Chef of the Year 2016: Patrick DePula defends local food

One of Madison's culinary visionaries
Chef of the Year 2016: Patrick DePula defends local food

“All Wisco, no Sysco.”

This is Patrick DePula’s sharp, self-penned mantra, and it tells you exactly how he feels about local sourcing. He came to Madison from New Jersey and set out to serve pizza his way: handmade tomato pies of uncompromised quality using only the best local, organic ingredients.

What DePula didn’t know when he was opening a small pizzeria in Sun Prairie–before opening his second location in Madison, before the traveling pizza bus, before spearheading the overhaul of a school lunch program and before the new 96-seat Sun Prairie restaurant–was that his steadfast vision would be responsible for making Salvatore’s Tomato Pies one of the names synonymous with Madison’s food scene, and a shining example of a place doing local sourcing right.

That success is in large part a result of DePula’s strong-willed attitude in defending good food and calling out bad practices when he sees them. “He’s kind of an instigator,” says John Jerabek, director of culinary operations at Sal’s. But DePula doesn’t do it to be malicious–he’s doing it because he knows local sourcing is vital to fostering a local food economy, and that Madison deserves a reputation as a culinary destination, down to the meals our kids are eating at the lunch table. (Even Sysco, a longtime global leader in distributing food products, has implemented efforts to emphasize local sourcing and sustainability.)

As it turns out, we needed DePula’s no-holds-barred bullhorn in our city. And he’s now become a food scene fixture.

“I can say that his voice is one of the most important in moving Madison’s food scene forward,” says Jonny Hunter, a James Beard-nominated chef who is the founder and culinary director of the Underground Food Collective and Madison Magazine’s 2015 Chef of the Year.

On day one

DePula, 43, remembers vividly the night before his first day of service at his Sun Prairie pizzeria on West Main Street. After working in technology and human resources for more than 10 years, he was opening a restaurant at 38 years of age with his wife, Nichole. “He started on a shoestring,” says Depula’s mother, Patricia Aversano Schuler. “They worked day and night.” That first night in 2011 before they officially opened, DePula, whose son Salvatore was 3 at the time, had their 3-week-old son Joey strapped to his back in a BabyBjörn while making dough.

DePula liquidated his 401(k) and dumped all of their savings into the outdated strip mall storefront where they would offer food they weren’t sure would be well-received. “I remember putting cash in the register that morning, which was most of the cash we had left, and thinking: We’re seriously rolling the dice right now,” DePula says.

His friends told him he was crazy for trying to convince suburbanites that his pizza, which might look a little different than what they were used to, was worth the couple extra bucks for its quality ingredients. “Everyone we knew in the business was saying ‘Why are you doing this in Sun Prairie?'” he says. But DePula had faith in the community northeast of Madison, with a population of about 30,000 that for the last decade has been one of the three fastest-growing communities in Wisconsin. And he knew his family-recipe tomato pies–the type of pizza that’s “made in reverse” with the tomato sauce on top, coming from the Italian section of Chambersburg in his home of Trenton, New Jersey–would garner attention.

But some people didn’t get it. They didn’t understand the construction of a pizza that starts with olive oil and cheese before it’s topped with sauce and sometimes unexpected farmers’ market ingredients.

“Early on, one person came to talk to me at the front counter because they were unhappy with the pizza,” DePula says. “I walk up front, and the person has a sour look on their face. They open the pizza box and say, ‘Look at it … it’s not perfectly round … and there’s black marks.’ [I responded,] ‘Well it’s not like other pizza. It’s cooked with fire, and it’s made by hand.'”

The feedback didn’t shake DePula. “He doesn’t take no for an answer,” says Nichole. He knew exactly what kind of pizza he wanted to serve–the same tomato pies his grandmother used to make on Saturdays and during Lent. It’s an old recipe, dating back to 1912. “That’s got some history,” he says.

It wasn’t long before Sal’s garnered a following of some dedicated Sun Prairie folks. People started coming from Madison to try the pizza place that also serves killer tacos and other specialty gourmet dishes. One night, someone special walked into Sal’s.

“It was a particularly rough day,” DePula says. “We were just kind of cleaning up and getting ready to go and I see Tory Miller walk in. This was before I knew him. We got everything back out in a hurry. We sent some things out … and Tory started posting about Sal’s in Sun Prairie and that it’s worth the drive.”

