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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

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Chef Merlin Verrier served a miniature inspiration of a gyro with homemade pita bread, shaved leg of lamb, heirloom tomatoes and a Greek yogurt sauce.
Chef Merlin Verrier served a miniature inspiration of a gyro with homemade pita bread, shaved leg of lamb, heirloom tomatoes and a Greek yogurt sauce.

Toast of the Town, 2011

This year, I celebrated my birthday by attending Wine Enthusiast's Toast of The Town Food and Wine Tasting at the Field Museum in Chicago. My wife purchased the VIP tickets – which were well worth it! The passes let us in early and included a plate, while the regular guests had to figure out how to juggle the food, wine glasses and literature.

As a chef I have worked many similar events, but rarely do I get to attend them.

It was quite a different perspective. I learned it's never a good idea to attend these events on an empty stomach. Once the guests arrived, people were juking and jiving to get their tasting of raw, dehydrated, cylindrical, molded food to look like from a different galaxy.

I'm exaggerating, but Chicago does like to push the envelope. I'm not knocking the "food science" techniques, I can appreciate them even if I don't quite understand the need for them. But, food is kind of like music, growing up I didn't really like Rush, but I knew they were masters of their craft and possessed incredible technical skills. I like when these new molecular techniques enhance or add to the dish, but like performing a lightning speed guitar solo, it doesn't always make it better.

One dish I tried combined foie gras with a whoopee pie – salty, sweet and luxurious all mixed together and almost made sense when eaten. It was fun and light hearted, but something that you wouldn't go back for second helpings.

Another thing that stood out was the lack of seasoning, a case of style over substance. It seemed most chefs left their box of salt at home. I know the saying 'we eat with our eyes,' and yes, I'll concede that point, but not in place of flavor.

Chef Kevin Rathbun taught me one of the most valuable attributes a chef can have is one's palate and how to properly season food.

Salt is what I like to call the great equalizer. It's not meant to for you to taste, but to level all the nuanced flavors of the dish bringing them together in harmony. Now some folks …

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Beef producers dedicate a tremendous number of people to responsibly breed, raise and process cattle.
Beef producers dedicate a tremendous number of people to responsibly breed, raise and process cattle.
When food producers have a higher regard for quality over quantity, the result is a better product.
When food producers have a higher regard for quality over quantity, the result is a better product.

Pasture to Plate program provides learning opportunity

Last week, I was fortunate enough to have been invited by The Wisconsin Beef Council to attend The Kansas Beef Council's Pasture to Plate program in Wichita, Kan. It was a three-day trip educating chefs and industry professionals about the chronological life cycle of beef cattle.

Some of you may be true carnivores – real meat-and-potatoes types who don't consider it a meal without a juicy cut on the place. Others are no doubt vegans or vegetarians, with personal or perhaps even public positions on whether or not meat is ethical.

It's no surprise that I'm a meat eater. But what I learned on this recent trip is that beef producers dedicate a tremendous number of people to responsibly breed, raise and process cattle.

The most impressive stop on the tour was the state-of-the-art Creekstone Farms in Arkansas City, Kan. The company makes a point of producing less meat than the average beef producer – about 1,500 head of cattle a day, compared to some of the larger plants that can produce upwards of 6,000.

Their main focus is verifiable premium-quality black angus beef produced consistently with a high regard to animal welfare. They employ many animal welfare techniques introduced by Dr. Temple Grandin, Ph.D., a leading expert on autism and animal welfare, portrayed by Claire Danes in the movie named after Dr. Grandin.

This trend is finally catching on with producers and consumers alike. When food producers have a higher regard for quality over quantity, the result is a better product. As a chef, the better the ingredient we have to work with, the less manipulation is required on our part.

If you don't already know, here are some other truly passionate chefs in this state that take these issues very seriously: Peter Sandroni from La Merenda, Tory Miller from Le Etoile in Madison, Justin Aprahamian from Sanford, Dave Swanson of Braise, Jan Kelly of Meritage, Dan Van Rite of Hinterland and Adam Lucks of Comet Café & Honey Pie, just to name a few.

Aside f…

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