Center Plate Takes Center Stage

Food is the main attraction in Madison, and the show has never been better.

Brewer Stouffer calls it the “theater of food.”

Stouffer, owner of the local Roman Candle Pizzerias, is referring to the cultural preeminence of food in Madison. What we eat has become about a lot more than, well, just eating. Yes, food is sustenance. But it’s also entertainment and business and social interaction and sometimes politics, too. And that’s not at all a bad thing, the restaurateur contends.

“It’s an exciting time to be in the restaurant industry,” Stouffer says. “The theater of food has really come of age in the past decade. People who eat out feel like they are part of it. People are, in general, excited about food and they’re excited about where their food comes from. And it says something about our market that people get so excited about cuisine.”

That’s no surprise to most Madisonians, given area enthusiasm for the farm-to-table movement. It’s not unusual, for example, to spy local chefs buying produce at area farmers markets. If the stalls are full of sweet corn, restaurant-goers can be sure to see it on menus or in specials later that day.

“You can go to an outdoor market every day of the week,” says Mike White, chef of Biaggi’s, a casual Italian eatery on Madison’s west side.

A chef for thirteen years, White says the accessibility of high-quality, fresh foods combined with a highly educated customer base raises expectations for restaurants in Madison. “We have a major university in town. We have multiple hospitals,” he explains, noting that customers in Madison look for locally sourced foods cultivated with sustainable agricultural practices. “That drives some of our decisions.”

Stouffer agrees that the local bar is set high. “We have over fifty local and regional products on our menu every day, and we’ve been doing that for [the entire time we’ve been in business],” he says. “In Madison, that’s become the norm. It’s a prerequisite.”

Heather Porter Engwall, director of national product communications for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, agrees. “Madison has a great reputation for amazing restaurants and consumers who support and seek out local foods,” she says. “Continued interest in supporting local food and dining is more influential than ever.”

Jack Sosnowski, who owns three downtown Madison restaurants with his wife, Julie Stoleson, says it keeps getting easier to source locally. “In Madison we’re fortunate to have a great farm connection with the farmers market,” he says. “They’re coming to town every week, so we’re able to establish relationships. A lot of them find us, which is great.”

At Lombardino’s, long a culinary landmark in Madison, local sourcing developed, well, organically. “We started using our first farmer the year that we started,” says co-owner Michael Banas, who was one of the restaurant’s buyers in 2000. “One of our staff knew a farmer. The farmer wanted to give us tomatoes, and we’ve bought his tomatoes ever since. We’ve added other farmers along the way.”

Sosnowski says it’s possible to get most anything from nearby producers. He gets a variety of items and ingredients—everything from fish to sausage to cheese—from local sources.

Cheese is a prime example of a product that is easy to get from nearby farmers or producers. Wisconsin produces a full quarter of the country’s cheese—a whopping 2.76 billion pounds in 2012. Wisconsin also produces forty-six percent of the nation’s specialty cheese. Porter Engwall adds that Wisconsin cheese is a good choice for more reasons than simple proximity. The Wisconsin dairy industry makes a $26.5 billion impact on the state economy, so it pays to source locally and to keep profits local as well.

Just as important, Porter Engwall says, is quality. “No other state wins more awards for its cheese than America’s Dairyland,” she says. “At the recent U.S. Championship Cheese Contest held in Green Bay, Wisconsin won one hundred forty-two total awards out of two hundred forty-six, effectively capturing fifty-eight percent of all awards given.”

Healthy Options

While locally sourced foods are a starting point for many restaurants, they aren’t the only considerations behind what goes on the menu. There are myriad influences, White points out, including general nutrition as well as allergens, food sensitivities and other dietary concerns. “We have to be focused on their needs,” White says, of customers. “That’s a constant job for us—to try to keep in touch with what they want us to be.”

