Wisconsin Chef Tory Miller Sails In A Sea Of Cheese. And Won The Regatta.
On winning a James Beard Award for Madison, WI
Even with its very close proximity to culturally rich Chicago and craft beer flowing strong at the student union, Madison (the Wisconsin state capitol and home of the University of Wisconsin) was very much a culinary Siberia when Tory Miller rolled into town a little over a decade ago. I know about this firsthand. As a student living there in the late-'90s, I simply couldn’t get enough of the truly awful slice pizza and wack ethnic food. Shout out to Jolly Bob's! College then was not about juicing your Foursquare check-in history with edible discoveries. It was more about stuff like this.
Fast forward to late 2012 and I’m walking around the city’s capital square juicing my Foursquare check-in history with edible discoveries. There’s the rustic Mediterranean excellence of Nostrono (run by former Blackbird and Boka line cooks) and a craft cocktail bar and store, Merchant, stirring rye cocktails with maple syrup, bitters and pipe tobacco tincture. Red Sushi serves some of the best unagi in the Midwest. And then there is Graze and L’Etoile, the pair of restaurants that Miller runs with his sister Traci. Graze, the newer one, calls to mind places like New York’s The Breslin and The Parrish in Los Angeles. As in, doing the global gastropub dance. There’s curry-roasted vegetables, Oaxacan-styled lamb meatballs and a $21 burger with the signature blend written on the menu. The place is packed many nights of the week.
The white tablecloth L’Etoile, located next door, won Miller a James Beard Award (for Best Chef Midwest), an incredibly high honor and kind of shocking (as we find out in the interview). He beat out chefs from much larger cities like Kansas City, Milwaukee and Minneapolis. Madison has come a long way, indeed. “No one was making charcuterie or any sausages other than the commercial brats and all that shit,” he says while we sit in L'Etoile's empty dining room on a chilly fall afternoon. He's exuding confidence and head-down humility, two Miller trademarks that make him one of the coolest guys to catch up with.
Can you describe some of the things that are happening here?
The local movement has becomes second nature for us. Places that never used to have, say, farm-raised anything, are at least trying. Using the farmers’ market is huge here because it’s the big one around the square in the summer and then we go indoors in the winter. A lot of people are getting into that, especially for large cuts of meat. A lot of people are doing the pig, which is big everywhere in the world right now. I’ve been joking, though, about finding a new animal to eat [laughs].
Not joking, what are you looking to use?
I’ve been trying to bring rabbit into the game. They mate prolifically and are in abundance when you can get them. To get them to have flavor, though, you have to do other stuff to them. A lot of great, young, kind of hipster cooks are making really good food, and we just try to stay out in front of the game and constantly move things forward.
And they look up to you…
It’s weird because I’m getting kind of old. I’m 37. I remember the first chef I worked for in New York was 36 and I remember looking at him and thinking, “Man, that guy is a monster, he’s awesome.” I remember thinking when I get to his age, hopefully I’ll be…
And who might that be?
Bill Telepan [read our interview]. Now it’s funny because I’ll do events with him or grab beers with him or whatever. He’s one of those guys who really understands his role in the community and teaches that. Any chef you ask in New York knows Bill Telepan. He’s a monster in the game.
And he’s a local produce guy. He did the whole farm-to-table thing before that was even a known term.
Yeah, for sure.
Did you learn that from him?
At Judson, he used to go down to the market and send the cabs out full of food. We’d have to run out on 52nd Street and get all the shit. At the time, I didn’t really think anything of it. I just thought he was going to some warehouse or something. Once I got to know what he was doing and went to the market with him a few times, it was phenomenal. Coming here really changed everything for me – having the farmers’ market right across the street.
You came here when Madison was really a culinary Siberia though?
Yeah, oh my God.
What was the scene like when you got here 10 years ago and how has it progressed?
It’s incredible now. When I first got here, everything was closed by nine and the streets were empty. No one was making charcuterie or making any sausages other than the commercial brats and all that shit. There’s Nostrono, Merchant and Red Sushi, which is really good for Midwest sushi. But it’s still tough. We’re gradually getting into tasting menus and getting people to understand, “Yes, you don’t get a choice, it costs this much. Wine and tip aren’t included.” All that stuff is coming into play and Madison is becoming a lot hipper.
Are you doing okay as a restaurateur and owner?
For sure. We’re doing okay — obviously having Graze helps us. White tablecloths are notorious for not making a profit, which is a fact. If you look around the landscape of Madison, there are no fine dining restaurants that do it at this level. That’s real talk. There’s other people that put the cloths down and do a good job. The level of service that we expect and strive for here, though, isn’t done anywhere else.
That’s not just you talking. That’s the James Beard Foundation talking. Did you expect to win?
No, it was just awesome. It was one of those things. I actually got kind of shitfaced with John Besh the night before and he was like, “Man, they usually make you wait three years, so don’t sweat it.” I was like, “I just need to clear my head and go into it and have a good time.” As soon as I was there and grabbed a program and the lights went down, I saw the Midwest was kind of early and my heart just started pounding. To be honest, I got nominated as a rising star when I was 28 – to have all the stuff happen, buying the restaurant and moving it over here – it wasn’t until three or four years ago when it hit that this is all a reality. All of a sudden, you realize that you could win a Beard award for the Midwest and for Madison and it would be dope as hell. You never really work for it, and when it does happen, it does put everything into perspective. You realize it’s a great restaurant and you’re happy to be the captain of it and keep doing what we’re doing.
So now that you’ve won a Beard, how do you stay creative and inspired?
We change the menu a lot. It’s a wild cycle. I just said the other day that I was writing seven menus – I have one for L’Etoile, one for Graze, one for a wine dinner, one for a truffle and pork dinner, one for New Years at Graze, one for New Years at L’Etoile and a restaurant week menu. The creative part of it is super fun, but it does get a little bit like Mad Men sometimes — where you’re sitting in a room and have a bunch of joints and whiskey and are saying, “What are we going to do?”
Your staff must love and hate this…
The cooks and sous-chefs that I have at both restaurants are great and they understand that I am liable to come in and say, “This is what we’re doing today” and just flip everything. They’re ready to go and teach the cooks. We put a new menu on and it usually lasts about a week and a half. The cooks love it because obviously things are constantly changing, but it also gives me the opportunity to manage quality control because people aren’t getting complacent making the same dishes over and over again.
Are you getting new products in and testing them?
Yeah, we have farmers coming in all the time and saying, “Hey man, I grew this and can grow more of it next year if you’re interested.” We meet with a number of farmers and have 207 or so that we deal with. We meet with a lot of them in February and do planning for the next season. We’ll say, “Last year, you grew 1,200 pounds of Juliet tomatoes and it wasn’t enough” or “No one is growing this kind of radicchio – will you grow it for us?” People are willing to try.
Madison is very much known for being a college town. Are college kids coming in and dining in your restaurants?
For sure. There will be a table of 10 guys all eating at Graze just throwing down. Obviously, it’s not the cheapest restaurant in town, but they understand the ingredient level and that it’s a kitchen-driven restaurant. They are here for the food and I really dig that.
What’s the process like to get a table here for graduation? I recall waiting in line somewhere for four hours to get a table…
It’s intense. The day that we do it, the phones open at 9 a.m. and it’s like four lines deep. We have extra people that come in — it’s trippy. People call up — especially the people that know that they have eight or 10 people coming in – we open up the whole restaurant because we can fit another 95 people in the back room.
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