Meet seven of Madison’s local food founders
Writer identifies those who left their mark
In this second installment, food historian Dan Curd recognizes individuals who left their mark on the local cuisine.
Bill and Betty von Rutenberg (1)
Their beginnings in the food service industry were humble; they operated an eight-stool downtown diner called the Nibble Nook. But through hard work they bought a supper club on Lake Mendota’s north shore and they renamed it The Mariner’s Inn. Bill and Betty astutely observed that for a city surrounded by water, there were few dining options with a water view. Two more lakeside eateries followed, Nau-Ti-Gal and Captain Bill’s. In 1998, the family launched a new dining and cruising venture two years after Betty’s passing naming it Betty Lou Cruises in her honor. Today, their sons Bill, Jack and Robert continue to run the family-owned enterprises.
Joanna Guthrie (2)
During the turbulent ’60s, she was the leader of a hippie sect in Chicago whose mission was to improve American culture. In the early ’70s, she relocated here to open a French bistro, Ovens of Brittany. Though she didn’t have a restaurant background, her undertaking was an improbable success. Before Ovens opened, supper clubs and steakhouses defined upscale dining in our city. With the addition of the Baker’s Room, authentic French bread, croissants and the restaurant’s signature morning buns came to town. Most importantly, Guthrie nurtured many others who would go on to make contributions to our community’s food history.
Andrea Craig and Nancy Christy (3)
Craig was an Ovens of Brittany alum who studied cooking in France before opening her second floor cafe in 1973. The cafe, Andrea’s, was an instant success. Christy also began her culinary career at the Ovens, later moving on to La Creperie and Chez Michel. Craig and Christy started out as close friends, so it was probably inevitable that they would become professional partners. Their goal was to start a restaurant consulting business, but they thought they needed hands-on experience first, so they opened Wilson Street Grill in 1987. Serving contemporary American food, it became a downtown power lunch destination and distinguished itself by hiring people with disabilities. The Kennedy Manor Dining Room followed. Both owners ultimately achieved their original objective to become consultants, Craig in New York and Christy in Madison.
Odessa Piper (4)
Her interest in food began in New Hampshire, where she worked on a farm committed to sustainable agriculture. Piper moved to Madison in 1972. She became a baker at Ovens of Brittany and Joanna Guthrie – who favored organic meats and vegetables – became her mentor. Just weeks after Andrea’s closed, Piper collaborated with Ovens’ Jim Casey on a venture in its vacated space. Her L’Etoile started out as a classic French restaurant. Despite her best intentions, the cooking and service often fell flat. As Piper became more interested in building a relationship with local farmers, she brought in talented staff that included Elka Gilmore, Eric Rupert, Brian Boehm and Tami Lax. In 2001, Piper won a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Midwest and earned praise from the national food press for her farm-to-table philosophy. The next year, chef Tory Miller became her protege, and in 2005, she sold L’Etoile to him and his sister Traci. Odessa returned to New England, where she does consulting and culinary support. Last year, she came back to Wisconsin to help Taliesin revive its Riverview Terrace Cafe, Frank Lloyd Wright’s last commission.
Monty Schiro (5)
When it comes to the hospitality biz, he’s done it all. His first job at the age of 13 was as a dishwasher at Amato’s Holiday House. A year later, he moved up to busboy and then waiter. A 21, Monty managed his first restaurant. Three years later, he came home to continue his education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison but supported himself by working for a caterer. Schiro also did a stint at Ovens of Brittany. In 1990, he was thinking about opening an Italian-style trattoria on Atwood Avenue. Then he learned that Peder Moren, who owned an old gas station on Atwood, wanted to repurpose it. Monty suggested a diner: Monty’s Blue Plate. Three years later they opened a second operation, Pasta Per Tutti, and a year later the Food Fight Restaurant Group was born. Today the consortium includes more than 21 diverse dining and drinking venues and employs more than 900.
Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years. This is the second installment of Madison’s Food Hall of Fame. The first appeared in the May issue, featuring the following local food pioneers: Roseline Peck, Lucius and Frances Fairchild, Stephen M. Babcock, Frederick J. Meyer, the Schiavo family, the Hoffman brothers, Oscar G. Mayer Jr. and Carson Gulley.
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