If you tasted a juicy, tasty tomato from 50 years ago versus one raised in California and genetically tweaked to be sturdy enough to bounce in a boxcar for days, you know that progress isn’t always measured by your taste buds. Thankfully, a fresh generation of chefs are preparing meals with local, healthy ingredients that are both good for you and taste great. In doing so, they’re keeping local dollars circulating in their communities, which works as a recession buffer.

A trio of new restaurants in Eau Claire — Local Lounge, The Informalist and The Lakely — are also sating a growing demand from diners who want to know that their food didn’t sit in warehouses, but is Valley fresh.

Creativity in the kitchen

If you haven’t heard of The Lakely, that’s because it’s a just-minted restaurant, three years in the planning. It’s part of the Oxbow Hotel, formerly the Green Tree Inn & Suites. The hotel’s founders are a who’s who of the Chippewa Valley’s creative types: Nick Meyer, editor/publisher of Volume One; Justin Vernon, a Grammy-winning musician; Ben Richgruber, executive director of the Eau Claire Regional Arts Council; and Zach Halmstad, co-founder of JAMF Software.

That creativity carries into the kitchen to Nathan Berg, the restaurant’s food and beverage director and chef. Berg worked at Forage in Banbury Place, and with Robert Keifer at the beloved Native Bay Restaurant on Lake Wissota.

“I’ve known Nathan for over 20 years and worked with him in the kitchen for three years,” Keifer said. “I’ve also eaten at many, many fine restaurants, but his food is always my favorite. He makes the complicated look simple, elegant and beautiful. Even on a grill in the backyard, he whips something phenomenal out of nothing.”

At The Lakely, Berg won’t be working with nothing. Just as the Oxbow’s ownership taps local talent, Berg will tap the talent of local farms, making Midwestern meals with an elegant twist. He describes his mission as a modern take on Midwestern comfort foods, all made from scratch by utilizing area farmers, producers and suppliers.

The producers include Deutsch Family Farms, which raises pork and chickens, and Wheatfield Hill Organics, which raises certified organic beef, blueberries, raspberries, melons and vegetables. Other ingredients are indigenous, such as cranberries, maple syrup and wild rice, all found or raised in western Wisconsin.

Berg has decades of experience in farm-to-table cooking, such as serving as the chef of a southern Wisconsin non-profit that focused on sustainable agriculture.

“My kitchen was surrounded by acres of raised bed vegetable gardens and I had a mandate that 85 percent of my ingredients had to come from within a 50-mile radius of that kitchen. That growing season was the most pivotal learning experience of my culinary career,” he said.

Berg even worked abroad to convey the benefits of farm-to-table cooking. In 2006, he was among 100 U.S. chefs and 1,000 worldwide to be designated chef ambassadors and attend Terre Madre, an event in Turin, Italy sponsored by a group that promotes the best foods in the world.

Farm-to-table rationale

Seeking out local foods pays off in a multitude of ways. “Local foods are the freshest foods and thereby the most flavorful. As a chef, that fact alone could be reason enough for me,” Berg said. But it goes beyond that, he says, with a direct reinvestment back into the community bolsters the local economy, and reduces the distance food travels lessens the environmental impact.

For a chef, working with local producers means a deeper understanding of the ingredients that comprise his dishes.

“I do visit practically all of the farms that I ever utilize as a supplier,” Berg said. “There’s the simple fact that purchasing local foods puts you into direct contact with the growers/producers. You get to know them; their families, their animals, their land. You can ask them questions.”

He can also ask them to grow or raise specialty things expressly for him. “You learn to respect their ingredients more as you come to respect them as your friends and neighbors which, in turn, will make you a better, more attentive cook in the kitchen.”

The entire process also makes chefs more responsive to what they have to work with, and creative in shaping their ever-changing menus.

“The ideal way of creating transcendent cuisine is by going out and seeking the best ingredients you can possibly find and then deciding how you’re going to compose them into a dish,” Berg said. “With an entire restaurant menu, that process can be awfully complex because I’m usually making a concerted effort to feature all of these great ingredients without replicating flavors. But in the end, you’ll have a well-varied menu loaded with incredible foods.”

Working with local producers and using local ingredients isn’t only Berg’s wish. It has become part of a growing, local demand.

“Local foods are not just a fashionable trend or buzz. They’ve become a way of life for many people who recognize the holistic values of basing a portion (no matter how large or small) of their diet around local foods,” he said. “Even the most cynical critic of local foods as some passing culinary fad cannot possibly be immune to the profound pleasure of eating a ripe strawberry from the patch in June or an ear of sweet corn in the fall.”

