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Menu Makers
Meet the farmers behind the city's tastiest ingredients

By JOAN ELOVITZ KAZAN

December 2016

 

It’s no secret that Milwaukee area chefs have fully embraced the farm-to-table food trend — a win-win for both diners and farmers alike. “The local food movement has been around for nearly 30 years. … Within 100 miles of the city, you can get a ton of stuff,” says La Merenda and Engine Company No. 3 chef/owner Peter Sandroni, a longtime proponent of sourcing local. “I can have a tomato that’s been picked that morning at my back door that afternoon.” And that very tomato — with its fresh, juicy flavor profile — will make its way onto your plate that night. Here are six area farms that make it all possible.
 

Pinehold Gardens — Growing Vegetables and Building Community

ON THE MENU
Pinehold Gardens’ kapella peppers — in puree form — are featured in Engine Company No. 3’s smoked salmon blintz.
Photography by Matt Haas

Sometimes a routine grocery store trip can change a person’s life. Case in point: Sandy Raduenz. While shopping at Outpost Natural Foods, Raduenz spotted a flier for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute conference. The flier sparked Raduenz’s lifelong, but somewhat dormant, interest in gardening. “I met the CSA (community-supported agriculture) farmers and felt like I finally fit in. I belonged somewhere,” she recalls. “I didn’t fit in sitting behind a desk.”

Soon thereafter, Raduenz and her husband, David Kozlowski, turned that talk into action. “I was an inventory control manager at a music distribution company; David was a senior editor for a building operations management magazine,” Raduenz says. “We started a small CSA (in Oak Creek) on nights and weekends. We had one member — my sister-in-law, Anna.”

Running a CSA is a demanding endeavor, but experienced farmers were happy to share their knowledge. “It was a long learning curve,” remembers Raduenz. “We were lucky that we (had) MOSES.” MOSES, the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, sponsors an annual conference where farmers come together to share ideas and offer support. “It is the nicest group of people. You meet someone at the conference, and you feel like you can stop by their house or call them anytime,” continues Raduenz, who attended her first MOSES conference more than 20 years ago. “Way back then I asked such novice questions, like what piece of equipment we needed to weed more efficiently. The farmers had such patience.”  

Raduenz and Kozlowski were vendors at local farmers markets until 2012. “Farmers markets aren’t what they used to be,” Raduenz explains. “People’s shopping habits have changed — buying fresh vegetables is no longer the main focus. ... It’s become more of a social gathering.” This change prompted the couple to rethink Pinehold’s participation. “When I started coming home with vegetables that I wouldn’t then put into a CSA or sell to a restaurant, we started increasing the number of restaurants we sold to and discontinued going to the markets,” she says.

Pinehold’s current focus is on growing the highest quality vegetables for their restaurant customers, CSA participants and farm-stand regulars. “Our goal is to sell nine months of the year, starting in the beginning of July. We’re a mile and a half away from the lake, so we have cold, wet springs and a high water table and that leads to soggy, wet ground,” Raduenz adds.

Pinehold Gardens supplies its signature shallots, peppers and fennel, along with kale and other vegetables, to local restaurants, including Goodkind, Odd Duck, Bavette, Hinterland and Sanford. “There’s a strong sense of community around local food — our community of CSA members, the community of chefs I meet with every winter, and the customers who visit us every week,” Raduenz says. So where do Raduenz and Kozlowski go when they have time to go out for a good meal? “La Merenda is our go-to restaurant,” she says. “(Chef) Peter Sandroni has come a long way in converting his menu to be as seasonal as possible, and his seasonal tarte is our favorite.”
 

Sauve Terre Farm — Safe Earth, Safe Food

ON THE MENU
The beef empanada at La Merenda features Sauve Terre beef, which chef Peter Sandroni braises in red wine.
Photography by Matt Haas

A Whitefish Bay native, Joe Mantoan explored the great outdoors at his family’s summer house on West Bend’s Big Cedar Lake. “I got to connect with nature and be in the woods,” he says. Mantoan developed a serious interest in organic farming at Warren Wilson College, just outside Asheville, N.C., where he majored in environmental studies. “Everybody at the college works 15 hours a week on a crew, and it looked like the farm crew kids had all the fun,” he adds.

When Mantoan was ready to start farming, his parents’ 80-acre farm in West Bend was a logical starting point. “It was a conventional crop field my parents were transitioning to organic. I put up a fence and put in pastures,” he says. “I wanted to get into grass-fed beef because it’s healthier for the consumer, healthier for the animal, and it gives the beef a richer, more complex flavor.”

