From forager to chef-proprietor: how Tami Lax’s background influences her today

It originally wasn't her ambition to pursue a culinary career
dad with seven kids at a farm
Photo courtesy of Tami Lax

Growing up in Green Bay, Tami Lax relished time spent at both sets of her grandparents’ farms. After one purchased a rustic retreat “up north” in Marinette County, her family made a game of collecting apples from the property’s orchards and wild berries from the woods. An inherited tradition, left over from lean times during the Depression, was to make the most of what food one had. To this day, Lax, the owner of Harvest and The Old Fashioned, takes that mentality and works with farmers to enhance local food in Madison.

It wasn’t Lax’s ambition to pursue a culinary career when she left the Fox Valley to study business at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. She was working in retail sales when an article in a national magazine about Madison’s Odessa Piper caught her eye. In 1994, Lax applied for a job cooking with Piper at L’Etoile. She hoped to work there for a couple of years, then train at the Culinary Institute of America and ultimately open her own restaurant. She stayed for six years and became invaluable as the person who helped Piper source ingredients from local suppliers. During that time, she built close relationships with area farmers.

After leaving L’Etoile, Lax started Wisconsin Wild Edibles, selling specialty produce to Chicago and California restaurants and also working at the Department of Natural Resources for a stint. Opening her own restaurant soon moved to the front burner when a property she deemed ideal opened up on West Washington Avenue. The concept was for a casual bistro, but she decided the space was too small.

In the summer of 1999, a potential landlord and silent partner approached her about a space on Capitol Square. Harvest, a formal farm-to-table restaurant, emerged a year later. Many kudos for both Lax and Harvest soon followed from the likes of Bon Appétit and The New York Times.Tami Lax in her restaurant

In 2005, the building next door became vacant, and along with co-partner Marcia Castro and other partners and investors, Lax opened The Old Fashioned. Modeled on her idea, the retro tavern club celebrates Wisconsin dining and drinking.

Owning two restaurants could be all time-consuming for some. Lax, however, was an early advocate of Slow Food USA, a movement that promotes sustainable, quality food. She was also a founder of Madison Originals, a network of hometown restaurants, and the Culinary Ladies Collective, a group that supports women in the industry.

Lax still enjoys cooking at home — mostly chicken, fish and lots of vegetables — but not much red meat. “It’s not that I don’t like it … it doesn’t like me,” she says. Ironically, Lax’s favorite Madison restaurant is Tornado Room Steak House, which she frequents with her staff. She isn’t a big fan of fried foods — another irony since USA Today recently proclaimed the fried cheese curds at The Old Fashioned the best in Wisconsin. Fortunately, Lax, 57, doesn’t plan on retiring at 65. She looks forward to going to work every day and continuing her connection with the community.

The Madison food scene would be barren without homegrown restaurants that rely on locally sourced food, driven by committed and imaginative people like Lax.

Dan Curd is a food historian who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.