Local chef Tory Miller offers advice and stories during ‘Chef Series’
March 1, 2017
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Local celebrity chef and James Beard Award-winner Tory Miller spoke and did a cooking demo in front of about 50 people as part of the Madison College Center for Entrepreneurship’s “Chef Series” on Feb. 22. The series showcases Madison College’s new culinary facilities, while also providing inspiration to those looking to pursue a culinary career.
During his “Four Seasons, Four Restaurants” discussion, Miller provided advice to students, told anecdotes, talked about work-life balance, and emphasized the importance of serving fresh, local, seasonal food.
While Miller’s four restaurants, L’Etoile, Graze, Estrellon, and Sujeo, have different ambiances and menus, the common theme throughout all of them is the focus on seasonal foods.
Miller spoke passionately about his relationships with local farmers, saying, “It’s about the people behind the table [at the Farmers Market]. It’s a relationship beyond just a professional one. I’m emotionally attached to everyone out there on Saturday.”
He also said that fine dining can no longer have its basis anywhere other than the best, freshest, local foods. “If you’re a chef today and you do not buy quality, local food, you’re not a good chef. You never will be. You’re just a cook,” he said. “Anyone can follow a recipe, but real chefs cook with their soul. They put their heart into it. They make it their own.”
The tattooed and entertaining Miller also shared stories about growing up as a Korean child adopted by a family of German descent. He began helping at his grandparents’ Racine diner in Kindergarten, when half days at school allowed for Miller to make meatballs and burger patties, blend coleslaw dressings, peel eggs, and perform other tasks to help with the lunch rush. After helping at the diner, Miller watched Julia Childs and other chefs on TV. He would cook breakfast for his family by the age of 6 years old.
After attending New York City’s French Culinary Institute and working at high-end restaurants there, Miller decided to take a chance on Madison in 2003. He applied for many jobs here, but only got one call back. He was hired by Odessa Piper to be a prep cook at L’Etoile, and was able to purchase the restaurant just two years later.
Miller now spends his entire day making the rounds at his four restaurants, checking in on menus, preparations, and platings, while also finding time to make it home for bedtime with his two young kids before heading back to Sujeo or Estrellon for closing. Saturdays are even longer days, beginning when Miller and his chefs arrive at the Farmers Market at 6:30 a.m. with their three wagons, ready to load them up with bok choy, radishes, meats, berries, melons, and whatever else is in season at the time. Miller has self-professed “menu ADD” and constantly changes his menus. He says L’Etoile has never served the same dish twice.
Despite the workload of managing four successful restaurants, Miller somehow finds time to mentor new restaurant owners and chefs. Miller also spends time cooking with middle and high school students through the “Chef in the Classroom” program.
He spoke several times about his firm belief that a “rising tide raises all boats.” He has shared his purchasers list with other restaurateurs, as well as provided other support to beginning chefs. “As a city and as a group, I want all chefs to do a good job. When I go out to eat, I want it to be bomb,” said Miller. “If every restaurant is buying really good food, pushing each other to make really good food, that will make Madison a really dope place to live right now, and a really good place to eat.”
Miller advised students: “Show up on time. Don’t drink too much. Don’t do it for the recognition . . . Make dreams come true.” He also stressed the importance of listening, especially for new cooks. He says it is the best way to understand and learn in a kitchen.
Most importantly, he says, “Don’t go looking for who you are. Listen to yourself. Know that you love the food that you love. And that’s who you are. Then put that on a plate.”
After imparting this advice and sharing his journey, Miller walked through the preparations of kimchi (fermented cabbage) with bulgogi (marinated aged beef), topped with red vein sorrel, spinach banchan, gochujang sauce, deep-fried rice, green onions, a beauty heart radish and kohlrabi mix, egg yolk paste, and sesame seeds.
Next up, Miller will be teaching an eight week class at Madison College based on the “Four Seasons, Four Restaurants” theme. Registration is open now and the course will start on March 20. It will consist of four classes and four labs centered on each of Miller’s four restaurants.
The Chef Series will host three more events, which are free for students and $25 for non-students:
- The Heritage Farms Story presented by chef Dan Fox, March 23.
- The Making of Pig in a Fur Coat presented by chef Dan Bonanno, April 19.
- Sardine, Marigold, Gates and Brovi presented by chefs Phillip Hurley and chef John Gadau, May 10.
Youtube.com/TheClarionMC has more about chef Tory Miller