Mantoan’s mother, Laura, a former French and Italian teacher, suggested the farm’s name. “The term ‘sauve terre’ translates to ‘safe earth, safe food,’ and captures our mission to save this land from being turned into a subdivision,” Mantoan explains.

He and his parents work to bring that mission to life by keeping their 30-plus cattle in prime, healthy condition. “We move the cattle every day or twice a day to fresh grass,” Mantoan says. To avoid giving the cattle pharmaceuticals, Sauve Terre uses a mineral program, where seaweed, sea salt and other isolated minerals combine in liquid form to balance the cattle’s diet.

Many farms — even organic farms — turn to organic grain or corn to fatten the cattle, but Sauve Terre is committed to its mineral-based, 100 percent organic technique. “There’s an incentive to feed corn so the cattle grow faster, but we don’t feed grain. Our process requires more hands-on management, but we think it’s worth it,” adds Mantoan, noting that Sauve Terre’s process results in the healthiest beef. “Our beef has a fat profile that’s more like salmon, with the best balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats.”

Sauve Terre sells its beef through three channels: to local restaurants, at the Shorewood Farmers Market, and to individual consumers. “We have a home-delivery program that’s similar to a CSA,” Mantoan explains. “Our beef subscription program offers individuals a 20-pound box of our frozen steaks, roasts and beef. We deliver a new box every three months for a year.”

When he’s not tending to the cattle, Mantoan is a part-time chemistry teacher at Tamarack Waldorf High School, where its progressive approach to education, economics and social order aligns perfectly with Mantoan’s farming practices.
 

Big City Greens —  Small Town Service

ON THE MENU
Chef Justin Aprahamian features Big City Greens’ micro arugula — pairing it with olive oil poached beef shoulder and pickled morel mushrooms — at Sanford.
Photography by Matt Haas

Bryan De Stefanis was faced with a surprising challenge early in his indoor farming career. Shortly after De Stefanis stopped by Sanford Restaurant to meet chef Justin Aprahamian, he received a call from the James Beard Award-winning chef. “A week after I met Justin at Sanford, he called and said, ‘Can you grow me 30 trays of arugula for the James Beard award dinner?’” After he hung up the phone, De Stefanis remembers experiencing a moment of panic, but then he got to work finding arugula seeds. “I had not grown arugula at that point, but when Justin calls and asks you for arugula, you don’t say, ‘no,’” De Stefanis recalls.

De Stefanis grew up in Shorewood and studied horticulture at Milwaukee Area Technical College. But it was his time spent living in California, where he worked as a small-scale farmer for Napa Valley chefs and restaurants, that sparked De Stefanis’ passion for farming.

Wisconsin is home for De Stefanis and his fiancée, Deborah Diaz, and living near family became even more important after their daughter, Calli, was born in 2014. Moving back to Milwaukee presented De Stefanis with every farmer’s biggest challenge: weather. “When we moved back here, we decided to do indoor farming because you only have four months of outdoor farming (in Milwaukee),” he says. “Our big thing is microgreens, (which) we grow inside.”

That “big thing” refers to the 300-plus trays De Stefanis tends to constantly. “It’s a lot of maintenance. Every tray is hand-watered every single day, and I have to plant 150 trays every three days,” he says. All the magic happens at Big City Greens’ urban facility, located just on the border of downtown and Milwaukee’s East Side.

De Stefanis prides himself on the quality of his product and on his relationships with the local chefs who use it. “When I come into restaurants, we sit there and talk. The chefs know about my kid, and I know about their kids. There’s a personal connection with everything,” he adds.

And the product speaks for itself. “Quality is No. 1 to us — if it doesn’t look perfect, it’s not going out to the chefs,” De Stefanis says. Because he makes his own deliveries, De Stefanis has gotten to know Milwaukee-area chefs pretty well. “The growth of my business has been through word-of-mouth,” he notes. “The chefs all respect each other, and if they find something good, they want the other guys to be able to use it too. It’s not about competition with them.”

Freshness is also top priority at Big City Greens. “The chefs have the option of me clipping and packaging the greens for them, or they can take an entire tray,” De Stefanis says. “They think it’s cool to be able to clip the food right before it goes on the plate — it’s a level of freshness that hasn’t always been an option.”

