Editor’s Note: Taco pizza and other indulgences
That’s the thing about food traditions — very seldom do they have to do just with the food.
Taco pizza holds a special place in my heart. It was an iconic part of election night in the Janesville Gazette newsroom when I worked there as a beat reporter. For whatever reason the nontraditional variety was always one of several selected by the powers that be to sustain a long night of newsgathering. There would always be one messy, structurally flawed pie covered in a dense layer of crunched up Doritos.
Even though I’m no longer in daily news, I still ordered an election night pizza this year. But I have to say, eating the last cold slice three days later still waiting on Tuesday’s results was a lot less satisfying than working in a loud newsroom racing a midnight deadline with a gravity-burdened slice of taco pizza in hand.
But I enjoyed celebrating the food tradition nonetheless. That’s the thing about food traditions — very seldom do they have to do just with the food. It’s often about whom you enjoy the food with, where you have it, how it made you feel and the memory you attach to it.
Which reminds me of another culinary experience of mine that’s a tad more elegant than taco pizza — my first time dining at L’Etoile. Little did I know, the stellar mid-March dine-in meal would be my last for months. The menu from that night’s Alsace tasting menu still hangs on my fridge as a reminder of the “before” times.
Serving us that night was Frank R. Pérez, who counted his 25th year at L’Etoile at the end of 2019. He had become a fixture of the fine dining restaurant, and I won’t soon forget his excellent service that made enjoying an ingenious Tory Miller menu so special. When I called Pérez in early October while working on part of this month’s cover story, it was hard to hear that COVID-19 left him jobless overnight after so many years. I asked if he missed being in the restaurant, and the first thing he thought of was not about the mechanics of the job, but instead about the people.
“There’s this sentimental side of me that comes out when I think of all of the friends and regular faces that come into L’Etoile to celebrate their anniversaries and their birthdays, or they’re showing off the restaurant to friends from out of town,” Pérez says. “That includes people who have passed away in the 25 years that I’ve worked there. I think of both the living and the ones who have passed.”
A day or so later when I called Michael Kwas, a 30-year veteran of L’Etoile and current wine director, I got nearly an identical response. “Frank and I, we’ve gotten to know so many people. Some of them on a personal level,” he says. “That’s really what I miss.”
It’s people like Pérez and Kwas who make me so optimistic that the best aspects of the dining scene will someday return. Because it’s not just about the food — it’s about the people. And even in what is likely the darkest hour of their careers, Madison’s food folks still care a heck of a lot about people — staff, customers and competitors alike.
But OK, it’s about the food, too. And with people in our local scene like Jamie Hoang and Chuckie Brown of Ahan setting the bar incredibly high in the current takeout era, I can only imagine the innovation and reinvention that will lead us to an even better, more sustainable dining scene once we get through this.