The Essence of Food: Q&A with Amy Ann Huo at The Informalist
► When did you decide you wanted to become a chef?
I’ve always been interested in food production and sustainability—even as an English major at UW-Madison and in graduate school in Delaware. I never thought I could be a chef, honestly. It was a consideration in the very back of my mind, but it scared me because I never thought I was tough enough to do it. Eventually, though, I became tired of living on the East Coast and convinced my now husband, Ming, to move back to Wisconsin. I jumped in with both feet and frankly couldn’t stand it any longer. I decided working for Together Farms selling Stephanie Schneider’s amazing pastured meats would be a great way to work for sustainability and get my hands dirty in the world of sustainable food production.When the summer was over, I began working at the Whitehall Public Golf Course in my hometown. It was like awakening the beast. Eighteen months later, I was at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in the Cities. To get myself through school, I started working at a farm-to-table place up there called Wise Acre Eatery with some amazingly inspiring women. When I applied to Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York for my externship, and was accepted, it was then that I actually thought I could pull this “cheffing thing” of. It’s the top of the top of local, sustainable, farm-to-table food in the United States, possibly in the world. So I was a line cook for three months from January to March of this year. It changed my life. I will never look at a vegetable the same way again, and I know I have the skills and passion to bring the same appreciation of sustainably raised food to the Chippewa Valley.
► What local farms are you working with? I know there’s a list on your website. Yeah, and I also go to the farmers markets at Gordy’s and am working to get more Hmong growers involved. They need to be represented in our area restaurants because they work hard to grow some amazing vegetables. They are often over restaurants, and I want to change that. I went through the Farm Fresh Atlas, actually this year’s and last year’s, and I reached out to literally every farmer that is within a reasonable range to be able to get things from them regularly. I either called them or emailed them. Friends who know farmers helped me connect with them. And a few reached out to us. The best way was for farmers to bring us stuff they’d grown.
► Can you use whatever people bring? As long as they have a license to sell.
► Are you looking for food from within a hundred miles? For the most part, but I’m not against getting things from Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. Appreciating our natural resources such as fish fromthe Great Lakes must be part of our program.
► For many years I just couldn’t understand why Eau Claire didn’t have an organic restaurant. Now The Informalist is open, The Lakely is opening, The Local Lounge is going to be something along those lines. What’s changed? I think what’s needed is a combination of younger people becoming more educated about where the food is coming from, and a lot more people getting sick and finding out that they just can’t tolerate certain foods so they’re forced to figure out where food comes from and what it has in it. People are starting to read labels more because they have to. This is a ripe place for change. If I’m going to go out for a nice dinner, I rearrange my priorities to be able to afford it, because that’s what I care about.
► What are your goals for this restaurant? I’d like to become at least 90 percent farm-to-table for at least three quarters of the year. I’d like it to be that people can come and get a prix fixe meal and they have no idea what they’re going to get. That we can provide that experience to people. That’s what we did at Blue Hill. You were given thirty courses, and you had no idea what you were getting. You show up, pay your $200, and they give you thirty different things. And they’re all amazing. AND they teach you about why they are serving those things and what they mean.I want to be able to present to the Chippewa Valley a menu that’s always changing or not have a menu at all. You’re providing an experience, and every dish has a story about where it came from. The essence of the food; that is the essence of the place where it grows.