James Beard nominee returned to his roots with Driftless Cafe
Fork. Spoon. Life. Luke Zahm
Luke Zahm’s first jobs were in restaurants. While growing up in a small town in western Wisconsin, he worked as a car hop and spent time as a “certified sandwich artist” before moving away to pursue music.
After working in Chicago, he made his way to kitchens in Madison. Working at Lombardino’s and making trips to the Dane County Farmers Market both helped him appreciate his Wisconsin roots.
Turns out he had to leave to find his way home.
Since 2013, Zahm and his wife, Ruthie, who grew up in Viroqua, have operated Driftless Café at 118 Court St. in Viroqua. His menu is ever changing, but his commitment to the community stays constant. His mission is to shine the national spotlight on the area’s role in organics, farming and cooperatives — and it seems to be working.
The 2017 James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: Midwest (he did not make the cut to finalist) will be cooking in Milwaukee for a dinner at 6:30 p.m. June 4 at Braise, 1101 S. 2nd St. Additionally, he’s teamed up with “Wisconsin Foodie” for farm dinners around the state this summer.
Zahm lives in Avalanche with his wife and three children: Ava, 12, Ben, 11 and Silas, 4.
I grew up in La Farge, Wisconsin, a whopping 13 miles away from Viroqua. Population 775, a small town on the Kickapoo River. Being in a rural area, there was always an involvement with food because there wasn’t a plethora of restaurants. There was always a self-sufficiency. My dad hunted. We were purchasing bigger cuts of animals from neighbors and learning cooking traditions from family members.
The major awakening for me came because La Farge is actually home to Organic Valley. In 1988 when they came together, I was a bit of a lost soul searching for an identity. I moved to Chicago. Seeing “La Farge, Wisconsin” printed on a cheese package was monumental.
Being from a really small town where you constantly describe your location as between Madison and Minneapolis, or near La Crosse, to see that was validating for me. That started my own identity with the food and farmers.
Vernon County, where Viroqua and La Farge are located, has the highest concentration of organic farmers in the United States. This is the organic mecca, and it has shaped how I look at and approach food.
We have it written on a chalkboard in the cafe. “Good energy equals good food.” I really ask my staff to buy into that. The genesis of the organic movement is taking hold right here.
Restaurant rock stars
It’s a reactive style of cooking vs. a proactive style of cooking. Reacting means my menu for tonight won’t be finalized until 2 p.m. when the last of my night line cooks comes in.
Always on the menu
Organic Prairie beef tenderloin. Growing up here, I know that you have to have a steak on the menu. You have to. We want people to experience it as the best steak you have ever had. Because it is organic we charge a little more than some of the supper clubs. We are embracing multigenerational farms in this area. That’s our bridge.
Mentoring meal by meal
Working at Lombardino’s with Patrick O’ Halloran, a Milwaukee native, really shaped how I looked at food. Going to the Dane County farmers market on Saturdays and seeing these stands that came from Vernon and Crawford County, I knew a lot of these people. Patrick taught me how to translate that.
Becoming his own boss
We worked at The Kennedy Manor (in Madison). That was (run by) a husband and wife. They taught Ruthie and me the meaning of going to work for bosses you love, appreciate and rely upon.
I worked at Epic (in Verona). It is not the typical corporate culinary program. Judy Faulkner gave us every tool to succeed. For me personally, it was daunting. Our lunches were very quickly up over 1,000 people. I just served my whole town — plus some — in two hours. That’s a reality check.
Trying to get your hands on that much food and local sourcing can be tricky, but we recognized if we could figure out that logistic system you’d change the food paradigm in Wisconsin.
Music to menus
I wanted to be a musician. I don’t know the percentage of failed musicians in professional kitchens, but I know it is astronomically high.
But other than Organic Valley in my life, the one person I could point to was Butch Vig, the drummer for Garbage. He produced an album that rocked my world when I was in 6th grade: Nirvana’s “Nevermind.” Somebody from Viroqua had a huge part in making that happen. It gave me validation that I could do whatever I wanted.
We discovered a restaurant in Charleston, the Obstinate Daughter. Jacques Larson was the chef. We walked in with the presumption this will be a Frenchman. Turns out that he was from Iowa. He was so excited to have Midwesterners in the restaurant he came out with charcuterie and things that didn’t have an identity in the Charleston market. If I could have a dream meal, it would be created by Patrick (O’Halloran) and Jacques together. Amazing simple food.
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