The Watershed Café: A Gathering Place of Local Flavor

By Summer Kelly, The Watershed Cafe

The Watershed Café is a locally and sustainably sourced restaurant, perched above the scenic St. Croix River in Osceola, Wisconsin. The owners, Rita and Steve Rasmuson, established the restaurant in 2014 with a mission to bring the best comfort food to the table. For Rita, that means using simple and fresh ingredients. “We are a whole food restaurant, which means we bring in beautiful food and simply create dishes for all people to enjoy.”

Rita’s vision for The Watershed Café is built around the nature of St. Croix River Valley. “We wanted to create a space for community,” Rita said. “We really enjoy the culture of the river valley–the park systems, the activity of the outdoors, and the community itself.”

The St. Croix River Valley is a hub of small, family-owned farms practicing sustainable and organic farming methods. The Watershed Café works closely with four farms within 10 miles of the restaurant to source much of its fresh vegetables, herbs, dairy products, and meat. Because the story of The Watershed Café is connected to the stories of its partners, we would like to share a bit about them.

Common Harvest CSA: Margaret Pennings and Dan Guenthner of Common Harvest Farm created a fruitful, small-scale sustainable CSA farm as stewards of the land. Stewardship of the land for them means practicing organic farming methods: hand-weeding, amending the soil with local and organic compost, growing vegetables without pesticides or herbicides, and using solar panels as earth-friendly energy solutions for the farm.

Foxtail Farm CSA: Chris and Paul Burkhouse, owners of Foxtail Farm–Winter CSA, have a unique twist on farming in the Midwest. They focus their efforts solely on winter produce. They run their farm with a “Morganic” philosophy, a term coined by a Foxtail Farm member meaning “more than organic.” To Foxtail Farm, this means building dependable relationships between farmers and members, and growing produce naturally with organic principles in mind.

Crystal Ball Farm Organic Dairy: Troy and Barb DeRosier own and operate organic Crystal Ball Farms using a holistic approach to farming with pasture-raised, grass-fed dairy cattle. To increase the farm’s sustainability, Crystal Ball Farms installed roof-top solar panels to the barns, creamery, and granary, providing renewable energy for the farm.

Peterson Craftsman Meats: Peterson Craftsman Meats is a family owned and operated farm practicing pasture-raised beef cattle farming. With a passion for maintaining the vitality of the land and the animals, Andy Peterson uses organic practices, rotational grazing, and crop rotation.

Join us for local comfort food at The Watershed Café at 99 N. Cascade Street, Osceola, WI. Learn more about all of our sustainable partners at www.thewatershedcafe.com.

 

Summer Kelly is a local gardener and plant-enthusiast with a passion for marketing and environmental sustainability. Crossing paths with Rita and Steve of The Watershed Café is the best thing that has happened to Summer in her free-lance marketing career.

New Chef Brings Love for Local Food to Sheeley House

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.

A Burger and Music on the Farm

by Stephanie Schneider, Together Farms

What could be better than a juicy grassfed-beef burger with your choice of delicious sides eaten while in a pastoral setting among rolling hills down on the farm? Throw in some great music to listen to while you eat, yard games to play, a rooster crowing every now and then, and grateful pigs you can feed your non-pork leftovers to, and you have the ingredients of an entertaining, pleasant, and appetite-satisfying evening for all ages. And don’t forget the huge farm dog, Mr. Fluffypants, who will greet you in exchange for some petting time.

Stephanie and Andy Schneider’s Together Farms, near Mondovi, Wisconsin, has been a source of grass-fed beef and lamb, as well as woodland pork, since 2012. They have a store on site, meat and freezer meals can be delivered via their food route or shipping, and their products are available from several local retail locations and restaurants.

But new this summer is their Burger Night. “I honestly don’t remember how exactly I came up with Burger Night. I know it came to me over five years ago, and since then I’ve been asking everyone if they thought it was a good idea or if I was crazy, and not everyone said crazy!” Stephanie says. “So I’ve just been waiting for the right relationships to be in place to actually pull it off and finally! Here it is!” Of course, they needed a lot of other things to be in place to get all the licenses and permits too. “Turns out that pulling off events like these requires much more than you’d imagine, but if the right people get behind your [crazy?] idea, then magic happens.” And, yes, it is pretty magical.

