Nomadic Chef: A conversation with a traveling cook
Chef Rob Grisham of Isthmus Dining Company shines
On a Friday evening a couple weeks ago, my husband and I headed to our favorite restaurant for dinner. We knew the chefs of Cow & Quince in New Glarus were all out of town for a family wedding, but we also knew the restaurant wouldn’t be closed in their absence. Chef Rob Grisham of Isthmus Dining Company, a nomadic-style restaurant based out of Madison focused on pop-up events and private in-home dinners, was in the kitchen doing a three-day restaurant takeover while they were gone.
We stepped inside. It was the same cozy space and ambiance we were used to, the same beers on tap and friendly staff, but the energy was totally different. That’s the allure of the pop-up. The juxtaposition of comfort and excitement, old and new, routine and novel right alongside one another. New ideas transform ordinary spaces.
Instead of Cow & Quince’s usual Friday night burger fare, there was sweet corn soup, an heirloom tomato plate with mozzarella and an apple celery salad on the menu. Two entrees rounded out the choices for the evening: a pork loin with charred cabbage, tomato butter and fennel jam; and a beef sirloin with baby artichokes, cipollini onions and broccolini. We ordered it all.
Grisham stood behind the eight-burner stove stirring artichokes over gentle flames. It appeared the self-taught chef could be comfortable in any kitchen. He moved between three stations effortlessly: warming things on the stove and elegantly plating and saucing a dish before moving the plate across the aisle to a finishing station where final garnishes were added. Every 10 or 15 minutes, he would stop what he was doing and walk plates over to a table himself. And it wasn’t because there was no one around to run the food. This move was intentional. He set the plates down and a conversation began.
After three perfect plates shared between my husband and I, Grisham brought out our entrees. We ooh’d and ah’d over the sweet corn soup we’d eaten earlier, dumbfounded by its complex flavors. He explained how it had both raw and charred kernels for a fresh yet smoky flavor, and that the corn stock was fortified with black tea, Applewood-smoked butter and sherry vinegar. Then I asked about the mozzarella in his tomato salad. He sat down in an empty seat beside us. It was late in the dinner service and the dining room was almost empty.
We talked about the fennel jam, (my favorite bite of the evening), his preparation of the sirloin that involved an extraordinary number of steps and pleasing amount of butter and finally the baby artichokes from Elderberry Farm that he says he couldn’t get enough of this time of year. It was a pleasant conversation between two food lovers and the man who prepared the meal.
“I really want to focus on that customer and kitchen relationship,” Grisham tells me a couple days later when I returned to New Glarus to chat. He was toting things back and forth to his car, cleaning up from a busy weekend. “I like being able to really develop that relationship with the customer. [People] go out to eat and [they] have good food, but if [they] go out to eat and interact with it a little bit more, that really makes the difference.”
I thought back to our dinner, how I appreciated every bite a little more after understanding how it came together. As a diner, I want to know how things have been manipulated and enhanced into the work of art in front of me. I want to understand the journey from the market to the plate and I love that he’s working to break down the barriers between the front and back of house.
We continue chatting outside on the patio behind Cow & Quince. His takeover is finished and the doors are locked. It’s immediately apparent how respectful he is of a space that is no longer his. We talk about how he got started in cooking as a wayward 20-year-old in the kitchen of the westside Nitty Gritty, his 12 years of experience in a wide array of restaurants and kitchens (most notably Brasserie V on Monroe Street for seven years), the business of pop-ups and where he finds inspiration.
“You just source inspiration from wherever it comes from. You can’t really harvest it,” Grisham tells me. “For instance, I have these crab apples and plums from the market yesterday. I don’t quite know what I’m going to do with them, but I’ll eat a couple more of them and kind of figure out what to do. You just start with the ingredient and go from there. Flavors that you’ve worked with before. Flavors you’ve tried somewhere else and want to play off of.”
He makes it sound so simple. I know that it’s not.
As we say goodbye, I watch Grisham get into his car. There are well-wrapped dinner plates piled onto the floor. I notice the crab apples and plums he just mentioned, perched on a cardboard box alongside a tray of microgreens. Luckily, the knives he’s hauled to his temporary restaurant for the weekend look a bit more secure. Just like that, Isthmus Dining Company is on the road. Out of this space and into the next.
You can find upcoming events, like the farm-to-table dinner at Taliesin in Spring Green this upcoming Sunday, Aug. 27, on the events page of the Isthmus Dining Company website or by following Grisham on Instagram .
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