And what customers want their restaurants to be changes over time. “You definitely see stuff that you wouldn’t see ten years ago,” says Sosnowski, whose stable of restaurants includes the Ivory Room Piano Bar, The Capital Tap Haus, and the recently opened Northwoods-themed Buck & Badger on State Street. “Everybody’s a lot more health conscious now.”

Others in the local restaurant industry agree that nutrition and wellness are driving menu changes. We’re a community with bike paths aplenty and sometimes that means promoting all-natural ingredients. Other times it means offering smaller portion sizes, says Patrick Quinlan, general manager of the Bonfyre American Grill in Arbor Gate off the West Beltline.

Benvenuto’s Italian Grill and Biaggi’s are both adding lower-calorie sections to their menus, with Biaggi’s offering a section of entrees all with fewer than six hundred calories. “People are striving to be more healthy,” says Samantha Kuhl, general manager at Benvenuto’s. “We won’t have a calorie menu done for a while yet, but it is something eventually we will have.”

Sosnowski adds that vegan and gluten-free choices are also becoming more and more important as menu items. Indeed, gluten-free food sales are expected to top $15 billion by 2015, according to information gathered by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (celiac disease is marked by an intolerance to gluten, making a gluten-free diet a requirement for anyone with the illness).

Benvenuto’s, for example, already has a gluten-free menu and recently added a gluten-free sandwich section. Roman Candle features a gluten-free crust in addition to its signature hand-tossed traditional wheat crusts.

White says the special dietary menu items and preparation techniques are not simply motivated by a desire for greater market share. He understands how challenging it can be to dine out for clientele with food sensitivities or allergies, and his goal is to make Biaggi’s a comfortable and safe place for those customers.

“We pay a lot of close attention to those kinds of requests,” he says. “We kind of drop everything we’re doing, and we really heavily focus on making sure that they have a secure environment that they can come to and trust, whether it’s gluten or dairy or eggs or nuts.”

Marilyn Sromek, one of the owners of jacs Dining & Tap House, agrees that responding to customer input is essential for success in the restaurant industry. It is also one of the things she loves about the business. “The biggest opportunity for a restaurant in Madison is to continue to listen to what customers want and then give it to them,” she says. “It’s one of the reasons we serve brunch, fish fry, and have an amazing happy hour.”

Like other area restaurants, jacs offers gluten-free items on the menu and encourages customers to ask questions, as many menu items can be prepared gluten-free. Banas adds that Lombardino’s has also tweaked preparation of some items to eliminate trace amounts of flour and gluten so that more menu items are viable options for those with celiac or related diseases.

Challenges

While the variety of ways to serve their customers offers opportunities to area eating establishments, costs continue to present challenges. White points out that food prices vary seasonally, but restaurants have to keep menu price points consistent. Predicting and managing the fluctuations can be tricky.

Sromek also points out that quality costs more, but restaurants cannot price themselves out of competition. Quinlan adds that keeping up with changing employment laws and other regulations brings additional challenges.

Beyond that, Stouffer points out that some of Madison’s local restaurants’ selling points—the fact that they use local and fresh ingredients—have been co-opted by large corporate chains, making it harder for an area establishment to really define its niche.

“A lot of the language that we use to differentiate ourselves has been watered down,” Stouffer says. “If you truly are local, fresh and handmade, you have to constantly remind people and self-promote, which is something that is not always easy to do … You have to continually remind people what you stand for. You have to continually get to know your customers, cater to them, and try to please them every time. You’re only as good as your last meal.”

Quinlan agrees. “The Madison restaurant community continues to be rich with independently owned restaurants. The challenge is always to raise awareness for the community and have consumers spend their money locally.”

That said, many restaurateurs agree that Madison is a great market in which to confront those obstacles. Kuhl credits the strong buy-local movement for keeping the independent restaurant scene vibrant. “People in Madison really love to eat out,” she says. “A lot of smaller towns don’t have the opportunities to be as successful [as we are in Madison].”

