"I just wasn't comfortable with Wisconsin being a culinary flyover zone anymore."
Photos by Megan Monday
Luke Zahm | Viroqua, WI
"I grew up in La Farge and had a paper route in the '80s. I remember delivering the Sunday paper, and on the front headline there'd be weekly stories about dairy farmers committing suicide. The dairy farming industry had bottomed out, and these farmers were losing their century farms.
Originally, every single little outskirt community had their own creamery. You put your milk in those creameries, and then they would make cheese or whatever the specialty was and you would sell it. That money would stay localized. But then there was this huge decentralization from those small creameries into these bigger agricultural enterprises. Small farms were having a hard time making it because they were competing with really huge farms. The milk prices went down and people were losing their farms. Around that time Walmart moved in on the outskirts of town, and so the Main Street businesses that were once thriving immediately dried up. Honestly, it didn't really look like there was much hope for a brighter economic future. It was definitely a very, very bleak time. And I saw that, I grew up in it.
Throughout the '90s it was still pretty rough. Organic Valley had launched and was starting to do really amazing things, but by that point I was interested in a world that was bigger than this place.
There was one person that I knew that was from here that made a big impact, and that was Butch Vig. He's the drummer from Garbage; the guy who produced Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins. I was in a rock & roll band in high school, and I thought, Butch Vig was from here, and he made it big! He lives in L.A., he's probably super rich, he's totally famous...I can do it, too.
In my junior year of high school, Garbage gave an interview in 'Rolling Stone' and I went to the library to read it; I was so excited. All I wanted was to see in print Butch Vig mention that he's from Viroqua. But you know what he said? He said he was from 'a nowhere farming town in the Midwest.' That was what was printed. It was heartbreaking, heartbreaking.
When college came around, I moved to Chicago. I got out of here."
"I was in Chicago, but I was super homesick and lonely. My mom had gotten a job at Organic Valley in the mid '90s, and so she sent me coupons the whole time I was away. But the only place to use them was Whole Foods, and I had never been to a Whole Foods before. I walked in and I saw, for the first time, the Organic Valley display.
I walked up to it and, really, I had this totally emotional moment because I picked up the cheese, turned it over, and on the back it was printed: La Farge, Wisconsin. It was the first time in my life that I saw my hometown in this light. It was positive; it was growing. I even pulled my roommate over to see. I was like, 'These are my people! This is who I am! This is where I'm from.'
For me, that was the birth of an identity. It started to change the way I thought about this region. I got out of Chicago and went back to Madison to finish my degree at UW. That was when I started working at restaurants, eventually deciding that law wasn't going to be for me. Instead it was this food thing, blossoming from where I'm from."
"I came back to Wisconsin with this renewed identity...I now believed in being a kid from this place. When I was growing up as a chef in Madison, I worked for Lombardino's on Old University. That restaurant family was amazing, and I've modeled a lot of what we're doing here at Driftless Cafe after that experience. There, we were a little bit outcast from the downtown Madison network—kind of on our own island, just because of proximity—so when it was time for the shifts to be done, the staff would just continue to hang out together. We knew we were making really good food, and that our service was top-notch…we just really believed in what we were doing. We all ate, slept, and breathed the restaurant. It wove in this beautiful magic of camaraderie.
So much was going on then, and you started to hear more and more about food coming from our area. Harmony Valley Farm—Richard De Wilde—he has been one of the farmers that ignited this hyper-local, organic produce frenzy that has gripped the entire food scene. At that time he was working really closely with Odessa Piper at L'Etoile Restaurant. People were starting to pay attention to friends of mine, the Engel's at Driftless Organics. And at Lombardino’s I was pushing for more localism, more identity that we can trace back to on menus.
I just wasn't comfortable with Wisconsin being a culinary flyover zone between Minneapolis and Chicago anymore."
"After Lombardino's, I had the opportunity to start a kitchen at Epic, the software giant. My first day on campus, they walked me into the 10-million dollar facility that would become my kitchen. I was pretty overwhelmed. They said, 'We'll start pretty slow, sandwiches, soup. You can do that for maybe a hundred people a day, how does that sound?' I was like, 'Wow, okay, yeah...we'll figure that out, a hundred people a day.' Then literally within the first two months of having the kitchen open, we were serving 1,700 people a day. When you're from a town of 775 people, and you realized you just served double the population of everybody you knew, you're like, 'Wow.'
We were cooking from scratch, which was pretty amazing, but it was a huge struggle to get more products from my hometown and my region into that system. We would get three pallets of food a day out of the Chicago market, but trying to get that coordinated and lined up with farmers here was difficult. We made it happen sometimes, but it was hard.
I desperately wanted to bring local food to the people we were serving, and this challenge helped me understand why it matters. I knew these farmers from Viroqua who were, at that point, working secondary jobs just to be in farming, and so I pitched Epic on being a drop-site for a CSA program. We did it, and they sold a massive amount of shares. The Epic folks got real food, and the farmers...it allowed them to quit their secondary jobs, to be the farmers that they wanted to be, and to be the parents they wanted to be. That was the first time that I really realized the impact that a chef can have on a local food system. Actually giving faces and names to changing people's lives as opposed to this abstract idea that I'm going to buy locally and it might matter. It really does matter, and it continues to matter."
"Here, at Driftless Cafe, we're trying to be a bridge. Economically for this area, and connecting people to local food, but also as a bridge into the future to try and make this a better Viroqua. Or a better region than it was when I grew up here, in the '80s and '90s. To try and change that landscape through supporting each other and our neighbors, and to re-identifying this place with what we feel is this mecca, this place focused on beautiful, organic food."
-Luke Zahm | Viroqua, WI