When Anna Dickson, 26, moved to Madison a year ago, she came back for her 98-year-old grandma.
"She's my hero," said Dickson, who grew up in New Glarus but went to college on the west coast. "I was tired of only seeing her for three days a year.
"I came back for her and then found this job right away. And I really love it."
Dickson, now the executive chef at Merchant, trained in parks and tourism at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and the French Culinary Institute (renamed the International Culinary Center in 2012) in Campbell, near San Jose.
She quickly noticed that in Madison kitchens, she was among very few women, especially in an executive chef position.
We spoke with Dickson about the gender disparity, about the new Madison Area Chefs Network and what it means to source locally at an upscale bar known primarily for its inventive cocktails.
It seems strange that Madison has so few women running their own kitchens.
We also have less female cooks. The ratio is totally off — I came from San Francisco, and the last kitchen I worked in was, like, 80 percent female.
At Manresa ... the kitchens were kind of historically masculine. They just had their 10 year anniversary. But most recently their chef de cuisine was a female, and she has made a point of giving other females opportunities. It was pretty rad.
(In Madison), I don’t know a lot of other female chefs, and I don't see female cooks in other kitchens. I'm really not sure why that is.
Part of what I do is try to build an environment in my kitchen where cooks can learn and grow. They can learn about food and working in a team and developing character. I grew up in kitchens where that was valued.
Similar to Love Apple Farms, which supplies a large portion of the produce at Manresa, last year we wrote a story about how Madison chefs are collaborating with local farmers. What kind of growth are you seeing there?
It totally is starting to happen, and it is really exciting. Just over the last year I've noticed a change, and a big part of that has been the MACN (Madison Area Chefs) Network.
It has opened up dialogue between chefs. We've had opportunities to meet each other's farmers. It's a nice tool to connect us all together.
In one example, Dan (Bonnano) from A Pig in a Fur Coat, I texted him this winter and said, "I'm having a hell of a time getting mixed greens and lettuces that are grown locally."
He put me in touch with Clean Fresh Food in Belleville. They were just starting up. I went out to tour the farm and they gave me some lettuces, and I said, "What else are you growing, what else are you selling?"
They said, "That's the wrong question. You tell us what you want, and we provide you with that." They've been extremely awesome.
I have a chocolate and red beet cake on my dessert menu, and I really wanted beet sprouts for the top of it. Now they're growing them for me every week.
What kinds of differences do you see in sourcing practices between here and the Bay Area?
Madison is a little bit of an isolated market. In the Bay Area, there are groups of places in San Jose, Santa Cruz, San Francisco and the networks are more connected.
I think having this MACN network is really going to improve that (in Madison). Chefs don’t have a lot of time to go out and hang out with each other.
Before the network, there were a lot of chefs that didn't even know each other. Now they can talk to each other.
I have an awesome seed book from Baker Creek Heirloom (Seeds) in Missouri. And I gave it to Gil (Altschul, chef/owner of Grampa's Pizzeria) who now has a garden in his backyard and is growing different varieties of radishes.
The opportunity to talk about your cooking helps spur some creative juices, instead of being in an isolated environment. It's nice to have people with similar interests you can bounce ideas off of.
Merchant is an American bar, so the menu has some restrictions you have to work within. How do you adapt standards to your style of cooking?
Every restaurant has restrictions. You have a market, and you have what your customers are accustomed to eating.
For example, they told me, "You have to have a cheeseburger on the menu." So I went out and found a local source for everything on the cheeseburger.
Clean Fresh Food grows our bibb lettuce. Canopy Gardens grows tomatoes. We're starting a house pickling program. Our beef is grass-fed, and our buns come from Madison Sourdough.
It's kind of neat, because no matter what you're cooking, no matter what cuisine you're using, you can still use local ingredients.
Culinarily, what or who are your biggest influences?
I've always struggled to put my style in a box — I'm very ingredient-driven. I trained at the French Culinary Institute, but one of my first jobs was at the Edelweiss (Chalet) Country Club doing a fish fry.
So I have a wide range of experience, from traditional Midwest to high-end French cuisine. At Manresa, Chef Kinch's influences were highly Japanese.
Right now I'm cooking a lot of traditional Wisconsin food, but we do specials ... one of my favorites was an oxtail/buckwheat noodle ramen bowl. I actually find Madison is very receptive to that.
They key is having balance on your menu, so someone can come in and get the pork pasta ragu, they can have a cheeseburger. But then if there's someone with them who's a little more adventurous, we can play to their palate as well.
What kinds of ingredients are you most excited to find at the market right now?
I’m extremely excited that radishes are finally here. They're one of my favorite foods.
I just put a board on the menu that's our housemade ricotta (cheese) — just a nice, soft, fluffy, barely seasoned ricotta — and I'm serving it with spring onions, radishes, bacon and strawberries, which finally started popping up. And some Madison Sourdough baguette.
That's the kind of stuff I really like. It's not necessarily a dish. I don't do much other than clean the radishes and put a little olive oil on them.
I just love that. It feels like you just got them from the garden. I shop (at the Dane County Farmers' Market) on Wednesdays and Saturdays, so some of the stuff that people get was actually in the ground that morning or the day before.
You can use ingredients to cook with, but some things are so good you don't need to do anything but clean them.