Comfort Food from the Best Local Ingredient
By Chef Joseph Meicher, The Local Lounge
Growing up, I have always loved cooking. I worked in Madison at the University Club. When I moved up to Eau Claire in 2007 to attend business school at UWEC, I took a job at Mona Lisa’s. After graduating, I spent one month in sales and quickly returned to the kitchen at Mona Lisa’s. I worked through every station there and wanted to continue learning and advancing my career. I went in October of 2012 to work in Tuscany at Podere il Casale, an agriturismo outside of Montepulciano. While working on the farm, I had the opportunity to cook in their restaurant daily. We prepared a different menu every day based on what was in our garden, freezer, larder, etc. In addition to cooking, I was lucky enough to harvest grapes for their wines, olives for their oil, make incredible goats’ and sheep’s milk cheeses, take sheep to pasture along with some dogs, and take the goats into the forest to forage every evening. It was an awesome experience that taught me so much about local food and taking pride in the products that are from one’s region.
The people I worked with were all incredibly passionate about food. They cared deeply about every detail that went into making a dish. One dish in particular that really got people fired up was a marinated eggplant dish. There were only four ingredients, eggplant, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt; however, the method of preparing the dish seemed to be contested every day. Enis, the chef, insisted that the eggplant should be salted, pressed, grilled (with no oil), then drizzled with a mixture of lemon juice and olive oil. The owner of the farm, Ulisse, was certain that the best way to prepare the dish was to oil and salt the eggplant, grill them immediately, then as they came off the grill, squeeze a few drops of lemon juice on each slice followed by a bit of olive oil. Both versions were absolutely wonderful; the passion they had for their method was memorable and stuck with me. I ended up preparing the dish differently every day based on who I thought might walk into the kitchen. If Ulisse was making cheese, I would mix the oil and lemon juice. If Enis was at the market, I would grill the eggplant right away and finish with the lemon juice first then the olive oil. It was inspiring to work with people that cared so much about food, particularly the foods and dishes specific to their area in Tuscany.
The Local Lounge has been a phenomenal opportunity. I have been lucky enough to collaborate with a very talented and passionate staff to construct our menu. It is really exciting to be surrounded by like minded cooks that are always striving to figure out the best way to showcase our local ingredients. We have a phenomenal kitchen staff ready to serve some really awesome food that will be familiar and comforting but executed at a level you would find in Minneapolis or Madison with the best ingredients available in the Chippewa Valley.Using local ingredients is common sense if you are sincerely trying to cook good food. Our goal is simply to show off the best ingredients to our guests in a way that is familiar and not pretentious. We will be using many local farmers throughout the growing season and preserving as many ingredients as possible so that we can continue to serve locally sourced foods all year long.
We will measure success in the restaurant not only monetarily, but also by how much we can support local farmers and by how much we can give back to our community. Our goal is to be a profitable restaurant that plays an integral role in helping sustain local farms as well as getting involved with non-profit work, local charities,and other organizations that do good for the community.
I am thrilled to have the opportunity to cook alongside such a talented and passionate group for the Eat Local Challenge. It is a really exciting time for the Eau Claire restaurant scene. I think the meal will be a great chance to show off some of the awesome ingredients and the awesome talent available to us in the Chippewa Valley.