Roach: Madison and the rise of Foodie Nation

Four chefs in the running for James Beard Awards
Roach: Madison and the rise of Foodie Nation

The announcement earlier this year that four Madison chefs are in the running for various James Beard Awards gives Madison cause for celebration.

The nods to Tory Miller, Jonny Hunter, Dan Fox and Francesco Mangano is further proof that our collective palate has moved beyond an appetizer of cheese curds followed by an entree of fried cheese curds.

This evolved appreciation of food, and the rise of Foodie Nation, has been a wonder to witness, sometimes from a ringside seat that has given me Zelig’s view of the phenomenon.

It was only a couple of decades ago when the food scene in Madison and the nation was far less interesting. The Dane County Farmers’ Market was just getting its legs and the Food Network, which heightened the national culture of cooking and celebrity chefs, didn’t hit air until the early ’90s.

The first epicurean stirrings for me came while working as a producer on a morning television show in Chicago in the ’80s. It was there that I met and worked with two icons of Foodie Nation, Julia Child and the great James Beard himself.

Child was old-school, a tall, charming woman who championed French recipes.

And then there was Beard, who had the audacious notion of championing American cuisine.

But as impressive as Julia and James were, it was a chef named Charlie Trotter who was creating the buzz in Chicago those days. Charlie, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science grad, launched Charlie Trotter’s, a restaurant that garnered national praise. Charlie was not as charming as Julia and James. In fact, he was demanding and prickly, and helped create the image of the celebrity chef as an enfant terrible who drives his staff with an iron spatula as he prepares food that his guests may or may not be worthy of eating.

Such a challenge was Charlie that after shooting a story with him for a day, I declined his offer of a meal. He seemed quite shocked with the pass, and for the next 10 years sent invitations to dine at his events. I never did. No matter how good his food might have been, I couldn’t get over Charlie’s treatment of my camera crew. No food could taste good enough to overcome such condescension.

And that is the one cautionary note about the rise of Foodie Nation. At its best it is a celebration of fresh, innovative food served in sane portions in interesting settings. But at its worst it’s precious and too enamored of itself with a faux formality that seems inconsistent with the American experience.

Perhaps it’s me, but I can never get comfortable at a table with a waiter bowing over me, hands clasped behind his back, speaking in hushed, reverent tones about the menu as if he’s serving at Downton Abbey. It simply doesn’t seem like America or Wisconsin to me.

At any rate, the rise of food became even more personally interesting when my former boss, mentor and friend Brooke Bailey Johnson became the head honcho at the Food Network. Brooke, as smart as they get, took the network to new heights. Along the way she discovered Rachel Ray.

It was also around this time that Madison’s food culture began to morph for the better. Odessa Piper launched L’Etoile to national acclaim with new thinking about local, fresh food. And local boys Henry Doane and Monty Schiro started restaurants that offered guests a far different experience from the older Madison model of The Cuba Club, Rhode’s and Carson Gulley.

Today Madison is experiencing an embarrassment of foodie riches. It seems a new restaurant is opening every day. Some stick. Some don’t. But the level of creativity is a marvelous thing to behold. Now, on a whim, you can select among Harvest, Graze, Sardine, Tornado or other fascinating options run by a new raft of potential James Beard nominees.

A final note. I worked with James Beard just a year or two before he passed away in 1985. He was a great, big man with a large belly. But my dominant memory of James was one of quiet joy. The entire time he was cooking, he was smiling broadly. It was as if he was tickled by everything he was preparing. Which was as charming as it could be.

It was also comforting, because in Foodie Nation we know if the chef is smiling, we are all going to be very happy.