Given a nod again by the annual “Oscars of food” were L’Etoile chef Tory Miller, a previous winner of Best Chef: Midwest in 2012, Underground Food Collective co-founder Jonny Hunter and Heritage Tavern’s Dan Fox.
One Wisconsin name was new: chef Luke Zahm, co-owner of Driftless Café in the small town of Viroqua, two hours west of Madison.
“It’s super flattering,” said Zahm, who purchased Driftless Café with his wife, Ruthie Zahm, four years ago. “For my staff ... we tell them all the time that people are paying attention to what we’re doing, the food we’re making, the impact on the community.”
Established in 1990, the James Beard Awards recognize excellence in restaurants and food media. Judges include previous restaurant/chef award winners, regional restaurant critics and culinary educators with more than 400 judges nationwide.
Zahm is among the Best Chef: Midwest semifinalists, which will be narrowed down to “nominees” on March 15. Winners will be announced May 1 at an awards gala in Chicago.
Buzz for Driftless has been growing bit by bit. In 2014, Edible Madison (which is based in Viroqua) named Luke Zahm a local hero and “the Driftless’s prodigal chef.” Luke is from La Farge, a tiny town of less than 1,000 where Organic Valley is based, and Ruthie is from Viroqua.
The family returned to the area after Luke spent several years working in Madison at Kennedy Manor Dining Room and Bar, Lombarino’s and The Old Fashioned. He also spent five years in the kitchen at Epic Systems.
“Growing up in a small farming community ... you feel like nobody knows where you’re at,” Luke Zahm said. “I’ve spent my life saying I’m from someplace between Madison and Minneapolis.”
That the Driftless Café has been recognized by the Beard Awards, he said, “gives an identifying piece” to the farm-rich county in western Wisconsin. Vernon County is home to 113 organic farms, the highest concentration in the country. That puts it “front and center of this food movement,” Luke Zahm said.
“When I left the area for college in Chicago, seeing Organic Valley and Wisconsin farms was a huge piece of my own identity,” he said. “I know these farmers. I know these people. There’s a tremendous sense of pride.
“The award gives credibility to that identity, to our farmers and producers in the area.”
The Zahms estimated that the café sources 80 percent of its ingredients from nearby farms, with a strong fermentation and pickling program.
Especially in summer, Driftless Café has become a bit of a destination. The Zahms track credit card receipts from Madison, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago, but they also rely on local support from family and friends they’ve known for years.
“Our restaurant does seem quite different than a lot of the other winners because we are in a small town,” said Ruthie Zahm, who manages the restaurant and runs the front of house.
Her staffing options are different than in a city — servers may be young people who do farm share work in the summer and look to the restaurant for evening shifts. They may not know which side to clear a plate, but they helped grow the greens on it.
“To educate the public when you’re a server who’s worked and grown the carrots that day just comes naturally,” Ruthie Zahm said. “Our menu changes every day. We do a pre-shift (training) with the servers to talk about where the vegetables have come from that day.”
The cost of farm to table can be a tough sell in rural Wisconsin, where the tavern and supper club still dominate dining culture. And visitors and locals may look for different things.
“There’s a fine line with your customers,” Ruthie Zahm said. “My aunts and uncles are the people who’d like to come in and read a menu that just says ‘steak, chicken, vegetarian.’
“We risk losing some of our really local customers because we do add farm names that they don’t understand or then think, ‘This isn’t really my type of restaurant.’”
But Luke and Ruthie, now parents of Eva, 12, Ben, 11, and 4-year-old Silas, still have family nearby. That has helped their restaurant become “a bridge,” Ruthie said, in a unique way.
Driftless Café operates “in a community that feels very divided, with people moving in from cities versus the people who’ve been here for awhile and buck that change,” Ruthie Zahm said. “We happen to be a part of both of those groups. The restaurant has become a bridge for this community.
“If a high school friend from senior year comes in with her family, that’s a whole different type of service. But I know that, because I’m here.
“In a small town, you don’t get a ton of people every night. But you do know your clientele.”
When winter sets in and fewer tourists come through, it can be hard to remember why they started the café. James Beard recognition, though it brings no cash reward, can feel like fuel during dark winter days.
“I’m so proud to be here and be able to shine a spotlight on these amazing growers and producers,” Luke Zahm said. “It gives birth to all sorts of new ideas in the food world.
“I’m just excited that we have been honored and hope to pay that kindness forward.”