contrary to popular belief,
Shinji Muramoto says that the sushi in Madison -- indeed, the entire Midwest -- can be infinitely better than sushi on either coast. "Most best-grade seafood is usually coming from Tokyo," he told a local paper, trying to assuage paranoid Yelpers. "This means New York is actually a few hours behind us. Most people don't know almost all kinds of fish need to be aged just like beef...Yes, both East and West coasts harvest some great seafood there, but most of them are not used for sushi." Still not convinced that this man, who got his start in cooking by playing a 6-year-old sous chef to his foodie father, is absolutely, fatally wrong about Midwest sushi? Try three James Beard Award nominations. Oh, and a mini-restaurant empire.
Nate Hamilton, Harvest
A relative up-and-comer, Nate Hamilton worked the line at
Spiagga in Chicago and helmed the kitchens of many of Madison's best restaurants, particularly at The Old Fashioned (whose bar program was nominated for a James Beard Award last year) before being tapped to run local favorite Harvest.
Tim and Elizabeth Dahl Nostrano
Three years ago, Chicago mourned the loss of "two of its best pastry chefs" when they decided to leave its restaurant scene (he from
Blackbird, she from Boka) and start a family in Wisconsin. In this case, Madison won when the couple opened Nostrano, their Mediterranean celebration of local ingredients (as well as some of that awesome pastry that Elizabeth grew renowned for in Chicago). Not only has it quickly become a casual Madison favorite, its attracted the attention of envious Chicagoans: "There's no sense in traveling all this way without getting reacquainted with Elizabeth Dahl's desserts—particularly a toasted gingerbread with candied kumquats, and especially her copetta, a sundae of buttermilk gelato, toffee pudding, bananas, and bitter pistachios," . "It's a sweet reminder of Chicago's loss, Madison's gain." (And lest you think it's just Elizabeth getting all the attention, the Chicago Reader recounted Tim, the savory chef, was nominated this year for . This is a restaurant to watch.)
[ Food and Wine's People's Best New Chef Midwest award Nostrano]
Odessa Piper, retired
Okay, so technically, she's not actually
in Madison at the moment, but there's no denying the enormous impact Odessa Piper had on the city's dining scene. Credited with single-handedly invigorating the local food movement in Madison when she started L'Etoile three decades ago (and credited with turning the Dane County's Farmers' Market into the largest producer-only market in the country), the James Beard Award-winning Piper's kept a very low profile compared to her contemporaries, who nevertheless praise her as the Alice Waters of the Midwest. "Odessa was a pioneer, supporting a network of suppliers in the cold, difficult climate of Wisconsin," the actual Alice Waters told the "To this day, she remains a purist." Currently, Piper's retired from the restaurant world, working in the Mid-Atlantic region as a consultant and teacher. That's not stopping people from trying to woo her back into the kitchen, but she prefers to stay under the radar: "It's been nice to stay put and get the patterns and rhythms of daily life back," the 55-year-old says. "I glory in being able to cook at home, to take some of the things I learned as a chef and apply them." Washington Post.