Introducing seven chefs who are changing the Madison food industry for the better. In each of their stories, we’re reminded how important restaurants are in defining a city’s culture. This is a celebration of what they bring to the table for us.
Kipp Thomas has been a mainstay in Madison’s food scene for more than 25 years, serving down-home cooking to the masses. He originally moved to Madison in 1995 to open Kipp’s Kitchen, a catering business he still operates. If that wasn’t enough work already, he also took a day job with the Sun Prairie School District’s nutrition department. There, he discovered a new calling: to connect the community through food by feeding children who face food insecurity. Around the same time, Thomas got involved with the Badger Rock Neighborhood Center and the adjacent middle school, where he leads culinary classes for students and cooks free community dinners. When COVID-19 hit, the calling grew louder. Developing and delivering meal boxes to students’ homes in Sun Prairie, “I began seeing how many families were going without food,” he says. “COVID took me to that level of paying more attention to the students who were coming through our lunch lines at Sun Prairie or after school at Badger Rock, and [asking,] ‘Do you have enough food at home?’” While Thomas maintains his catering business — which serves up soul food like mac and cheese, cornbread, fried chicken and greens — he feels fortunate for his work with the school districts. “I have always loved being around food, but I’m getting more involved with the community,” he says. –EK
Yusuf Bin-Rella has a rare wisdom — and plenty of imagination to go with it. During the day, he works as a chef at Dejope Residence Hall’s Four Lakes Market, but what he’s most known foris paying homage to his roots. If you’ve been around the Square in the last two years, youmight have noticed collard greens, garden eggs, green onions and other vegetable crops in one of the circle beds that anchor the four corners of the Capitol. Bin-Rella, with help from other growers around town, installed the garden to honor the Afro-diasporic foodways of his ancestry. Under the name TradeRoots — a collective Bin-Rella co-founded several years ago — he tells stories about his culture through cooking and farming, and he advocates for crop ownership and land access for historically marginalized growers. “I think that having ownership of those cultural ingredients and those cultural foodways enables us to tell our story,” Bin-Rella says. “And it’s far too often told by other people. … We can tell our story best, for us, from our perspective … I think it’s a really powerful tool of understanding who we are and why we are — how we are. And I think it’s important that more people have that connection.” –EW
Evan Dannells, chef and owner of Cadre Restaurant, says that communication among people in the restaurant industry all but stopped during the pandemic. “Everybody went into their own world and was trying to survive this crazy thing called COVID.” Craving collaboration and hoping to strengthen the local food system, Dannells got together with like-minded people, and the Dane County Food Collective was born. Offering a place for everyone in the food system — “farmers, food manufacturers, restaurant [workers], caterers, you name it” — the group meets the first Tuesday of the month at the Madison Club and would love more members, Dannells says.
