Today on Rootstock Radio, we’re speaking with Luke Zahm, chef and owner of the Driftless Cafe in Viroqua, Wisconsin. Saying Luke is merely chef and owner of this small-town farm-to-table favorite doesn’t do his work justice. In fact, Luke is a two-time Edible Madison Local Hero Award winner, and a James Beard Foundation semi-finalist for Best Chef Midwest in 2017.
Beyond the state- and nationwide recognition, Luke’s work is a fascinating mix of culinary, advocacy and psychology—requiring that he be a team leader, activist, artist and marketer, among other things.
Tune in to hear about:
- The unique food and agriculture scene in the Driftless region of Wisconsin (which is, of course, how the Driftless Cafe got its name.)
- Why Luke and his team spend 85% of their food budget sourcing from producers within 100 miles of their restaurant.
- How Luke has made telling the stories of farmers central to his business model.
- Important conversations taking place among chefs about how to celebrate local food and farmers without grandstanding or exploiting the “trendiness” of farm-to-table.
- The difference between a fad and a revolution, according to Luke (and why organic is clearly the latter.)
Rootstock Radio Interview with Chef Luke Zahm
Air Date: June 10, 2019
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I am here today with Luke Zahm. He’s a chef and owner of the Driftless Café in Viroqua, Wisconsin, which is actually where we’re located today. Luke has been named two-time Edible Madison’s Local Hero Award and a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Best Chef Midwest in 2017, and was featured multiple times in Wisconsin Foodie. Welcome, Luke.
LUKE ZAHM: Hi! Good morning.
TM: Gosh, what fun to have you here in the studio today.
TM: And oh, talking about my favorite topic, food!
LZ: (Laughing) Well, it’s my favorite too!
TM: Which is great, since you’re a wonderful chef. And I guess before we start I want to thank you for all the delicious meals I’ve had. I always feel like chefs don’t realize it, but they become your mother for a meal.
LZ: That’s awesome. And I have to thank you for your unwavering support. You know, doing this and seeing people in the dining room that you know that are appreciating and experiencing the food in the way that you hope they do, it’s fantastic. Thank you.
TM: You know, I think you’ve been doing the Driftless Café now for six years, haven’t you, Luke, with Ruthie, your wife, who I’m always so grateful when I walk in and see her lovely face.
LZ: Yeah, me too!
TM: I think it would be great to tell our listeners: Why “Driftless”?
LZ: Sure, why Driftless? That’s a good question. You know, it’s really interesting—I’ve thought about this a lot. I can say that in this region, there is an emerging spirit that really values creativity, number one. I think that that is one of those pieces, like if you were trying to highlight the magic of what it is, creativity is valued here. Artists are valued here. Entrepreneurs are valued here. People who approach life with a creative ingenuity, it’s amazing. And there is a palpable energy that you feel when you’re in a small community like this that really embraces that.
I think that if you want to see the story of the American farmer—be it a vegetable farmer, be it a dairy farmer, be it a conventional farmer, be it an organic farmer—this area really offers a unique opportunity for that. The rolling terrain here doesn’t allow for a prevalence of huge factory farms. We’re kind of limited by our geology and our geography. And it creates this landscape of small farms that have to play the game a little bit closer to the bone, so to speak. You can’t be sprawling, you can’t be massive. I think that that really resounds with people’s ideas of what it means to be a farmer and what farming looks like.
I also think that there’s kind of a collision of culture here. And the Plain community, I think that that is absolutely fascinating that you have a community here that their whole livelihood is dictated by the horse—literally, like what can we do to support agriculture that’s horse-driven? So they can’t have seventy acres because there’s no way they’d be able to work through it. But a ten-, fifteen-acre farm that you’re plowing with an animal, and you have this integrated responsibility to the animal but also this relationship with the animal, there’s something really beautiful about that.
TM: Very nice! And for some of our listeners, who I know are all over the United States, the Driftless is a region that hasn’t been glaciated or flattened out by glaciers for three million years. So it is a lot of hills and valleys, hills and valleys, and perfect for small family farming. So yeah, just lovely that you’re able to do it.