Miller, winner of a James Beard Best Chef award and head of Madison’s Deja Food Group of L’Etoile, Graze, Sujeo and Estrellón, had driven out with his wife and ordered three pizzas. “I fell in love with those tomato pies,” Miller says. “I just loved his philosophy of ‘The crust is my plate and what I put on it is my dish.’ I love that philosophy. There’s nothing holding him back from making super creative things.”

Five years later, DePula’s business makes around $2 million in gross annual sales, and he’s gone from four employees (including himself and his wife) to 65-70 employees with two separate locations, a pizza bus and a new Sun Prairie restaurant in the works.

“He’s competing against chains and educating his clientele,” Hunter says. “I think he was super brave to start in the suburbs and I think the fact that he is introducing new concepts there shows how much of a visionary he is.”

He’s also a driving force of the Madison Area Chef’s Network, a group founded by Miller that connects Madison chefs and hosts the annual Yum Yum Fest, a festival that features dishes and drinks from the most celebrated restaurants in the Dane County area. “Patrick is the glue a lot of times that holds the group together,” Hunter says.

All in a day’s work

Today, DePula’s workdays are just as long as those first few were in Sun Prairie, but being busy is how he operates. “He’s constantly on the move and constantly thinking and spitting ideas at everybody,” says Jerabek. DePula brought his tomato pies to Madison with a second Sal’s location in September 2014 on East Johnson Street, where it’s not unusual to see people standing outside waiting for a table at the 30-seat restaurant with additional patio seating. “I love that location because it’s in a great neighborhood with a great community,” says DePula, who entrusts chef Beth Pieters to run the East Johnson Street kitchen.

On summer nights, you’ll find DePula, Jerabek and their team (usually with sweat dripping from head to toe) inside the 120-degree Salvatore’s Double Decker Pizza Bus that might be parked inside the Madison Mallards stadium or at Breese Stevens Field during a concert. The bus-turned-food dispensary, which has 24-top seating on the roof of the vehicle and a wood fire-burning oven that keeps the interior bubbling hot, has kept the Sal’s team extra busy this summer. But they’re doing something that isn’t often done at a place like the ballpark–they’re bringing better food to a horde of people accustomed to a much lower food standard.

On Saturday mornings you’ll likely find DePula at the Dane County Farmers’ Market picking out fresh specialty products to amplify his long list of other locally sourced ingredients (he worked with 36 local producers in 2015). DePula says he needs someone to oversee his farmers’ market purchasing–Jerabek, who oversees both locations as director of culinary operations, Bill Wicklund, who’s the sous chef and kitchen manager at the Sun Prairie location, or Pieters usually tag along. “I buy entirely too much stuff. I get excited by the way something looks and say ‘I want 25 pounds of that,'” DePula says. “They’ll be like, ‘Dude, you could have used five pounds.'”

But sourcing local, organic products is what DePula does best, and he might be doing it more than any restaurant Sals’ size in Madison.

“There are bigger restaurants that buy more volume, but Patrick uses more local ingredients to produce his food,” Hunter says. “It’s amazing, and especially since it’s a pizza restaurant where the price point is so low and the competition so steep.” DePula starts with the staples, too, Hunter says, which is almost never where a restaurant starts. The flour, the cheese–they’re all local products.

In 2015, 66 percent of the produce used at Sal’s restaurants was locally sourced, according to the submitted annual purchasing data reported by Sal’s to REAP Food Group’s Buy Fresh, Buy Local program. DePula says that including proteins, Sal’s locally sources close to 70 percent. REAP’s standard goal for restaurants is to make 20 percent of all produce purchases local. It takes the right combination of staff commitment, the right business model and a target market to reach more that 50 percent in local purchasing, says Sarah Larson, the farm to business program director at REAP. “We [REAP] are happy to see Patrick recognized for his talent and work as a champion of local food in our community.”

DePula has a laundry list of vendors, including Vitruvian Farms, Farmer John, Elderberry Hill Farm, Emerald Meadows Family Farm, Young Earth Farm, and if we were to list them all here, we’d have a short novel on our hands. You’ll find SarVecchio from Sartori Cheese out of Plymouth, Wisconsin, on the menu, and specialty greens from the Hmong farmers at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. Sea-to-Table Acadian Redfish is wrapped in market vegetables in one of four taco offerings that rival those of traditional Mexican restaurants. The smoked gouda from Farmer John’s is featured on a pie that includes caramelized onion, mushrooms, tomatoes, roasted garlic, bacon and cracked pepper.

While DePula knows his customers might be tired of hearing where each item comes from, what really matters to him is knowing he’s giving people the absolute best food he can offer.

