Tory Miller is the self-proclaimed “big homie” of the Madison local food scene. Since moving to Madison in 2003, Miller has spearheaded Madison’s local food movement through his three restaurants: L’Etoile, Graze and Sujeo, his new pan-Asian restaurant. The executive chef of all three restaurants, Miller builds his menus around organic, seasonal ingredients from over 200 Wisconsin farms.
In this interview, Miller talks building strong relationships with farmers, crafting seasonal menus and wandering around Wisconsin’s Driftless Area.
Natalie Amend: Could you tell me about your start with local food?
Tory Miller: I moved here in 2003 and became the chef [de cuisine] for L’Etoile, which was owned by Odessa Piper then. She was a pioneer. It’s one of those things where you don’t realize the amount of work and the passion that goes into doing that until you’re doing it yourself. Some chefs, once they start doing it, they say it’s too hard, too expensive, too inconsistent. For me, I was like, “Oh man, this is everything I’ve ever wanted to do!”
I ended up purchasing the restaurant in 2005. I always equate it to passing a baton in a relay. It’s like the one guy is gassed out and hands it off, and the next guy just jumps and hits the ground running. I think that’s the kind of energy I have and had in 2005.
We grew our list of farmers and local producers to 220. All local, Wisconsin-sourced. The big thing that we did was eliminate all factory-farm meats. This was in 2005, which doesn’t seem too long ago, but in 2005 no one was doing that. Now everyone has that grass-fed, local option, which I think is dope, but I always think about how long it’s been. I’ve been here 11 or 12 years now. It’s like I’m the O.G. now. I’m the big homie.
NA: Has it been weird to see that happen?
TM: Yeah, it’s really weird. You don’t go into things thinking how you’re going to change how people do things. You just do it. But that’s how I started doing what I do. Going around the farmers’ market with Odessa in 2003 and meeting all the farmers. We were hearing the stories and how much it takes to do what they do and equating it with how hard it is to do what we do. Obviously it’s been great. Now it’s like this is my life. This is what I want to do forever.
NA: Do you think that talking to farmers here influenced your passion? I’ve read that you came from New York.
TM: It totally changes things. In New York, you go to the market, and it’s just somebody selling food. It’s not the farmer that grew it. To me, their passion is infectious. We want the farmers to be proud of what we’re serving. It’s this great relationship that we have in the restaurants with the farmers.
NA: What is that relationship like?
TM: It’s great. The farmers come in every week. We always get to talk, and hear what’s going on with the animals and what’s going on at the farm. We take it very personally when farmers get sick. The staff is genuinely hurt and sad when they get real sick or maybe have to retire. But in general, when the farmers come in, everyone’s VIP. We always want to hear if they liked it. It’s really cool. Our apple grower every year will press 100 gallons of cider, and then we trade him a dinner for him and his family. They’re super old dudes. They bring their family. They sit at L’Etoile. It’s just a trip, man. I love it.
NA: How do you find the farmers?
TM: They usually find us. But sometimes it’s just random like I’ll hear that someone is growing something and I’ll just go find them. Someone’s raising a different kind of cattle I’ve never heard of before, I’ll go find them and tell them who I am. Sometimes it’s really funny because you can tell they take my card and they’re like, “Whatever. You look funny.” Then you can tell they went home and Googled me or the restaurant and they’re like, “Oh, nice to meet you! Here’s a list of everything we grow.”
That’s the dopest thing about the food movement here in Madison. Making sure farmers know they have a viable outlet for their food and products that is consistent is the biggest value that you can give to them. Because they’ll say that if one person is going to buy it, then somebody else will probably buy it. With me having three restaurants, if you get in contact with me, I can put all the same food in all the restaurants.
It’s really funny, especially with pigs. If we buy a whole animal, I’ll say that I need all the shoulder and the belly for Sujeo. Then Graze will get all mad because they want some belly. We need to share amongst each other, but all that does is grow the infrastructure of the food system. So now I have four pork farmers, when before I only had one. The same thing goes for all the things we buy. I have three big [restaurants] that are busy where we can buy and utilize a lot of local food. I think farmers dig that.
NA: After you source your food, how do you plan your menus?
TM: It’s really weird. For Sujeo, it’s different because we set the menu and then we serve specials. I knew right away I wanted Korean fried chicken. I wanted bahn mi. I wanted this pork dish that we do. So it was sourcing all those things, adding them and seeing that we can do these dishes.
For Graze and L’Etoile, it’s super seasonal. See it, buy it, create something with it. For example, eggplants. When it was eggplant season, I bought a bunch, brought it back [to the kitchen] and asked, “What are we feeling with eggplant right now? What do you like to eat?” “Parmigiana.” “Caponata.” You know, a lot of Italian. Some Middle Eastern. Some Israeli. Then it’s like, “What makes sense for us to make? What do we want to eat?” And it was caponata. So we did that.
That’s kind of how it goes with me. I always make food I’m really interested in eating, and it just happens that other people might want to eat it.
NA: And your staff has a lot of input?
TM: I think you’d be a fool of a chef to be like, “No! I’ll create everything, and I’m the only one that knows how to make anything!” I have super talented dudes, especially my chefs that run all the kitchens. They’re just so, so good, creative, thoughtful and passionate about our food. That translates to really dope food. My goal right now is not just dope kitchens. It’s dope restaurants. You can’t have that if you’re just one person trying to do everything.
NA: What are your favorite ingredients to work with?
TM: I love curry paste as a flavor base. I love chiles. Vinegar, like salted vinegar flavors. A really good fish sauce.
NA: What makes Wisconsin special to you?
TM: The Driftless Area. That definitely solidifies Wisconsin as a great growing state, because the soil is better than anywhere else in the United States. It’s one of those things where it’s just such a unique growing area. It has the highest concentration of small family farms. Local, like these little organic sustainable farms. The food produced there is amazing, and behind that is the people, obviously. And the attitude of Wisconsinites. I love the sense of pride that we have. I’ve got Wisconsin right there [pointing to his tattoo]. I’m all about the Packers and the Badgers. I love that about being from here. We’re very proud of it, but not dicks about it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.