Well, you know, Luke, I read that 85 percent of the food that you’re selling at the Driftless Café is like within a hundred miles from here.
LZ: Yeah. Yeah, it’s 85 percent of our food budget, so like the money that we’re spending. And we’re really careful to track that, and I think being very, very articulate about it, because we can always do better. That’s something that, as an organization, we really look at that number and strive to up that number every year. And even if it’s just like a little bit, if there’s one farmer we can pick up and try and make it meaningful for the farmer but also make it a meaningful experience for the diners. Education and storytelling is a huge part of working in the café, and that number is basically the metric for success for us.
To own a small restaurant in a small community is insanely difficult. The margins of owning a restaurant are actually quite terrible. I think last year it made 4 percent profit, which is not astronomical. That being said, we look at those numbers, the heart numbers, the culture numbers, as being the numbers that tell us that we’re doing a good job and what we’re doing matters.
TM: Well, I for one am just happy that you’re having profit. It is so hard in the restaurant industry, as I know, being in the food industry for as long as I have. But I noticed it’s very busy all the time. In fact, what I’m really thrilled about is it’s fit into the community so beautifully. It’s almost a little bit of a community spot where people come and as soon as you walk in, you’re saying hello to someone.
LZ: Yeah. I mean, that for me is the ideal. We went through seasons actually where we would look in the dining room and we wouldn’t know anyone. And that, being from a small town, is incredible, right? That speaks to a little bit of the transformative power of food. When we see people coming in from Madison, Minneapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, and having these experiences in our small, little community that obviously radiate out, we know that we’re not the only stop on their little micro-tour of southwest Wisconsin. That being said, I love the balance when we see that community in there, interacting with folks who are coming in maybe for the first time. And we get to be the stewards of that experience for the community.
There’s tremendous responsibility, there’s tremendous pressure with that. But at the same time, that’s where we really want our staff to excel, is in that storytelling: This food is important because… This food is here because… This environmental ethic is solid because… This piece of social justice and advocacy is important for us here because…
TM: Well, I’m so glad that you just said social justice and advocacy, because I was just going to ask you: Today’s chef, or at least the ones who seriously are doing the job with their community and with local, it’s a lot more than just cooking these days. Maybe you could say a little bit about all the things that go into sourcing, planning, advocating for non-GMOs, and all the other things that you’ve taken on or exemplify.
LZ: Thank you, first and foremost. I have to say, yeah, I didn’t actually really understand it, when I got into owning a business, all the different hats that you have to wear to be a business owner and to be a chef in modern America. It’s not just about the food and the plates that you put out. It’s really not. And chefs who get stuck in that actually see a plateau much faster than those who don’t.
We found at the café that, number one, telling the story of our farmers was super important. So trying to create an arena to put a spotlight on the local farming movement that has taken root here in Vernon County. That was priority number one. As time went on, it became really imperative to start looking at the bigger picture, so community development, economic development.
In some of my work with chefs from around the country, you know, chefs actually are tagged, in major metropolitan areas, to go into neighborhoods that are looking to be redeveloped, and they put these high-ticket restaurants in the middle of low-income neighborhoods in the hope of attracting people in. Once the people are in with money, they see opportunity in those neighborhoods. And there can be a little bit of a predatory feeling in that.
So there’s this conversation and discussion among chefs: What does it mean? What are the obligations? Mental health, for me, about two years ago I kind of…well, I hit my capacity with it, juggling and marketing. Like, when do you celebrate the culture because it’s the right thing to do and you’re excited and proud of the culture, and then when is it grandstanding? And being in a small town, and being from the Midwest, and being in this position where you have to stay humble, because it is so visible, how do you walk that line? How do you paint the picture that you’re trying to do the right thing, and at the same time still be completely vulnerable to the fact that like, oh man, I’m a human and I make mistakes?
So a couple years ago, I had just about had it. And I was really lucky that within the network of chefs that I work with, there's a lot of mental health issues, there's a lot of depression, there’s a lot of anxiety, there's a lot of addiction issues; there’s a lot of really, really human elements that we started talking about together. And we didn’t necessarily want to market it as such, the vulnerabilities. But I do think, honestly, Theresa, the death of Anthony Bourdain—that was a really hard one. That was someone that I think a lot of people in the industry looked at as being a pillar.
