Recently we spoke with new chef Brian Jensen at Sheeley House in Chippewa Falls about his love of using local foods and how he is incorporating them in the menu.
Second Opinion: How long have you been a chef? Where else have you worked?
Brian Jensen: I have been a restaurant chef now for a little over four years. I’ve always had an interest in cooking and a passion for it but never imagined taking that passion and pursuing a career through it. I spent the last ten years (before moving to the Chippewa Valley a little over a year ago) working in the Door County and Appleton area. I worked in all facets of different styles of restaurants there but really enjoyed the creativity of working with local foods and high-end ingredients. I got my start in a French/Latin fusion restaurant called Restaurant Saveur, learning and working for a brilliant chef who inspired the bold flavors and unique style I like to cook with. Most recently I worked in Door County running the kitchen at an old staple restaurant called the Inn at Kristofers. From there I moved to Appleton to pursue opening a new Restaurant called Rye in the Copperleaf Hotel. I had stepped away from cooking at this time to manage the front of house and also another wine bar. But it really brought me back to my need to step back into the kitchen fully and dedicate myself to it. Working the tourism circuit between Door County in the summer and South Florida in the winter, it gave me a lot of insight to food and the industry. It also taught me I wanted to come back close to home and make a life here doing what I really wanted to be doing which was cooking.. I have been back to the Chippewa Valley and at the Sheeley House since the end of May 2016.
SO: Why did you want to become a chef?
BJ: My inspiration to become a chef dates back to when I was a child working in our large family garden, watching my mother cook simple recipes from garden ingredients. As the youngest in a large family, my siblings and I always enjoyed fishing for trout in the local streams, picking berries and mushrooms, and even tapping maple trees for the sweets to enjoy around the dinner table. The kitchen was always the focal point of the household, and I can still taste those flavors of fresh ingredients today. They still inspire me.
SO: Describe your interest in using local foods at Sheeley House. What is your long-term goal with it?
BJ: This past spring, I started a project to take an empty parcel of land at the Sheeley House and turn it into a garden to supply the restaurant with fresh produce and herbs. This alone I knew wouldn’t be able to sustain the bulk of ingredients for the menus, but it always gives me different ingredients to use in creating a special or supplementing our current or future menus. I thought this would be a step in the right direction to going to more strictly local foods. I am currently in talks with farmers and getting my foot in the door to start slowly incorporating more of these products in to our menus.
SO: How will you use local foods in your menu?
BJ: Seasonal cooking to me is at the heart of most chefs’ creativity. I love using fresh greens from the garden in creating a fresh salad or braising them to use in stews or accompanying rich fatty meats such as pork belly or short ribs. With an ever-changing menu and extensive weekly specials, I have an almost obsession over using every part of fresh produce as to not waste the fruits of our labor or of local farmers.
SO: Do you do foraging too? How do you use what you find?
BJ: I really started to forage about five years ago. When I was a child picking berries and such was just a way to satisfy my sweet tooth. But it had come back in a roundabout way to foraging mushrooms of all different kinds. My favorite are chanterelles. I love using them to make fresh pastas, a beautiful mushroom soup with bacon and walnuts, to sautéing with a steak, or a mushroom strudel.
SO: Anything else you’d like to share?
BJ: I think that there are many hidden treasures in the Chippewa Valley in the lines of different avenues to find locally sourced food. But it is up to chefs and restaurants to take the steps to highlight these places and show the importance of sustainability and how this helps support local community and business in our area. Wisconsin has much to offer in the changing growing seasons, and we have so much to take advantage of right in our backyard. I am hoping more establishments will start to get on board with this movement of local flavors and cuisine.