"The most important thing is the relationships." It's 6:45 on a sunny Saturday morning, and I'm walking around the Capitol Square discussing how fresh food from Wisconsin farms gets to Tory Miller's kitchen - and finally to your plate. Miller is the chef of L'Etoile, one of the finest restaurants in the nation and one heavily invested in the local food movement. Nearly nine-tenths of the restaurant's ingredients come from local farmers.
Until the rise (only a couple of decades ago) of an international shipping infrastructure that has lately been shown to be highly vulnerable to the global economic downturn, local food was the only option people had. Considered in that light, Miller's emphasis on networking seems less modern.
We begin our Farmers' Market trek with two empty wagons, but immediately pick up 48 pints of plump fresh blueberries. "After the service on Friday night, we write the shopping list," says Miller, fingering a scrap of paper densely blotted with ink. "I always end up buying stuff not on the list."
Miller chats with one farmer, pays another he owes for tomatoes, picks up five pounds of sugar snap peas, then snags 20 boxes of succulent-looking raspberries from Young's Fresh Produce. He has an agility to his movements, the purposeful and sure touch of one completely in his element, as he rapidly selects the best ears of fresh sweet corn from Heck's farm.
One wagon is fully loaded after a stop at Door County Fruit Market for tart cherries. These will go into croissants and cherry clafouti. "I haven't seen these guys lately; Door County lost 90% of their cherry crop last year," Miller says.
Next on the list: beefsteak tomatoes from Don's Produce. "I buy about $100 of tomatoes a week from Don, who has a hothouse that sustains us through the winter. In the summer, when we start getting heirlooms grown outdoors, I'll choose other vendors, but since Don and I have a relationship, he doesn't get mad." Miller tells a story of how forging relationships can go well beyond being friendly to get the best produce. "My wife and I were married on the farm that sources L'Etoile's beef - we're friends. Our wedding present was 50 pork chops and two sides of bacon!"
We visit Tru Her for carrots and spinach, then Yang's for fennel. "There's a call for more biodiversity from the Hmong farmers," Miller relates. "They're all growing the same produce, and that's a problem. Some in the younger generation are saying, 'Let's grow early berries, find ways to stand out.' But many Hmong kids just aren't interested in farming." We get green onions, squash and red beets from Mao Xiang; then red radishes, baby carrots and bok choy from Sue Vang.
We're now nearly done, buying Greek feta for pizzas and Washed Bear (one of 31 variable artisan cheeses L'Etoile carries) from Capri Cheesery. I've been wondering how we are going to get all the food back - the wagons are overpacked, and we're now carrying bags of kale and Swiss chard - but we pull it off with the aid of two "assistant foragers," who also record each transaction.
Nearly two hours after we set off, we head back to the restaurant. "L'Etoile would go under without this supply of high-quality produce, but the Farmers' Market is really a social event too."
I ask the chef what he plans on doing with the freshly picked fennel. "I'm going to sauté it with white wine and summer squash, then serve it with snapper." Tonight? "Tonight."
L'Etoile's Grilled Pork Chops with Blueberry and Sweet Corn Relish
Pork chop brine (Makes 1 gallon)
- 1/2cup sugar
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon coriander (whole)
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorn (whole)
- 1 tablespoon clove (whole)
- 1 tablespoon allspice (whole)
- 6 bay leaves
- 1 gallon water
Bring all ingredients to a boil. Stir to dissolve sugar and salt. Chill and pour over pork chops. You can keep pork chops in the brine for up to a week.
The chops we use at L'Etoile are bone-in and about 2-1/2 inches thick, so if you are using thinner chops, you will need to cook them less. In general, make sure to cook the chops until their internal temperature registers 155 degrees.
Heat your grill to high heat. Grill the chops on high for about 3 minutes per side, and then move the chops to a cooler part of the grill for about 8 minutes. Remove from the grill and let them rest for at least 5 minutes before serving.
- 6 ears of corn
- 1 small sweet onion (sliced as thinly as you can)
- 1 cup blueberries
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 3 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper
- 1 teaspoon chopped cilantro
Place the onions in a bowl with the vinegar and honey. Season with a little salt and pepper and set aside. Remove the kernels of corn from the cobs. Heat a sauté pan on medium high and add one tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the corn and cook for 3 minutes, stirring often. Add the blueberries and cook for about 30 seconds. Place into the bowl with the onions and stir together with the remaining olive oil and cilantro. Serve hot or cold with the pork chops.