And I want to say that Anthony Bourdain, for me, was tremendously influential in a lot of ways, because when I was a twenty-three-year-old line cook I read his book Kitchen Confidential, and it painted this portrait of like sex, drugs, rock-and-roll: this is the culinary lifestyle, this is what you aspire to do and aspire to be. And I actually think now, in hindsight, that’s fueled a lot of the really destructive behaviors in the restaurant industry. So now it’s about trying to rewrite that story a little bit.
TM: Yeah, I think not just rewrite it for the public but for all the chefs, and all the people in the hospitality industry probably. But I’m so glad that you brought that up, because I read recently that the hospitality industry is number two in suicides and number two in drug abuse. I wonder what number one is—it’s probably rock-and-roll, but I’m not sure.
LZ: Or dairy farmers!
TM: Or dairy farmers. And let’s return to that too, because I think that has a lot to do with what’s happening here. But I asked another chef, I said, “Wow, why is that?” He said, “You know, I do three hundred dinners a night, six nights a week, and I make mistakes all night. I’m good at what I do, people keep coming back to my restaurant, but I make mistakes every night, and everyone I’m working with makes mistakes every night, and everyone who’s out on the floor is making mistakes every night. And you know what? It gets to us, and we start beating ourselves up.” And he said, “And it just wears you down.”
What are the tricks, Luke? I’m assuming you have a similar experience.
LZ: Yeah, I would say, number one, seek help. I have an amazing therapist, and I am not afraid to say that out loud or talk about that issue at all, because that, for me, has been life-changing. There is, there’s this feeling of self-deprecation that I think, for me, in the hospitality industry—and I want to take it even beyond just being a chef—my job, when you come into the restaurant, is to try and understand the psychology that you’re bringing with you right away. And that starts, actually, with the staff. So before every dinner service we have a pre-shift meeting that we talk about the menu, but beyond that, I make a point to ask everyone what the best part of their day was. And what that does psychologically, Theresa, is it resets everyone. We get a human moment together where everyone can kind of pull in and experience that and take a deep breath, and then go forward and work with the dining public.
That being said, for me, I’m an extremely empathetic human being. I want to make sure that your experience is great before you even realize what that might mean. So if I know that you’ve come into my restaurant before and you have an affinity for mussels or seafood—which you do—I’m going to make sure that there’s a little nuance of that that comes out to you, no matter what.
TM: I’m a West Coast person.
LZ: I know you are. I know you are. I have a friend in L.A. who owns, let’s just say, a group of restaurants, and he works with Nancy Silverton’s group. And I was in L.A. and I was running around with him, and we were going through… He was telling me I was referred to as “the Viroqua guy.” “The Viroqua guy” by…we were on a phone call with, what’s the guy from Maroon 5? Is it Adam Levine? A rock star. And I got off the phone call with them and I was like, “You know, man, how do you deal with all these people that are like so famous?”
And he was like, “Let me tell you a story. When I was at Campanile, a very famous L.A. restaurant, as a young man, one of the first tables that I had as a server was Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, and Quincy Jones—”
LZ: “—sitting together. The ability to go and actually provide service to mega stars of that caliber steeled me. Everyone else after that is just another human being.”
And I was like, okay, that kind of makes sense. So he was like, “When we have people come in, we have folks who come in that we want to make sure that we know are there, or they’re frequent customers, or, you know, this is a person that hasn’t been back in in a while, the staff knows that there's a code word, and it’s SuperCharlie. You know, ‘We’ve got a SuperCharlie coming in at 6:02.’ Now that can be someone who we know had a really bad day on social media. You know, like ‘Oh man, a tank in here…’ Okay, we pay attention to that stuff.’” But that, even in that, that’s the level that hospitality goes to.
