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A family affair

The Millers
Photo courtesy of Anne Shapiro
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By Molly Greer

Their feet dangle far from the brown linoleum floor as they spin around on bright orange vinyl stools. They giggle and play—the wise older sister and her spunky little brother—enjoying juicy cheeseburgers and thick brown root beer. As a waitress roller skates from table-to-table taking orders, the line-order cook throws more meat on the grill and the hostess graciously welcomes more guests, the sister and her brother watch. They watch, and they learn.

Traci and Tory Miller, now 34 and 31 years old respectively, learned much of what they know about the restaurant business years ago at their grandparents’ small diner in Racine. “For as long as either of us can remember, it was just a part of our life,” Traci says. “We worked there, pouring coffee and learning how to cook. By the time we were about 13, we were actually managing our own evenings.”

Now 20 years later, Traci and Tory are co-owners of one of Madison’s star restaurants, L’Etoile Restaurant. Named one of the best 50 restaurants in America by Gourmet Magazine in October 2006, patrons of L’Etoile—literally meaning “star” in French—spend, on average, $65 to consume elaborate French-inspired cuisine and wine while enjoying a breathtaking view of the capitol. Haute cuisine may appear quite a leap from days of double chocolate milkshakes and roller-skating waitresses, and in many respects it is. But, look closer into the lives of Tory and Traci Miller, and it becomes clear that their unpretentious homegrown roots are never far from their hearts or their food.

Odessa Piper opened L’Etoile in 1976. From the beginning, L’Etoile has boasted locally grown, natural and organic foods. Piper juxtaposed classic European cooking methods with delectable Wisconsin signature foods, such as hickory nuts, wild plums and artisan cheeses. In the years that followed, Piper built L’Etoile into an institution that ranks among the Midwest’s elite group of fine dining establishments.

Ever since Tory and Traci purchased L’Etoile three years ago, with Tory as head chef and Traci on the business side, the restaurant only seems to be gaining momentum. In November, the L’Etoile cooking team was awarded the opportunity to make Thanksgiving Dinner in New York City for the James Beard Foundation, “the Carnegie Hall of cooking,” according to Traci. “Despite the change in ownership, L’Etoile is on its way to becoming an absolutely classic of a restaurant,” says Dennis Getto, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel restaurant critic and longtime L’Etoile diner. “L’Etoile really was the star of the state, and it remains so today.”

The Millers’ adventure into the restaurant business had an unlikely beginning—when Tory decided he liked cooking better than chemistry. Where his original college major was formulaic, cooking was art. He dropped out of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and, with financial help from his sister, moved to New York City. After attending the French Culinary Institute and graduating second in his class, Tory worked at a number of different upscale restaurants.

But he soon tired of the New York City restaurant scene. “People were more into where they were eating, as opposed to what they were eating,” he says. “No one was interested in where their ingredients were coming from, or how they were prepared.” Plus, Tory began to notice that the closer he got to the top of his field, the further away he slipped from food preparation itself. “It was the celebrity chef scene,” he says. “I just wanted to cook.”

So, Tory left the superstar climate of Manhattan for the more subtle scenes of Madison. Only one person responded to his resume. Luckily, that one person was “Wisconsin’s First Lady of Cuisine,” as Getto calls her, Odessa Piper. Tory moved back to Madison in early October and began working in Piper’s kitchen the day after he arrived. Piper suggested the possibility of selling her star less than a year-and-a-half later.

Piper was most impressed by Tory and Traci’s strong characters. “I started looking 10 years before I actually found someone to take my place,” Piper says. “I had been waiting and ready and ripe to move on, but only willing to do that if I found the right people. I couldn’t turn it over to just anyone.”

While Tory toyed with the idea of owning his own restaurant, Traci reminisced about the “good old days” she and her brother spent at their grandparents’ diner in Racine. “I loved working there, I loved being able to see family there all the time,” she says. Granted, she didn’t know how to cook and had absolutely no experience running a business. But, Traci pitched the idea of co-ownership to her brother anyway.