But it’s not just restaurant chefs who can take advantage of that freshness, adds De Stefanis. “Private chefs and at-home cooks also love my product. I try and do my best to accommodate everybody,” he says. “Your name doesn’t have to be Justin Aprahamian to get our stuff.”
 

Sugar Bee Farm — It’s Easy Being Green

ON THE MENU
At Wolf Peach, chef Cole Ersel uses Sugar Bee’s oyster mushrooms on the restaurant’s wood-fired oyster mushroom pizza and as a key ingredient in its smashed marble potato dish, which features oyster mushrooms, fermented chili and salsa verde.
Photography by Matt Haas

Sustainability, environmental focus and eco-friendly are familiar buzzwords in urban farming, but at Sugar Bee Farm, just west of Bay View, owner Bryan Simon and his wife, co-owner Deborah Dion-Simon, do more than just use words. They bring sustainable farming to life on a daily basis. 

“Our focus is on sustainable landscaping. I’m also the chair of Milwaukee’s green corridor,” says Simon, adding that he found a way to eliminate water waste in the growing process. “All the water that falls on my property stays on my property. We have a rainwater harvesting system and two bioswales, which are like large rain gardens. We use a special soil that holds the water, and it slowly drains back into the surface.”

Simon also owns a landscaping company and devotes his off-season to creating compost. “I have vermicomposting worms for microgreens and for trees and shrubs,” he says. “The worms eat the compost and produce worm casting, (and) that’s one of the best natural fertilizers there is.”

Those natural fertilizers create a variety of high-quality mushrooms in a fully sustainable process. “Any waste from the mushrooms gets composted and used in the gardens,” Simon explains. “Microgreens and vegetable scraps are also fed to the worms.” The sustainability circle continues. “Worm castings are used in the soil that we grow the microgreens in, and in tree planting. We make a special mix, plant trees in this urban landscape, and inoculate them with that mix,” he adds.

Simon applies his process to growing Sugar Bee’s famous oyster mushrooms. “Straw is the medium for growing oyster mushrooms,” he says. “I use organic straw soaked in hydrate lime, with calcium added.” Simon puts the mushroom spawn in bags in a dark, temperature-controlled incubation room, then transfers them to a fruiting room, where misting humidifiers maintain the perfect conditions for mushroom growth.

The result? Delicious, organic mushrooms that are popular at local restaurants, including Wolf Peach and Story Hill BKC, and in Simon’s own kitchen. Simon recommends cooking mushrooms to get the most out of them. “I love to cook with our mushrooms,” he says. “I use them three times a week. They’re so good for you, but you shouldn’t eat them raw. You get much more nutritional benefit from them by cooking them.”

While it won’t make the menu at Wolf Peach anytime soon, Simon’s mushroom bread is a family staple. “I cut a French baguette in half, chop up oyster mushrooms, (and) sauté them with an onion in olive oil and garlic,” he says. “Then I make a reduction with red wine, spread it on a layer on the bread, sprinkle shredded Gruyere cheese on top, and bake it in the oven for 10 minutes.”

Simon often uses mushrooms with chicken or beef, or even in place of a protein. “You almost think the mushrooms are a protein — they’re a good meat substitute,” he adds.
 

Maple Creek Farms — Hog Wild in Hartland

ON THE MENU
Chef Peter Sandroni uses Maple Creek pork in La Merenda’s penang curry dish, an Asian-inspired red Thai curry. The locally sourced protein is also used in the restaurant’s pork confit cavatelli and pork pierogies.

Photography by Matt Haas

When Tom Mueller was a student majoring in animal science at Kansas State University in the 1970s, he received sage words of advice from his professors. “They said, ‘If you want to make fast money, raise pigs … but they lied,” Mueller recalls. He followed their advice, but he soon discovered that “unless you raise thousands and thousands of pigs, you can’t make a living,” he explains. “We raised the pigs and somebody else did the roasting, and that guy was making all the money.” Mueller then decided to start roasting, and in 1980, Party With a Pig was born.

Since its inception 36 years ago, Party With a Pig has grown into “the biggest pig-roasting business in the Midwest,” according to Mueller. He raises the pigs on his farm in Hartland, where he adheres to strict rules to ensure healthy animals. “The hardest part of this business is keeping everybody (the pigs) healthy,” Mueller says. “We don’t allow anybody in the building where the pigs live, and we only purchase pigs from one source — a vet in Darien, Wis.”