And then you have staff. You have staff. And I know, for me, there are times when I feel, in the hospitality industry, that I spend more time being acutely aware of my staff’s emotional well-being, and I absorb that, right? I want to create a work environment that’s positive. I want to create a work environment that is solid and strong. I want to create a work environment that’s empathetic and understanding. That’s part of progressing and growing, I think, in the industry. And when people are unhappy, you can’t help but feel like you are the cause and responsibility of that unhappiness. Even though they might walk in with their own slew of feelings, emotions, problems that they’re trying to work through, when they’re in that space it’s just naturally something that you absorb.
And I think, honestly, like that has been part of the real transition for me—you know, trying to create a work environment that, at the end of the day, if the accolades stop, if the food stagnates, if the messaging dies, if all that happens, are people happy?
TM: You know, Luke, it so strikes me that to be a chef today, and especially in a restaurant that’s really consciously trying to model local community and actually really be part of a whole culture, not just food… So you have to be a chef; it looks like you have to be psychologist; for sure you have to be a team leader; you need to be an activist as well, it looks like; and in probably a lot of ways an artist and a marketer. That’s kind of like these small farmers. I mean, here you went to school and you said, “Okay, I’m going to learn how to be a chef,” and instead you have to be all these things. I know that you actually didn’t go to school to be a chef—you went to be a lawyer, didn’t you?
LZ: Yeah, yeah! I was going to be a lawyer. And I actually have a behavioral science undergrad, so—
TM: Oh, how useful!
LZ: Yeah, how useful, it literally is! I feel like I get to use some of that every single day. But yeah, it is. I mean, the parallels are staggering.
And I will say that, you know, being a small farmer is undoubtedly literally one of the hardest jobs in America today, because it is. You are constantly reinventing, every single day, the flow of the farm—how to best market it, how to attract people to the cause. At the same time, you have to be uber-focused on the quality of the products that you’re putting out. I’ve seen some of the data that’s come back from marketing studies that say like quality is paramount. That’s what consumers really look for. They’re looking for a quality, consistent product. And when you are competing in a marketplace with producers that are putting out product but it’s… I could actually say like Fair Life, the dairy product, right, owned by Coca-Cola. It’s huge. They paid a lot of money to get retail sets that are right next to the organic producers in grocery stores. And people assume, because they look at it, “Oh, this has got to be just as healthy as that OV milk.” But chances are it’s not.
TM: It isn’t.
LZ: Exactly! And it’s cheaper.
TM: What a clever name, “Fair Life.”
LZ: Exactly—it’s marketing! And that ends up being the real driver. So yeah, I can say that the struggles of the small farmer, specifically in the Midwest right now, are dire.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with chef Luke Zahm, owner of the Driftless Café in Viroqua, Wisconsin., and we’re talking about all the kinds of traits that you have to have to be a really conscientious, great chef, which go beyond actually just cooking, just learning how to cook. And you know, we’re talking about farmers and about the kinds of things that farmers and chefs and people in the hospitality industry might have in common.
As we talk about this, and you were saying, “Wow, my heart goes out…” I know that right here in Wisconsin, we’ve lost six hundred farmers going out of business in just the last two years, which is… And you grew up in the 1980s, where we also had that phenomenon. What was it like in the ’80s, growing up, seeing small family farmers disappear, the culture change, Walmart come in, and all of that?
LZ: Yeah, you know, that is actually a really formative piece for me. I had a paper route as a kid. We used to deliver the Wisconsin State Journal. I remember, as a little kid, picking up the Sunday papers on the drop spot in La Farge, in front of the drugstore, and we’d have to stuff the Sunday inserts. And I can’t remember exactly what year it was, Theresa, but I do remember seeing the headlines of a Sunday paper of the dairy farmer suicides. And even in sleepy little La Farge, we had a family farm that was lost, a century farm. And it was lost under the son’s watch; his father actually passed away from a stroke or a heart attack, and then the son checked into the local motel and took his own life.
