For six years, Monona Public Library’s Toni Streckert has been putting on the extremely popular Seasonal Chef program.It’s a regular series where a local chef comes in, talks through some recipes, answers questions, and gives out food samples, or, in some cases, what amounts to a light three-course meal.
The 80 slots for those events fill up quickly and there’s generally a waiting list.
Now, for National Library Week, Streckert, the library’s information services coordinator, is adding a twist with, “Seasonal Chefs: A Cook and Two Books,” Wednesday, April 11. The event is for adults and older teens and registration is required.
For “A Cook and Two Books,” Streckert asked Madison chef Joel Olson to read and interpret two books through a food lens — or as Streckert jokes, “a different take on cooking the books.” The two authors will give readings and Olson will prepare dishes of his choice inspired by the books.
The authors will also get to comment on Olson’s cooking. At the end, the audience can enjoy the food he prepares and ask questions.
The challenge was a fun one for Olson, who took notes while reading Cuban author Teresa Dovalpage’s new novel, “Death Comes in Through the Kitchen,” and Milwaukee writer Nick Petrie’s “Light It Up.”
Olson said he noted every time a food item was mentioned. “So the whole time I’m reading the book I’m trying to think, ‘What can I cook? What can I cook? What would make sense?’ “
With “Death Comes in Through the Kitchen,” there were nothing but food references, he said. The main character writes a food blog, so Olson wound up taking three pages of notes.
But with “Light It Up,” the latest in Petrie’s series about combat veteran Peter Ash, Petrie only mentioned food three times — and those references included cold coffee and a bagel with cream cheese. But Olson was still able to come up with something.
He wasn’t trying to duplicate anything in particular out of the books; he just used the foods mentioned as a way to gain inspiration.
“It’s been really fun for me to read a book with an agenda like that in mind,” said Olson, who has a degree from UW-Madison in sociology and went to culinary school at the recently-closed L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland.
Olson cooked at a barbecue restaurant and worked as a pastry chef before becoming a cooking instructor.
During a recent cooking demonstration at American Family’s DreamBank on the Capitol Square, Olson said he keeps two cookbooks in his kitchen, the New York Times’ “60-Minute Gourmet” by Pierre Franey, and a Betty Crocker Cookbook. “You can’t beat Betty Crocker,” he said. “Betty has it going on.”
He offers classes under Hemmachef, a name he started using in 1996. It means home chef in Swedish, even though Olson is of Norwegian heritage. Olson holds private cooking parties and events in homes and at businesses. Most classes he teaches in Madison are held at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church off Park Street.
For an event like “A Cook and Two Books,” it was important to find the right chef, Streckert said, calling Olson one of a kind.
“I’m sure there are other chefs who could do it, but he is kind of unique,” she said. “He has such a long, impressive CV of cooking, but he’s funny, really funny. He’s always up for a new challenge and I knew that with this kind of crazy idea — can you read these two books in your busy life as a chef and as an instructor, and then could you turn it into two dishes for 80 people, then explain why you did it with the authors there? That is a tall order for someone.”
Not only did Olson have the right personality for the job, Streckert called him one of the most efficient and organized chefs she’s met.
Olson and Streckert recall the earlier days of cooking demonstrations in the Monona Library where the fuses would blow until chefs started bringing infusion cookers with portable gas powered burners, Streckert said.
Over the years, Seasonal Chef events have featured chefs and bakers from Steenbock’s on Orchard, Madison Sourdough, Ian’s Pizza, Willy Street Co-op, Green Owl, Crema Cafe, Off Broadway, Bunky’s, Cento, and Batch Bakehouse, among others.
The events are well attended because the chefs are knowledgeable and entertaining and the audience gets to taste the food and take home recipes.
“We’ve become a foodie culture, in a very good way,” Streckert said. “A lot of cookbooks are on the bestseller list, and some of the (televised) chef programs are the most popular.”
People are interested in learning new cooking techniques and buying fresh and local ingredients, she said, noting that audience members are often just curious about the restaurants.
Those who attend the programs learn to prepare food they might not otherwise know how to cook. “And it’s not something easy,” Streckert said. “It’s not just knife skills or here’s the proper way to do an apple pie. It’s usually fairly gourmet food. It’s how can you make that accessible.”
People have also become more attuned to personalities of chefs over the last couple of decades, she said, adding that chefs are becoming celebrities, even at a local level.
Streckert said she has a feeling “A Cook and Two Books” will do well, even though it can be a challenge to get people to turn out for author readings, unless the book is a blockbuster.
She’s grateful to Joanne Berg for making the connections with the authors. Berg, who owns Mystery to Me bookstore on Monroe Street, will sell the authors’ books at the event.
“It’s wonderfully fun working with Joanne,” Streckert said. “I like people to see that kind of connection between the indie bookstore and the library.”
Streckert came up with the “A Cook and Two Books” concept, and as far as she knows it’s never been done anywhere else. She pulled it off once before, in 2016, also with Olson.
Olson’s keeping what he’s going to prepare for the event a surprise. That’s in accordance with a maxim he often uses in classes: “Don’t tell people what you’re having until you serve it.”
That way, if things don’t work out the way he wants, no one will ever know. “I’m following my own rules,” he said.