Dining In

As much as Madisonians like to dine out, most of us like and want to eat at home, too. But the food scene and rising expectations at restaurants have also raised expectations for home cooking. We’re not a cream-of-mushroom-soup-casserole crowd anymore. Inspired by our favorite shows, our favorite stores and our favorite restaurants, we want to bring fine dining home—and we can. Good food isn’t the purview of restaurants and celebrity chefs alone.

While most area establishments don’t share recipes, many will offer tips to ambitious home cooks. Quinlan says the most important things to consider are “quality ingredients and patience.”

Fortunately, Madison makes it easy to get your hands on quality ingredients.
We can all shop shoulder to shoulder with our local chefs at area farmers markets. We can have produce, dairy and pantry items delivered to our neighborhoods through CSA shares, and even many grocery stores carry local items.

But a carpenter is only as good as his tools, so equipment is the other part of the equation for culinary enthusiasts. The right appliances can make the entire experience easier, faster and better, says Rian Cain, vice president of sales and marketing for American TV and Appliance. He says new options for both storage and preparation aid homeowners in their quest for restaurant-caliber cuisine at home.

“An interesting part of the quality experience in food starts before it ever hits the cook top or oven,” Cain says. “Now, because of the sophistication of refrigeration, food stays much fresher and lasts much longer.”

Cain describes new refrigerators with dual compressors and different cooling zones with exact temperature control. Airflow circulates around cooling drawers, he says, instead of blowing air on the food. Insulation, too, has improved. “This has taken food storage and cooling to another level,” Cain says. “It is so much better today, and it saves the homeowner time because they’re not in a position of having to run out to the grocery store every time they want to prepare a meal.”

The time crunch is also a key component of the growing popularity of induction cooking. Long popular in Europe, induction cooking is catching on in America as more manufacturers offer the option in their product lines.

It makes sense to Cain. “When you think about dining, you love to go to places where the food quality is great but you don’t have to wait an hour and a half to get served,” he says.

Induction does that at home. Water boils in an instant, and overall cooking times are drastically reduced. And this, Cain says, comes without any loss of control. “You are combining great quality and not sacrificing speed,” he says. “You’ll be able to simmer things properly whether you’re melting butter or chocolate. You won’t scorch it. Induction offers the flexibility to handle all of it.”

And don’t forget the drinks, Sromek adds. “If you want to recreate your jacs dining experience in your own kitchen, start with a craft cocktail created from top-shelf spirits, fresh-squeezed juice, artisan bitters and unique condiments, like our Luxardo Maraschino cherries,” she says.

Cain agrees. He points out that wine refrigeration has become more affordable at various price points—it isn’t just for the most luxurious kitchens anymore. “It’s easy to put under cabinets just the way you would put a dishwasher under the counter,” he says. “It really looks stylish in the kitchen, but it doesn’t have to be an expensive option anymore. It’s really quite accessible.”•

Watch Out

Food is trendy. Although most restaurants here intend to stick around for the long haul, many do capitalize on the big trends that sweep the nation. So what’s on tap for Madison?

Craft beers remain popular, says Jack Sosnowski, owner of the Capital Tap House as well as the Ivory Room Piano Bar, and Buck & Badger, which has twenty-three craft beers on tap.

Heather Porter Engwall, director of national product communications for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, says Wisconsinites like their staples, such as macaroni and cheese, but says chef-inspired twists are increasingly popular. Truffle oil, anyone?

And Marilyn Sromek, owner of jacs Dining & Tap Haus, expects restaurant-goers to see more of the alternative meats already on their menu. “At jacs we are ahead of that trend and offer duck, pheasant and rabbit,” she says. “These items are very popular but we are always looking for the next great ingredient that our customers will love.”

Traditionalists don’t have to worry, though. Lombardino’s co-owner Michael Banas says trends come and go, but customers always come back to their tried-and-true favorites. “We try to know what’s going on but we try not to jump on the bandwagon right away,” Banas says. “People might go out and have this super-complicated meal that they love, but they always come back to comfort food.”

-Jennifer Garrett

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