Mueller has an old-school approach to business, which means avoiding technology as a rule. “I don’t text; I don’t email. ... I talk to people,” he explains. “Everything is handwritten out of a book. I write ‘thank you’ notes to every person who buys anything from us.” Maple Creek has an online presence (a website), but when a potential customer clicks on the Contact Us tab, the farm’s address and phone number come up. “If I get a text, I erase it. I talk to every customer, so things don’t get screwed up,” Mueller adds.

Mueller credits his success to two key elements: his individual approach to customer service, and a unique pig-roasting process. “Party With a Pig sells itself because we have the best service — we never close. I’m on call 24/7,” Mueller says. The roasting company doesn’t use rotisseries; instead, staffers roast the pigs in portable ovens and in pans. “We’ve developed roasters where people can cut and serve the meat right off the roaster,” explains Mueller. “We have an au jus in the pan; the pig is cooked in the au jus. It’s moister and by far a much better roast.”

This process is clearly a winner — Party With a Pig serves 900 to 1,000 pig roast customers every year. “We do (up to) 60 pig roasts a week,” Mueller adds. Local foodies can enjoy Mueller’s pork products without committing to Party With a Pig too. The farm also provides pork products to Milwaukee area restaurants, including La Merenda and Engine Company No. 3. “Eighty percent of Maple Creek’s business is pig roasts, and 20 percent is restaurants,” says Mueller.

Both Party With a Pig and Maple Creek Farms’ restaurant clients are OK with Mueller’s relatively low-tech approach to business. Mueller admits, “It would be tough to start out in this business now doing it without the technology, but we deal with everybody — GE, MillerCoors. I tell them, ‘I don’t email. Give me your snail mail and your phone number.’”
 

Buddha Baby Farm — Growing Strong

 

ON THE MENU
Buddha Baby’s produce is an element of several dishes at Hinterland. The farm’s mixed greens form the base of Hinterland’s greens salad, and its New Zealand spinach tops the wood-fire-grilled bread cheese.
Photography by Matt Haas

“What job will you get?” is the question many parents ask when their son or daughter declares English as a major. Little did Steve Schiro think his answer would be, “I’ll become a farmer.” Armed with an English degree from UW-Milwaukee, Schiro headed to Tampa, Fla., where he worked for a wine company “(It) was a crash course in soil, grapes and climate,” he says. But when it was time to settle down and start a family, the Midwest — and its promise of nearby relatives — beckoned.

Schiro relocated back to Milwaukee, and in 2007, just one week after he married his wife, Lauren, he started an internship at Growing Power, a locally based nonprofit that focuses on urban agriculture. After the internship, Schiro became a Growing Power staff member. “My goal was to start a farm, but I didn’t know quite what it was going to look like or what the scale would be. Growing Power was fertile ground (pun intended) for so many different ideas,” Schiro admits. “My parents were very unsure of this direction. My dad is a computer consultant and very rooted in numbers. This wasn’t something that was going to put you on firm financial footing.”

Despite his parents’ skepticism, Schiro was determined to make it as a farmer and carve out his own niche. “We were bringing in stuff like petite leafy greens, microgreens, buckwheat, sunflower and pea shoots — they grow in plastic flats in a greenhouse, and they require a lot of attention to detail,” Schiro says.

There were multiple sources of inspiration for the Cedarburg-based farm’s name. “I was a chubby, Buddha-looking baby,” explains Schiro. “My sons, Henry and Charlie, were babies when we started, and we were doing smaller format stuff like baby carrots and microgreens.”

With a unique product and confident personality, Schiro visited Hinterland’s former executive chef, Dan Van Rite. “I brought microgreens, radishes and rainbow Swiss chard,” Schiro remembers. “We talked for five or 10 minutes, and I left my card.” A day or two later, Van Rite called with an order. “It was confirmation that I was headed in the right direction,” Schiro adds.

Van Rite soon connected Schiro to other local restaurateurs. “My relationship with Dan Van Rite led to me meeting Dan Jacobs (formerly of Odd Duck, now of DanDan), Justin Carlisle at Ardent, and Karen Bell at Bavette,” he says. “We now have seven restaurant accounts.”

“This is incredibly humbling work,” Schiro continues. “It’s a true collaboration with Mother Nature, with a lot of variables and no guarantees.” Balancing the day-to-day operations of Buddha Baby, plus caring for Schiro’s own two growing boys, is an ongoing challenge. “My commute to work is stepping out my door, which provides a pretty nice family balance,” he adds. “There are a lot of late nights, but this has provided the utmost flexibility for our family, which is paramount.”







 

This story ran in the December 2016 issue of: