Many conversations with chef Odessa Piper, the undisputed grande dame of Madison’s farm to table culinary scene, pleasantly ramble like the farmland that inspired her.
The founder of L’Etoile, Piper, now 63, is interested in how Wisconsin vegetables might have terroir, a French wine term that relates to geography, climate and foodways.
Though frequently hailed as a founding mother of Madison’s food scene, she’s eager to share credit for the city’s farm to table infrastructure with high profile Chicago chefs like Rick Bayless and the late Charlie Trotter.
And even though a 2001 Gourmet profile by Jonathan Gold and her own James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest in 2002 pushed Madison into a national food spotlight, Piper remains skeptical of such accolades.
“They’re a ‘can’t live with them, can’t live without them’ kind of thing,” Piper said of the Beards, though she takes seriously her role as a voter. “We need lots of things like the Beard Awards to recognize excellence in the industry.
“They’re definitely improving. They’re making it more fair.”
L’Etoile turns 40 this year. Fans and friends will celebrate on Sunday with a retrospective dinner created by Piper and current chef and co-owner Tory Miller, a Beard Award winner himself in 2012.
For those who can’t attend the dinner, Piper is developing a Brittany-style cake with highly slated cultured butter (“it is effing amazing,” she said), hickory nuts and maple sugar.
“I’m bringing a recipe to Madison and I’m going to give it in the form of a thank you letter,” Piper said. “The L’Etoile dinner sold out really quickly, but it doesn’t begin to be all the people I know would love to be a part of it, and all the people I want to thank.”
The recipe is an homage to Piper’s roots at Ovens of Brittany and “a story about where I see Wisconsin artisan traditions going.
“It’s kind of like (a) Wisconsin ‘back to your future’ recipe.”
Forty years since L’Etoile opened here in 1976, farm to table is still a foreign concept in places like my home city in northwest Ohio. Why do you think the concept has been so much more successful here compared to other parts of the Midwest?
The answer to that question could be how to explain terroir. Terroir is a set of contexts — it can be a watershed that creates a river system that defines geography which has micro-applications. Madison and southwest Wisconsin, the Kicakpoo rivershed, the Wisconsin rivershed, the way the ancient geography affected the land ... all of these things constitute what is a true emerging terroir for southwest Wisconsin.
In my early years at L’Etoile, I had the privilege of seeing how this began to work. You had distinguished farmers in the Driftless region who were growing exceptional produce and raising full-flavored animals, meat.
They were funneling into Madison which was a center of curiosity — we have the university population, it’s a lively place with a lot of open-minded people, also people very ecologically inclined, educated and concerned and passionately in love with the planet.
And then you had this wealth center in Chicago.
How were farmers forming relationships with Chicago restaurants important for L’Etoile?
Little L’Etoile wasn’t wealthy enough, Madison wasn’t wealthy enough to support everything these farmers were doing. It costs money to set up that infrastructure and a lot of these farmers were starting from nothing.
I would introduce these farmers to chefs in Chicago who had a greater wealth base, who would want to snap up everything that farmer produced. Charlie Trotter wanted all of Janie Crawford’s lamb, but Janie made it clear that L’Etoile would get dibs first.
Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, Leña Brava) really should be considered one of our saints of successful sustainable agriculture in Wisconsin. He did so much with his team. He had such a competent operation and diverted a lot of that wealth toward processing large volumes of tomatoes.
He built a blast freezer processing facility for his operation and made them available to farmers bringing produce down to him, and they would back haul and deliver them to L’Etoile.
L’Etoile used to name the farms from which it sourced ingredients on the menu, but there’s been pushback on that in recent years. Why do you think that is?
It’s that Doppler shift of discovery. I stand accused of sometimes going too far. I’ve looked at some of my menus and I’ve cringed; they read like a gazetteer.
There’s a self-consciousness about the local food movement, an awkward self-consciousness, "Oh, am I being too precious?" It’s possible that all of us collectively do get a little too precious, a little too ... caught up. Maybe the pushback is a natural correction.
I feel strongly that farms should be listed because place names are musical. I also think it’s part of how to get a guest anticipating their meal.
But I’ve loved menus that don’t list farm names that are just beautiful and poetic. I see a lot of restaurants listing their farm suppliers on another piece of paper.
Is it part of a restaurant’s job to educate the diner on what they’re eating and where it comes from?
Daniel Patterson in San Francisco who ran Coi, he created this booklet on all of his farm suppliers. At the prices he charged, he could afford to do that.
At L’Etoile, when the American Cheese Society was in town, we would generate little multi-fold documents to describe in great detail the cheeses that were available at the restaurant.
Part of what a great restaurant meal should do is be a shaman ... someone who helps a person open their eyes to get more out of their journey.
A wonderful restaurant experience does involve taking the guest and sort of surprising them, delighting, making a deep connection. It might be someone who didn’t think they liked lobster or green beans, and there’s something revelatory.
A key element there is trust.
Every bit of trust that L’Etoile earned in my years had so much to do with the fantastic professionals who worked with me. Tory and his team have taken it so much further. I was out three weeks ago and I went to L’Etoile with friends and ate at the bar. I was blown away.
I’m remembering something Charlie Trotter said: I want my restaurant to be so trustworthy that our worst night, if we drop the ball ... it’s still mind-blowingly wonderful for our guest.
I used to share this with my staff — we’re making our reputation from scratch every day. This evening we’ll have people at the restaurant who’ve never been to L’Etoile before, or they’ve never been to a fine dining restaurant before.
They’re nervous about spending money, rightfully so, and there’s so much that’s going to happen for the first time.
We can’t glide on our laurels. We’re making our reputation from scratch with every dish, with every customer.
As a past Beard Award winner, you’re now a judge. What makes a great restaurant for you?
I look at the whole. That’s a very big thing for me. Is the floor staff engaged? Are the farms represented? I look for big patterns to make sense. It doesn’t make sense to have some brilliant, hotshot chef working in an environment where the other players aren’t in sync with him or her.
I look for consistency ... for creativity, forging something. Ultimately if you have that consistency and coherence in that restaurant experience, if there’s that artistic moment of ineffable deliciousness it’ll be because those things fell in place.
There’s a lot of competent restaurants in Madison; the whole industry has really come of age. It just keeps getting better.
Do you vote for Tory?
Yes. That’s my most sincere vote. I am unabashedly so blown away by him. He’s doing a lot of delegating, so a big shout out to his team of chefs. But it starts with him, he has a brilliant palate and a passion for food. It’s bottomless.
As he’s maturing as a chef, he’s also maturing as this amazing director of the orchestra in terms of the people he’s choosing to head up his kitchen. What I saw the last time was this seamless translation into deliciousness, the creativity and synergy of working closely with farmers and incredibly inspired cooks.