6 Questions with Tory Miller

How did you know from working in your grandparents’ diner this was what you wanted to do?

Oh man, I just loved the action and pace of it. And the instant gratification of making something for people to be able to eat. You make something and right away you hear how it is. Especially as a kid, that positive feedback was so great to have.

You’ve had just about every job in the food business. Is there one that really shaped how you approach cooking?

I go back to my first real restaurant job all the time. That was the first time I experienced going to a farmer’s market. That was the first time I saw anyone go to a market—chefs used to go to Union Square Market in New York and send back literally cab-loads of produce, pulling in vegetables off the street, breaking down whole animals. That was my introduction to buying local and the seasonal aspect of restaurants. That changed everything for me. And coming back to Madison was a chance to take that even further.

You’ve always stressed the importance of wanting to learn in the kitchen. How has it influenced the trajectory of your career?

Every place that I’ve ever been has had learning on the job. It’s funny, I’m still learning from growers or from different ingredients. I’ve found that the best thing you can do in a kitchen is just sort of, you know, try and figure it out! It’s really what has kept me going. It’s something different every day.

What was it like coming back to Madison and taking over a staple restaurant?

It wasn’t intended. When I moved back here, it was before the Internet was even a thing. I still remember going online and looking at the L’Etoile website. And coming back, I didn’t expect to land at a place like that and stay there. But coming into Madison and meeting Chef Odessa, and going to the farmer’s market and producers of food, that drew me in and was so inspiring. The growers’ passion behind their story what they did really made me want to bring an ingredient back and do something cool with it. And not, you know, ruin it! When I took over, I didn’t know if I was ready, but then it felt immediately right. The relationships we had with the farmers was already strong, I felt so accepted, and it felt like a real family. So, I ended up staying… well, forever now. Forever and ever. Can never leave.

Obviously Wisconsin isn’t known as a ‘healthy’ place. How are you working to change that perception?

The thing I like to talk about most is using whole foods and fresh foods. How that can change your diet and how you feel as a person. I’m a prime example of it. When I got back from New York, I was super out of shape and kind of crazy. But now, at 44, I’m in much better shape and been eating at all our restaurants for like 15 years now. To go from buying commercially processed foods to buying seasonally and locally, that’s been the shift in my own personal diet. People still have that, like, eat deep-fried cheese, fried chicken and a Bloody Mary—which still does happen here—but in general, the way people view food and eating and sourcing food now, the change is happening. Slowly, but surely.

How do you think your restaurants have influenced the Madison food scene?

I think everyone is watching. Everyone is chasing everyone else, especially in a small market like Madison. We actually have more influence over one another than bigger markets, I think. I’ve always, always shared my information. I want people to go out and buy local produce and support local farms. Everyone can see on Instagram if I have a cool vegetable or a cool thing, they will either find out where I got it or go get it for themselves. It’s definitely something where you can look around in Madison and see how much people admire buying locally and supporting farmers to the forefront. They understand how much it can do for the community and the people behind the food. So, that’s been really cool to see.