From the source

Knowing where his food comes from is not a new concept for DePula. “That’s how I grew up–more than half of my grandparents’ backyard was a vegetable garden,” he says. His grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from Italy at the turn of the 20th century, his mother’s side settling in the immigrant community of Chambersburg in Trenton, New Jersey.

“We had immigrants from almost every nation,” says Aversano Schuler, DePula’s mother. “And everybody started their own restaurant. I’ll tell ya, Frank Sinatra used to come there to eat, and Jimmy Carter came to eat in our neighborhood. Even John F. Kennedy. It was known as the restaurant district of the time, at a time when there were none.”

As children, DePula and his fraternal twin brother didn’t eat like most of the kids their age in the New Jersey suburb they grew up in. They’d eat mussels and artichokes and squid. “Our life aside from work and school gravitated around the dinner table,” Aversano Schuler says.

And DePula’s strong opinions toward food have been obvious since his high school days. “He was very upset with the school meals, they were so awful and bland,” she says. One day, he was so fed up with his high school’s meals that he decided to take lunch into his own hands. He came to school with bunches of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and olives. He laid out a giant salad on a cafeteria table, creating a face with the vegetables, explaining to his peers that this is what they should be eating–fresh food. “He had everybody in an uproar,” she says.

His demonstration as an outspoken student didn’t change the food philosophy at his school. But many years later, after moving to Madison in 1996 to be closer to family members who relocated to the area, he’d eventually have a chance to transform a school’s lunch program–one that would benefit his sons.

A new lunch hour

In 2014, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic School in Monona needed help in the cafeteria. The chef was taking a leave of absence, so the principal called up two restaurant-industry parents to see if they would be willing to help out. DePula and Marcia Castro, a partner in The Old Fashioned, found themselves in the school’s kitchen, immediately searching for ways to make lunch better for the kids, including their own.

This was DePula’s chance to enact change in an environment that could help shift young kids’ eating habits, already sabotaged by a culture that often allows only 15 minutes for lunch, when other countries make lunch a part of learning, not a break from it, DePula says.

“It’s not enough time to enjoy anything or explore anything,” DePula says.

Soon, DePula was spending every morning at the school, before he’d head off after lunch to start his official work day. He and Castro were bringing in some of Madison’s top chefs–Patrick O’Halloran of Lombardino’s, Shinji Muramoto of Restaurant Muramoto, Dave Dorst of Off Broadway Drafthouse–to volunteer their time at the school to overhaul the lunch menu. (Let’s all take a moment to be jealous of these students.) Muramoto was making teriyaki chicken from scratch. A real taco bar with warm corn tortillas, jalapeños and fresh vegetables took some kids by surprise, since they were accustomed to the over-processed version of tacos, DePula says. “When kids starting asking for seconds on kale, we were like, ‘Hey, this kind of feels like winning,'” he says.

“It was one of the most rewarding things ever,” says DePula, whose sons Salvatore, 8, and Joey, 5, both attend the Catholic primary school. “It exposed them to types of food they might grow into as adults and have an appreciation for.” A new chef was hired for the school, and the program DePula and Castro spearheaded is still in place today.

From the start

There would certainly be a void in the Madison area today without Patrick DePula and Sal’s. By the end of this year, DePula says he plans to open his new restaurant in Sun Prairie, where he’ll offer farm-to-table fare in an expanded menu plus craft cocktails and tap beer at a full bar in a space that’s more aesthetically in line with the food he’s serving. “There’s nothing like this in Sun Prairie,” DePula says of the 2,800-square-foot space at 121 E. Main St. DePula says he has plans to possibly turn the old Sun Prairie location into an Italian deli, and he’s currently working on a deal to open up a Milwaukee Sal’s location.

Looking back, DePula gets emotional when he thinks about how far this journey in food has taken him. “It’s one of those stories that when I think back to opening the first restaurant and spending all of our money … it’s kind of like the American Dream, as silly as that sounds today in 2016,” says DePula. “But I would have never been able to do this if certain things in my life didn’t occur that brought me to Madison and that brought me together with my wife.”

Which is a funny story, really. Patrick showed up at a bar and saw one of his friends on a date “which didn’t seem to be working out very well,” he says. He started talking to his friend’s date, learning she was a baker at the Madison Concourse Hotel. He asked a question to start a conversation with the woman, who would later become his wife.

“What’s one of your favorite things to make?” he asked.

She answered, “Pizza.”