One of a number of great chefs from around the Chippewa Valley will be on hand to add just the right touch to each Burger Night’s menu, which offers several burger choices, including Drunken Hawaiian, The Minimalist, The Good Fat Burger, Olive and Swiss, The Spicy One, and Bacony BBQ Cheeseburger. The health-promoting fats make it into the French fries and cheese curds too, which are fried in the vitamin D-rich lard from the farm’s pigs. There is even a kid’s meal option of a slider with cheddar cheese, a small serving of fries, and applesauce. Of course, a Burger Night would not be complete without beer or wine from the farm’s Woodshed Tavern, which also has plenty of excellent non-alcoholic options, including WiscoPop and Sprechers.

The Schneiders practice Intensive Rotational Grazing (animals are moved every one to three days), and they try to be as transparent as possible about what they feed the animals. “Health is our goal, and it’s the goal of most of our customers. That means 100 percent grass, 100 percent of the time. But we also know that labels and marketers try to confuse them, not only by what is said, but also by what isn’t said,” Stephanie notes. “We don’t play any gimmicks or use grass feeding terms that are meant to confuse you—our beef and sheep are born and raised here and are fed no grain ever, just grass/clover, minerals, apple cider vinegar, and some essential oils.” When it comes time for processing, the animals are treated and processed humanely by an Animal Welfare Approved processing facility.

Burger Night will take a hiatus though August, then return with gusto Friday, September 8. See their website (www.togetherfarms.com) for the schedule of dates and upcoming musical guests, a list of what and what not to bring, and directions.

Stephanie says they already have plans to construct a new building with its own kitchen to better facilitate Burger Night, Wine Nights, and other events at the farm. Watch for Together Farms on the PBS program Wisconsin Foodie, scheduled to air next spring.

Kitchen Transparency Enhances Your Dining Experience

by Amy Huo, Executive Chef, The Informalist

In the age of the Food Network, the Travel Channel, of Anthony Bourdain and Top Chef, kitchens and chefs have become rock stars. But in the age of Yelp, TripAdvisor, Facebook, and other public review platforms, they’re finding themselves the subject of increased public scrutiny. Sometimes the dining public is not familiar with how fine dining kitchens really work. Most people would agree that it matters that you know your farmer, but it’s also important to know your chef and the kitchen that chef works in.

Understanding the rigorous process in which most chefs and cooks engage to bring you a plate of food can enhance your enjoyment of your meal and your appreciation for the chef and cooks. In most kitchens, a kitchen manager, a chef, or some other worker plugs in an order via the computer or a fancy new iPad (if they’re lucky) maybe two or three times a week. This means that most raw food items are delivered in large boxes off of a semi pulled up to the restaurant’s back door. How has this process changed as of late? At The Informalist our process of ordering is very different. On any given day, as the executive chef, I handle orders from twenty or more farmers, farmers markets, producers, and butchers to ensure our kitchen has everything that it needs to keep the menu fully stocked for guests to enjoy. Add to this, farmers who may show up at the back door with produce they have left over or could not sell elsewhere, and it becomes almost a full-time job to just keep the kitchen fully stocked.

But ordering for a menu in place is only one part of the farmer-chef relationship. We must be thinking months ahead at all times. For example: pickling apple blossoms and lilacs for a dish that may not go on the menu until July or freezing rhubarb for rhubarb ketchup next January. Parcooking and freezing, pickling, drying, and otherwise preserving vegetables at the peak of their freshness is what allows us to stay 80 percent local even during the winter. Produce that arrives fresh has a day, or maybe two, before it has lost its life and luster. Respecting ingredients and the farmers who produce them means never allowing that produce to go to waste. While we do compost as much as possible from our kitchen, we consider throwing away any produce that has not been properly cared for an absolute sin. Because our ordering process is so complicated, because we know our farmers so intimately, and because this is very important to us at The Informalist, we are able to keep waste to a minimum.

Because kitchens and chefs have become so visible as of late, I believe it is equally important to make fine dining kitchen processes as transparent as the chefs that lead them. In farm-to-table kitchens like ours, or The Lakely,  ordering isn’t simply plugging in numbers to an already-set system of bulk ingredients. It is planning ahead, it is understanding how much staff can devote hours to preservation, and frankly how much sheer space a kitchen allows to execute an 80 or 90 percent locally sourced and grown menu. It is speaking with local farmers and producers about growing seasons, how much rain we expect, whether their soil is suited to grow a certain kind of vegetable, or why White Park beef is superior to Scottish Highland. I am not insinuating that these conversations don’t happen in other kitchens in the area, but what I believe is important to understand is that a farm-to-table locally sourced kitchen is a unique sector of the restaurant world. The sheer amount of work and dedication to simply employing day-to-day processes of ordering can boggle the mind.

