The energy exuding from chef Tory Miller is contagious, especially on a day like today.
He gets to his restaurant Graze at 6:15 a.m. and checks in with his brunch chef, greets his market stand managers and fist-bumps his bakery team. Staffers at his four restaurant kitchens have already submitted lists for items they’ll need Miller to collect, which he reviews and sets a game plan around. His market team—his chef de cuisine and “the foragers”—assemble on the patio; the wooden Graze wagon is officially pulled out of hibernation (as is its overflow companion) and the vendor clipboard is at the ready.
It’s Saturday morning of the first outdoor Dane County Farmers’ Market of the 2017 season, and Miller and his team are psyched. The start of the new season in Madison is special for consumers and producers, but especially for quality-conscious restaurateurs like Miller, who build their menus around fresh ingredients. It’s the best time of the year. Madison boasts the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the country, with about 300 vendors setting up on the Square throughout the year. A two- to four-year wait is now the norm for producers seeking an opportunity to sell at the market.
Our capital’s proximity to fertile land is unparalleled, with some farms existing within the city itself. Voss Organics, for example, grows on its own northside property. A growing Dane County agricultural community has created innovative farmers and adaptive chefs alike.
Before venturing out, Miller gives a quick nod to social media by snapping a Boomerang of a butter-laden peach Kouign-amann pastry, still piping hot from the oven. With minor details tidied, the team’s trek commences clockwise down East Main Street. Good thing the crowds are sparse at this hour, or their upstream direction would prove challenging.
As Miller turns the corner onto South Carroll Street, he discovers that longtime vendor Creekside Farm sells no more. The now-retired farmers once provided the chef’s restaurants with rich greens and pale marigold female squash blossoms.
“That one hurt,” Miller says. “I wasn’t ready! But, just like anything, we just have to keep it moving.” The best thing you can do with farmers at the market, both new and old, is work with them, Miller says. “Every year is different. Chefs are very demanding people, but with farmers, you have to have patience and be understanding.”
Miller is not only purchasing these vendors’ goods, but he acknowledges their stories, their families and their heritage. His mental log of retirees, deaths and specific crops speaks volumes about the long-standing experience he has had with the Dane County Farmers’ Market—which consistently tops lists naming the best farmers’ markets in the U.S.
Business exchanges are a bit more intimate at the market. Inquiring as to what products he might find in the very near future gives Miller a further “in” for both supply and niche orders. Honeycomb was missing from vendor Bee Charmer on West Main Street this week, but would be brought to the next market on a verbal contract. The same went for hickory nuts on North Pinckney Street—Miller asked if 20 pounds would be too much in time for the following market. With a chuckle, the farmer sitting on a chair behind a small cafe table responded, “The sooner I can sell out those nuts this season, the sooner I can go fishing.”
“Let me know what you end up catching,” Miller replied. “Maybe we’ll buy your fish, too!”
Miller offers greetings to first-year booths, which on that day included new kid on the block Ducks in a Row Family Farm. Miller lingers long enough to brainstorm with the young farmer about how they might mutually benefit from his stand’s wares, including the already sold-out duck eggs.
Miller has been making these connections as a chef at the market for 14 years, and he’s not the only chef who wakes up at the crack of dawn to be one of the first on the Square. Dan Fox of Heritage Tavern, Patrick DePula of Salvatore’s Tomato Pies and Jonny Hunter of Underground Food Collective are other usual suspects.
“I used to only see one chef out there in the morning when I was out there, and now there are many, many more,” Miller says. “I think starting the [Madison Area Chefs Network] is something I’m proud of for Madison. I think that if we all connect and support our farmers and each other, our food system will only get stronger.”
The team returns to South Pinckney Street and Graze with its bounty of market finds overflowing the now heavy wagons. The wares are hauled into the bustling kitchen, where the staff prepares brunch for eager Madisonians hungry for local fare and foraged foods.
Another year, another successful first market.
Nicole Woodward is a contributor to Madison Magazine.