“I was just kind of jumping off a cliff,” Traci says. “Coming in, not knowing anybody, not really knowing how the restaurant ran at all, it was just really starting fresh for me.” Where her brother began with fresh ingredients, Traci began with fresh starts. While he spiced up cuisine, she spiced up her life.

Although her bread-and-butter in life is pharmacy, she renews herself by taking breaks. These have included a drive around the United States and a stint on a hospital ship off the coast of Africa. When Traci returned to the states, she was confident she had all the necessary ingredients to make a good business partner to Tory. She could provide the meat-and-potatoes of business, so Tory could focus on food. It would turn out to be a delicious partnership, indeed.

Traci and Tory not only are brother and sister, but also seem to be best friends. They finish each other’s sentences and don’t mind speaking on behalf of the other. And, they certainly aren’t afraid to give each other a hard time. When Traci tries to convince her brother that she is a good cook, he looks at her with knowing eyes, and says, “Sure you can cook—you can cook anywhere, anywhere but here,” and they simultaneously erupt in laughter.

Despite the strength of their partnership, however, both Traci and Tory had many concerns about purchasing L’Etoile. Even though Tory had been cooking at L’Etoile for two years, he was nervous that longtime patrons would dismiss the restaurant, saying, “Without Odessa in the kitchen, it just isn’t as good.” In addition, Tory was nervous about what he calls “everything that chefs don’t [ordinarily] need to know how to do:” most notably, the business side of the restaurant. Traci also expressed concern because she had never owned any type of business before.

“We took on the old system, to figure out what we liked and what we didn’t like,” Traci says. Hesitant to make too many changes immediately following the switchover, the Millers made a concerted effort to keep their L’Etoile—its look, its feel and its food—consistent with Odessa’s restaurant.

And, through all their hard work, it seems they have achieved the consistency they were after. “We were all worried because Tory and Traci were to a great degree unknown,” says Getto. “Odessa was always a surprise because you never knew what she was going to do. Luckily, I’ve found the same to be true with Tory. There is that same wonderful element of surprise. If I had not known the ownership had changed, I would have thought, well, Odessa is here.”

Yet, changes abound at the Millers’ L’Etoile. “If I look around at what we’ve done in the last year-and-a-half, we’ve actually done a ton,” Traci says. Within the first few months of their ownership, they redid the entire dining room. Now, light beige paint hides most of the brick walls and a deep eggplant purple paint covers the ceiling.

The Millers’ changes seem to be most evident one floor below L’Etoile, however, at Café Soleil, a casual, fairly inexpensive breakfast and lunch spin-off. Both Traci and Tory’s eyes light up when talking about the café. Tory says that its been rewarding to define himself through something that didn’t exist before. “L’Etoile is well-known and well-established as a great destination restaurant. Café Soleil was ours to design,” he says.

Even as Tory and Traci grow more comfortable with their roles as business owners, they will continue pushing themselves to improve and to grow. Tory hopes to write a cookbook, and eventually, the Millers would like to purchase a farm together. “I have this dream for Wisconsin Star Organic, that’s what I call it in my mind,” Tory says. Envisioning a cooperative of small farms that provide locally grown fresh food to restaurants and school cafeterias, the Millers aim for innovation and renewal.

This drive is what led two small children from bright orange vinyl diner stools to owning one of the Midwest’s premier restaurants. But it’s still far from easy. They acknowledge the many stresses they encounter on a day-to-day basis. In such a cutthroat business, “you’re always having to reinvent yourself,” says Traci. And although Tory finds it stressful, too, he knows that it’s essential to growth. “You know, I’ve learned something as a chef and as a person, and that’s that you can never stop learning,” he says. “You can never get to a level where you say, ‘I’ve taken this to the highest possible level.”

Want to share your thoughts on Midwest dining? Check out our blog and tell us where and where not to eat.

Visit L'Etoile online.

Dining Table

Photo courtesy of Anne Shapiro

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