In case you missed it, Tory Miller – Madison chef, restaurateur, lover of all culinary things Wisconsin and my friend – brought home the James Beard Award for Best Chef of the Midwest region this year.
I recently had the chance to catch up with him and asked him to share some of his insight.
Jason Gorman: What is it like to be recognized by the James Beard Foundation? How has it impacted your life?
Tory Miller: It's pretty incredible. Winning a Beard Award is like a career dream for chefs. To be recognized by peers and people in this industry is something I never thought would happen to me, but when it happens, it's super intense. It's still sinking in. The impact on my life, though, is that more people call me. But, pretty much the reason why I do what I do is so that we can have these dope restaurants, which take up a lot of my time. So I've pretty much just been working business as usual. But, like I said, it really hasn't sunk in.
JG: Having reached this coveted level in the culinary world, do you feel any pressure to step up your game? Has it raised the expectations from yourself, staff and patrons?
TM: No, I don't think so. I really challenge every member of our staff to perform at a super high level all the time. Our kitchen motto is "Always refuse to be mediocre," so we put that pressure on ourselves every day regardless. Our staff has a pretty large sense of pride in their work, especially at L'Etoile, and definitely my sous chefs were pretty ecstatic when they heard the news. Of course, no chef can do it without their staff, so it's been pretty exciting for everyone.
JG: For those that haven't been to L'Etoile or Graze yet, what can they expect?
TM: At L'Etoile, if you've never been, you can expect service and food that celebrates our region and our season, taking ingredients and really honoring them, and presenting them in a fine dining atmosphere – but a laid-back fine dining atmosphere, if there can be such a thing. No one's gonna kick you out if you're not wearing the proper attire or use the wrong spoon. At Graze you can expect to have a lot of fun, with the same great service, food and expectations, but with a menu style that geared more towards its name: grazing, trying, sharing and really exploring what the season and region can offer.
JG: You truly embrace the farm to table movement. Why is it so important to you? And how does it reflect in your work?
TM: It's important to me because I want the best-tasting food at its peak on my menu, but it's also important to me that the restaurants support our local agriculture and the people behind it. There's a lot of families that rely on restaurants like us to support themselves, and without them we wouldn't have the inspiration or basically exist. I hope my work reflects these incredible people and their great ingredients.
JG: What's your favorite Wisconsin ingredient you cannot live without?
TM: This is an impossible question. It's like picking a favorite kid, and you really shouldn't do that. But, if I have to, it's gotta be cheese, and probably more specifically, SarVecchio cheese from Sartori. We probably have it on six or seven menu items between the two restaurants. We go through probably two wheels a week, which is a ridiculous amount.
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