At the end of the day, does understanding this process help a diner enjoy the plate of food in front of them at a restaurant? Does knowing that the chef spent hours reaching out to farmers, amassing ingredients, adapting recipes to fit locally available products, and training cooks to appreciate those ingredients change how diners look at their entrees when they “hit” the table? I feel that in most cases, it must contribute to a dining experience in the same way that cooking for oneself and one’s beloved friends or family does. That is to say, when you do the work, you can appreciate the result. And being aware of the work that goes into your meal can help you appreciate the result too. Increasing the transparency of kitchen processes can only help farmers and chefs alike, as well as your own personal dining experience.

One, Two, Three Orchards: Local Apples Galore!

For most people, keeping one orchard going strong would be challenge enough. But Ron Knutson (aka Ronnie Appleseed) has his hands full currently caring for not one, not two, but three orchards. Halverson’s Orchard was the first. “Around 2009/2010, my wife’s (Shelly) Aunt Kay knew the Halversons, and Dennis Halverson was needing help with pruning, so we met and reached an agreement: we would prune the trees in exchange for some apples,” Ronnie explains. “In 2016 Dennis, who had cancer, passed away, and the family graciously turned over the management to us.  Also, in 2015, we heard at the Wisconsin Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference that Class Apple was looking for somebody to manage it. A small 1.5-acre pick-your-own orchard was just what we wanted. We made inquiries about the orchard and contacted Lorretta. She had lost her husband, Dale, the year prior, also to cancer, and with the family living out of town, she needed someone to take care of it. So we took that on as well.”

Their third (original) orchard is AVEnue Orchard. Ronnie notes, “We purchased what was formerly known as The Apple Tree Inn Bed and Breakfast in October of 2007 but didn’t move in until January 31, 2008, after General Billy Mitchell Air Reserve Base, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, closed, and I retired. Instead of a bed-and-breakfast, we are an adult family home. I was going to retire and just do a little woodworking, primarily making flag cases, but the great outdoors called me, the trees were crying for help, and a new adventure was born. WE HAVE AN ORCHARD! So we added 1,500 more trees and two more small orchards.”

AVEnue Orchard sells jarred and canned goods, as well as prepicked apples. “I think we have as many varieties of jams, jellies, fruit butters, sauces, and pie filling as we do apple varieties, which is at twenty-six and counting,” Ronnie laughs. “And we are always dreaming up new recipes. This year’s leader in our jarred and canned goods is our Strawberry Rhubarb, followed closely by Chai Apple Butter, and who would have guessed but gaining fast is our new Apple Watermelon.  Strawberry Jam, Strawberry Hobenaro, and Apple Pie Jelly are neck-and-neck and close behind.”

What kinds of apples does AVEnue Orchard offer? This year there will be twenty-six varieties available:

Chestnut Crab
Connell Red
Cortland
Daybreak Fuji
Duchess
Empire
Grimes Golden
Haralred
Haralson
Honey Crisp
Honey Gold
Jonamac
Liberty
McIntosh
Northwest Greening
Paula Red
Prairie Spy
Red Delicious
Regent
Snow Sweet
State Fair
Sweet 16
Whitney Crab
Wolf River
Yellow Transparent
Zestar

Our pears are:
Bartlett
D’Anjou

Available for pick-your-own at Class Apple, are Honey Crisp, Cortland, McIntosh, Connell Red, Empire, and Honey Golds. “At Class Apple, we have cider, our very own blend from our very own apples. Class Apple is a quiet place to come and enjoy the greatness of God’s country,” Ronnie says. “Bring your picnic baskets along, you ain’t gonna wanna leaf,” he jokes.

AVEnue Orchard generally opens around mid-August. Class Apple opens September 9 and is open Saturdays and Sundays 12:00 to 5:00 pm, and will close October 8. Halverson’s is not open to the public.

Ronnie seeks to promote access to and use of local food products. “I love it. As much as possible, all our products are from local sources. It is a well-deserved and an awesome show of support to the local farmers, who work hard at bringing you a quality product. Besides, it always tastes better when it ripens on the vine.”

“Oh,” he hastens to add. “I forgot honey! We have honey. Yes, we have the bees here. Fascinating creatures they are.”