There’s also the less tangible but still significant asset of eating food from the area where you live, and how that ties you closer to your community. “By eating foods that are grown and/or raised in the soil of our homeland, we become a greater part of that homeland, literally in this case,” Berg said. “Maybe the old ‘you are what you eat’ adage should be altered to say ‘you are where you eat.’”

It’s also becoming what you drink, and The Lakely’s bar will also emphasize locally-sourced brews and cocktails, featuring seasonal components, and selections from regional microbreweries and Midwestern distilleries.

Diverse menu, diverse diners

Another new hotel restaurant, The Informalist, located within The Lismore in downtown Eau Claire, created a splash with its farm-to-table fare when it opened earlier this year. Whereas its menu has international influences, its sources are local whenever possible. The result is a diverse menu for diverse diners.

It wasn’t a direct route to Eau Claire for Amy Huo, the sous chef at The Informalist. After earning a Bachelors and Masters degree in English, she veered into fine food, studying at Le Cordon Bleu in the Twin Cities.

“We want to use our relationship with The Lismore guests to help honor the local ingredients and producers in the Eau Claire area,” she said. “That being said, we also want to be approachable to locals as well. Our menu, while diverse, offers choices which cater to both types of clientele, locals and visitors alike.”

Two of the Informalist’s producers are Together Farms of Mondovi, which raises grass fed beef and lambs and pastured pork and chickens, and Square Roots Farm in Fall Creek, which grows vegetables without the use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides or insecticides. “Supporting local farmers, local cuisine, the local economy, and food culture of our area is good for everyone on many levels,” Huo said.

So, why don’t all Chippewa Valley restaurants use the farm-to-table approach?

“I think that the Chippewa Valley needs local food and the atmosphere is ripe for the opening of all of these wonderful places celebrating our local food scene,” Huo said. “But at the same time, I think we must be patient and realize that charging slightly higher prices may not be understood or accepted immediately by the general public.”

For restaurants such as The Informalist, there are other challenges. “Finding farmers who can provide us with a steady stream of produce and meats, figuring out our schedule of menu changes, and gauging response from our guests are all factors in determining how our menu changes from quarter to quarter,” she said.

One of its local providers, Square Roots Farm, sits just 10 miles south of Eau Claire and provides the restaurant with Swiss chard, salad mix, beets, specialty peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and broccoli.

“They want to continue to develop a relationship with our farm,” said Jake Lau, the farm’s owner. “Every delivery I do there, whatever I’m bringing them, they’re excited to see it. It’s so nice to see that enthusiasm about vegetables. They really know and appreciate vegetables.”

Huo believes that appreciation for local food will spread.

“We believe we are changing Eau Claire for the better, but that approach doesn’t come without its own trials. We are still learning how to appeal to a local crowd and attract hotel guests from out of town as well. It is a work in progress, but I am very proud of how far we have come since we opened a short five months ago.”

Name says it all

The other spoke on the wheel of the trio of Eau Claire restaurants jumping head-first into the local food scene is the aptly-named Local Lounge, which general manager Nick White describes as a modern supper club.

It is open for dinner five nights a week at the site of the old Seahorse Inn on North Clairemont Avenue on the city’s west side, and extended its hours to include lunch in October. The renovation has completely reformed the restaurant, and among the Local’s features are a courtyard area with an outdoor patio for dining.

The Local Lounge is tapping pork and chicken from Deutsch Family Farm and fresh veggies from Chippewa Valley Produce, but it will also grow some of its own produce on raised beds. This will necessitate dishes that adapt to what’s ripe on the vine. “Our menu will change regularly based upon what’s in season and what’s available,” White said.

Changing the menu isn’t the easiest way to run a kitchen, but it’s good for the community. “Small businesses and local farms are diminishing. This gives us an opportunity to support our community,” White said.

The Local Lounge’s staff includes executive chef Joey Meicher, sous chef Mitch Below, bar manager Adam Gates and pastry chef Laurie Mohlman.

White said that Meicher has worked to connect with the food producers. “Our chef visits all the farms and shares with us what they’re doing. If you want to do it right, you have to be involved in all aspects and that takes time,” White said.

Taking time can, at times, take more time than anticipated. The Local Lounge had aimed for a June opening, but that was push back to mid-September. “We delayed opening because of details we wanted done correctly,” White said. “You start with the details first and then put those details in the big picture.”

Locally-sourced food is such a detail, and the big picture is a community that is quickly being made healthier — for both its members and its economy — by the loving process of neighbors feeding neighbors.

“Supporting local farmers, local cuisine, the local economy, and food culture of our area is good for everyone on many levels.” Amy Huo, The Informalist

“Local foods are not just a fashionable trend or buzz. They’ve become a way of life for many people...” Nathan Berg, The Lakely

Katie McKy is a freelance writer who can be reached at katemcky@hotmail.com

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