So when the CDC announced last year that dairy farmer suicides had doubled veteran suicides in the United States, all these bells and whistles started going off. We started rallying a conversation with a television producer out of Milwaukee, and we started actually recording footage for a PBS documentary that we’re still working on, but it’s aptly titled The State of Dairy. You know, I think that people hear those statistics, that they’re rattled at us all the time. And that’s kind of like the beautiful power of social media but it’s also the numbing effect that we have right now in this day and age. So much data is pushed at us that it’s hard to actually perceive what’s really important. But we’re seeing farms collapse. We’re seeing farmers take their own lives. We’re seeing families who have been a part of that system, unable to continue and having to reinvent themselves. And there are consequences—there are consequences.
And it’s hard to tell that story and tell it with integrity, and tell it with the correct emotion. Again, we don’t want to definitely bog people down, but at the same time, if there is a better way to be conscious of our buying decisions when we go into the grocery store, that’s where we really vote for the future of America. You know, processors, the Farm Bill, they can do so much, but it really comes down to consumers making the decision to buy from companies that they trust with a story that they support, and creating that identity for the American farmer.
TM: Well, Luke, you know, I always appreciate coming into the Driftless and seeing who the farmers are, and just the whole feeling of community. So, Luke, I’m aware that there is a distribution company here that distributes local produce, called Fifth Season. Is that enough infrastructure for you?
LZ: Yeah, you know, the Fifth Season Cooperative is kind of an amazing story, and the philosophy behind it is fantastic. They are actually taking food from small organic farmers and basically pooling it so it can be distributed through larger broad-line purveyors, the examples being US Foods or Sysco Foods or Reinhart—which is great, because literally 95 percent of all the food in restaurants in America are sourced through those purveyors.
That being said, it creates this infrastructure that people who maybe don’t have the awareness immediately of what it looks like to have a farm-to-table restaurant, or to source locally, or don’t necessarily know the resources available to them to do that, it gives them an opportunity to participate. And Fifth Season is amazing about helping them tell the story of the food, which again really creates that awareness for diners as they’re experiencing dinner. It’s nice to know the name of the farmer that grew your vegetables. It’s amazing to know where those potatoes came from. That’s part of the identity that, as chefs, we’re trying to build into the food system.
TM: You know, when we talk about what’s happening with food and agriculture today, and looking at back in the ’80s and seeing, wow, we have some similar problems, but it has changed a lot. And this idea of “culture” and this is a change in values, even, that you and so many chefs who are doing similar things throughout the country are doing. How do you see how you can impact a shift in culture towards a more engaged and, you might say, responsible consumer?
LZ: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think that a lot of that, that cultural piece, I will say, is what I spend probably, I would say at least 50 percent of my time thinking about now. And honestly, the engaged consumer part, it’s understanding the larger food trends, like what people are really looking for. Doing that, there’s a way, I think, Theresa, to be engaged, but again, it’s that fine line in marketing between being predatory and it being glib and it being real in the transition, right?
What’s the difference? I had a sous chef when I was a young cook, and we were talking about organics. And he said, “Organics is a fad—it’s going to phase out.” And I said, “You know what? What’s the difference between a fad and a revolution? Because honestly, in my hometown and in my home community, it has been revolutionary. The emergence of organics has changed the way that we eat, it’s changed the way that we live, it’s changed the way that we spend money. It’s changed the way that money has flowed into our community.”
And I think that with all these other aspects, these cultural aspects, that’s the question to really ask. Like what is the difference between the fad and the revolution? And I think, for me, number one, keeping eyes on the family farmer in America, watching that group of people struggle is completely unacceptable. And whatever I can do to be on that soapbox to say, “Hey, pay attention!” When I go to D.C., nine times out of ten I am the only chef there who’s from a rural area. And I am the only chef there who has a strong connection to local to farmers and sees and feels the impact of a lot of the things that get decided in the Farm Bill, or get decided by GMO labeling. Or having a conversation with senators and really trying to paint the picture that there is a struggle happening here that maybe they’re insulated from because they are in D.C.
TM: And also, most of their constituents probably are not small farmers—they’re huge farmers.
LZ: That’s right.
TM: When we lost the six hundred farmers in Wisconsin over the last couple years, they were dairy farmers. We did not lose the number of cows, and they all went to giant big ag.
Once again, thank you so much, Luke. Great to have you today.
LZ: Thank you for having me. What an opportunity.
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