With a mission to better the Dane County food system, members join committees dedicated to topics like health and wellness, purchasing and advocacy. Head of the Collective’s insurance committee, Dannells is dedicated to lowering the cost of health insurance for all employees. Dannells says that while it is inevitable that there will continue to be obstacles in the future, “it’s better for everyone if we have some sort of support system in place that makes it easier to navigate these pitfalls.” –EK
Despite her busy schedule running downtown restaurant Morris Ramen, Francesca Hong still finds time to harvest vegetables — which she cooks into dishes at the restaurant — with her son at his elementary school’s garden. She also makes the time to work for change. As a community organizer and a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly representing downtown Madison’s 76th district, Hong advocates for a number of issues, including paid leave, health care for all and environmental preservation. In addition to being a member of the Dane County Food Collective, Hong is involved with the Main Street Alliance, a group that centers the needs of small business owners. She’s also a co-founder of the Culinary Ladies Collective, a professional network of women in the food industry. A strong supporter of public education, Hong introduced — and will reintroduce in 2023 — the Healthy Meals for All bill in November 2021, along with Rep. Kristina Shelton of Green Bay and Sen. Chris Larson of Milwaukee. “School meals are as important as textbooks and pencils,” Hong says. “School meals help healthy kids thrive in their schools. School meals are a universal right and freedom.” –EK
Tory Miller marks his 20th year in Madison’s food scene in 2023. He entered in 2003, took over as owner and chef of L’Etoile in 2005, opened L’Etoile’s new location and introduced Graze in 2010, and left lasting impressions with Sujeo (2014-19) and Estrellon (2015-20). If one were to look at the pedigrees of kitchen staff across Madison, it’s likely that a good portion of those professionals learned from Miller at one point in their careers. “Being able to come to work and actually cook every day and teach every day is fun for me still,” Miller says. The chef has long set the standard in Madison, and he won’t hesitate to lead the way. But these days, Miller’s priorities have shifted a bit. “The big thing with the pandemic for me was creating a better quality of life for restaurant workers and trying to raise that wage,” he says. That’s one big focus, as is continuing to buy from local farmers, creating exceptional experiences for his diners and keeping his own work-life balance in check. He’s staying excited about the food he’s creating at his two restaurants, some of which he considers boundary-pushing and unexpected for fine dining at L’Etoile. He recently returned from an inspiring culinary trip to Seville, Granada, Jerez de la Frontera and other regions of Spain. “Coming back from Spain, the realization for me was that I don’t have to follow any rules,” Miller says. We love a top chef who draws outside the lines. –AB
After moving to Madison from Chicago in 2016, Jodie Jefferson missed the foods she grew up with, like Italian beef, super tacos, fried chicken wings and great hot dogs. She started re-creating her favorite dishes in her kitchen after work, and once neighbors and friends discovered her cooking, her house got busy. When it got to the point that her “driveway became like a drive-thru,” Jefferson decided to venture out and open House of Flavas on the eastside in August 2021.
House of Flavas serves Chicago-style classics like Italian beef sandwiches, Maxwell Street Polish sausages and cheese fries. Her fried, hand-battered catfish and shrimp baskets are popular, as are the house-made lemonades in an array of flavors.
Jefferson’s love of cooking for others is deep-rooted: Her grandma owned a restaurant and her own mother — who now helps out occasionally in her daughter’s business — was a caterer. –CW
Equipped with a giant heart and a voice adept at advocating for change, David Heide is determined to turn food excess into food access and make sustainability the end goal in everything he does.
He’s working to obliterate hunger in the community through his nonprofit Little John’s, by turning excess foods into wholesome meals for those who need them most.
“Madison was designed and set up for you never to have to see poverty if you don’t want to … so a lot of people don’t understand that it is a crisis, because we’ve hidden it really well here,” says Heide.
In 2016, he started formulating a plan to create Little John’s, a community kitchen that works with local grocery stores, farmers and producers to make accessible chef-quality meals out of excess foods.
Little John’s currently produces about 17,000 meals per week for schools, senior centers, shelters, Meals on Wheels and other institutions. His team recently launched Little John’s Lunchbox, a onsite, self-serve cooler at the Madison Children’s Museum that offers pay-what-you-can meals.
The organization also provides six-month, paid culinary training contracts to military veterans, and helps them find long-term positions in the food service industry or connect with resources to further their culinary training.
Producing meals out of a temporary location, the Little John’s operation set up a $6 million capital campaign to fund an eventual move into a desired space in Fitchburg, an industrial commissary kitchen with the capacity to make 240,000 meals per week.
Heide admits it’s typical to raise 80% before taking your project public, then recalls a recent event serving unhoused people. A little girl was so excited, she hugged the volunteer. “When you see a 5-year-old hug someone for the first warm plate of food they’ve had in weeks, it’s not OK to wait,” says Heide. –CW
Andrea Behling is editor at Madison Magazine. Emma Waldinger is associate editor at Madison Magazine. Erica Krug, Aaron R. Conklin and Candice Wagener are contributing writers at Madison Magazine.
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