The Time, The Place is Now, and it’s in Eau Claire
When you ask Terry Vajgrt about local food, he lights up like he’s talking about his newborn baby. And The Informalist, in The Lismore hotel, opening this May, is his new baby. “This is really where my passion lies,” he said. “Here’s the thing. To me, it’s about hospitality. When I invite you into my home, I want to feed you THE best thing I can and give you THE best thing to drink.”
The Informalist will be a local food dining experience like no other. When you walk into the restaurant, the posh lighting, barn door tables and lounge booths, and the menu of local farmers’ home-grown goodness transports you out of your own world into one where eating is an experience, a culinary journey of growth and transcendence that happens on each plate.
Vajgrt and his wife, Paula Williams-Vajgrt, aren’t new to food—far from it. Owners of The Creamery in Downsville, Wisconsin, from 2008 to 2011, along with growing up on farms, the couple knows that this is where their organic food ethos comes from.
“We are very sure that that is a healthy way to eat and to be, in terms of our local environment, our local culture,” Terry said. They plan to draw on existing relationships with local farmers and get to know new farmers too, recognizing those farmers on the menu. “I always love farmers that are doing really unique things because it really brings art into farming,” he says. “It’s a beautiful thing. I mean, you go to a factory farm, and it’s a different experience than you go out to George and Emma’s farm out on D where they have 120 acres, and they’re producing animals or greens or whatever it is they’re doing—it’s just a different experience. And I really believe that from an economic standpoint, one of the worst things that could ever happen in Wisconsin is the disappearance of our family farms, and I think Big Agriculture has been in the forefront of that, pushing that. I understand the efficiencies that you gain when you’re big, bu if we are what we eat, then shouldn’t we care about how our animals are treated, what their life is like, how our plants are treated, how they’re getting their nutrients? People have gotten so far away from their food that they don’t know their food sometimes anymore. They don’t know where their food comes from.”
“Or they don’t question it,” Paula added.
In the restaurant and the coffee shop (ECDC, or Eau Claire Downtown Coffee), everything will be from locally produced ingredients, from scratch, or from suppliers who are sourcing their foods from other regional local farms. Vajgrt is glad to be part of trying to change the system toward meeting demand for more organic products. “If we can help turn that ship a little bit, that is our goal.”
People sometimes feel that organic food is too expensive, but Vajgrt suggests instead they ask, “Why is factory food so cheap?” Williams-Vajgrt added, “Why do we need an adjective in front of our food—organic food? Actually, better to think about, ‘What is food?’”
Vajgrt feels the food culture here in Eau Claire is changing for the better. “It’s changed a ton. Certainly other places have led that transformation, but I think Eau Claire is right there now.” But he adds, “There’s an awakening consciousness in Eau Claire overall, I’d say. Look at what’s going on in the downtown area, look what’s happening with the arts. People are really looking at quality of life things now that maybe at one point weren’t quite as important or just wasn’t thought about. There are some real foodies in Eau Claire now. I love what’s happening now with Eau Claire and the feeling of the community. And by buying more local and focusing on our local producers, it helps to continue to build that community. I know that’s what these young entrepreneurs that have invested a lot of money in this place are all about. They’re about community. What Justin Vernon’s doing, and what the guys are doing over at The Oxbow. Why are they doing this in Eau Claire? It’s their hometown. It’s their community. They want to build that community. And thankfully we have people that are now in leadership roles because of their success in other areas, they’re bringing that success back to our food, our entertainment on all levels. You know, dining out is entertainment. That whole process. The time, the place is now, and it’s in Eau Claire.”
Another soon-to-open downtown restaurant featuring good quality food in Eau Claire will be The Lakely, in The Oxbow Hotel, with Chef Nathan Berg at the helm, and opening mid-summer 2016. Berg too has close relationships with local farmers, suppliers, and producers. “At this point, their ingredients are as much a part of my culinary style as anything I could possibly do in the kitchen. As a chef, it would be pretentious of me to think that I alone create the dishes that I cook,” Berg notes.
He also enjoys picking and gathering foods he’ll use in the restaurant. “Whether it’s gardening or foraging, I continually make an effort to go outside to either raise or hunt for foods because, without that, I feel that I would lose touch with food’s origin. Again, the majority of the work of great chefs begins well before their ingredients enter the kitchen, so I think it’s important to do that kind of work, if not solely as a decent reminder of the processes of nature that ultimately create the stuff that I too often get credit for,” Chef Berg says.
But there is another reason he is so fond of foraging. “I have a life-long goal of helping to foster the development of a distinguishable Upper Midwest style of cuisine. And any regional cuisine should be defined, first and foremost, by food that are not just local, but native to that region. So I’ve spent years researching the foods and dietary customs of the Native American tribes from our region, and that has helped me to understand what foods were always here, not just brought with the white settlers. Low and behold, many of the plants and foods that these tribes relied upon for their sustenance are things that seem common to all of us here in the Upper Midwest today: maple syrup, venison, corn, freshwater fish, cranberries, etc.
But there are also a pretty significant number of foods that wee collected and enjoyed by peoples like the Anishinaabe and Menomonee—mostly plant-based—that have been essentially forgotten over the centuries. Thankfully, despite a slew of past and present environmental threats, many of these foods are still growing out in the woods and marshes and prairies; things like fiddlehead ferns, ramps, wild huckleberries, wapato, cattails, and a wide variety of fungi. I love utilizing these foods in the kitchen because it gives me the sense of breathing new life back into some very old food traditions. But it’s equally rewarding just to search for them as the hunt itself brings with it the side-benefits of fresh ai, exercise, and a deeper connection to the land.” NOTE: Berg warns that you shouldn’t forage unless you are very well educated about what plants are safe and what might potentially cause illness or death!
The Oxbow Hotel design will have a Midwest Modern feel, reminiscent of the old lakeside lodges we’re familiar with here in the north woods. The Lakely will reflect that feel and the feel of the Midwestern supper club. Berg explains, “It will definitely be an updated take on those kinds of menus, but I’d call that the ‘soul’ of our menu.” He adds, “I think people will find somethings that they’re familiar and comfortable with, but there will also be some uniquely original creations that are reflective of where we live for the more adventurous diners. We’ve also got an incredibly cool, original idea that we’re developing but keeping under wraps until opening day.”
Berg thinks visitors and locals alike will enjoy The Lakely. “For travelers, I believe that our modern take on Upper Midwestern foods will really help to give them a (literal) taste of our area. But I think of this as being even more appealing to locals as it will be a pretty unique and adventurous addition to the local dining scene. I hope that folks get as excited by our updated interpretation of local cuisine as I am. With local diners, my goal for their dining experience is that they walk away with a bigger sense of pride for the culinary possibilities of this place that we all call home.”
Berg also feels the local food culture is improving. “Our local sustainable farming community is amazing, even in comparison to some of the best around the nation. Thankfully, the people of the Chippewa Valley do a damn fine job of supporting these great local farms on a consumer level. But as that consumer base has grown so large over the past ten years, there haven’t really been many restaurants focused on farm-to-table for these consumers to throw their support behind. With at least a few of them opening here in the very near future, I hope to see some strong support for these ventures (ALL of them…not just ours). If those thrive, then I’m sure it won’t be long until more and more start springing up and maybe even our old stand-bys will increase the amount of local products that they feature, leaving us with a restaurant scene we can be proud of.”
The Informalist is set to open April 28th for dinner service, with The Lakely opening this Summer.
More info at theoxbowhotel.com/lakely and theinformalist.com-JC