More Food, Slow Food

Exploring the costs and benefits of sustainable eating.

"Sorry, we're out of food."

Not exactly what you would expect to find scribbled on a typical café menu; but that’s just it. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Slow Food Café is anything but typical, and entirely impressive. Without any outdoor or directional signs, I wandered around “The Crossing” on University Avenue until I found the hidden gem in the church’s basement. Students, senior citizens and other characters were bustling around, enjoying each other’s company and experiencing not only extremely delicious food, but also a special sense of community. Overwhelmed at first, the smell of fresh, smoky sauerkraut soup lured me into the room.

To match my surprise at “yes, we are a café that is still open, although we ran out of our food,” I was stunned to hear the café is a non-profit organization run entirely by students, from sourcing the ingredients to cooking and serving the food. For this reason, the café is only open twice a week: Mondays at 6:30 p.m. for “Family Dinner Night” and Wednesdays from 11:30 to 2:00 p.m. for lunch. The modest prices of five to eight dollar, full-course meals attract a variety of customers, which lends to the unifying quality of the movement. Low prices also mean the café sometimes only breaks even in terms of sales, and even suffers losses. However, when profits are made, they are entirely reinvested into the organization, whether it is to buy ingredients or pay the rent.

The idea of “slow food” serves as the opposite of “fast food,” and similar to how the movement advocates using local, sustainable ingredients as opposed to over-processed industry products, the café’s atmosphere encourages taking the time to relish in good food and good company. As stated in the Slow Food Manifesto,

“Slow Food assures us of a better quality lifestyle. With a snail purposely chosen as its patron and symbol, it is an idea and a way of life that needs much sure but steady support.”

The café might have been small, but it’s part of a remarkably bigger movement in Wisconsin, the U.S. and the world.

Slow, Local, & Natural

So what is local food and where does the café get it? The Willy Street Co-op, Madison’s largest consumer-owned natural foods store, defines local food as “anywhere in Wisconsin or within 150 miles of the state capitol building.” Slow Food Café volunteers shop at farmers’ markets for fresh ingredients, as well as source them directly from local farmers. To prepare for the winter season, volunteers can and freeze ingredients to store them for later use. The Willy Street Co-op serves as a great resource for ingredients the café cannot source as easily, such as baking products and bulk spices. When dining at the Slow Food Café, rest assured you’re consuming “good, clean and fair food.”

While the idea of “good” and “clean” food might suggest healthier food, health isn’t the main focus.

“When you buy local foods, there’s not necessarily an entirely scientific backing up to say local foods are more nutritious than non-local,” Jonny Hunter, Vice President of Research at the Underground Food Collective explained. “I would say that the health benefits tend to be overblown in the argument, but generally cooking and eating fresh fruits and veggies will be better.”

Although the Slow Food Café was founded in 2011, the Slow Food Madison chapter formed in 1999, starting with two chefs wanting to make a difference in the city’s local food community. Tami Lax, who opened Harvest Restaurant, along with Leah Caplan, Chief Food Officer for Metcalfe’s Market, worked together to provide “taste education and preserve the culinary heritage and identify of Wisconsin through food.” Lax founded the Madison chapter of Slow Food in addition to serving as the co-chair of the U.S. Slow Food APC Committee. The chapter was once one of the biggest chapters in the country, as Madison and the rest of the state had and still have great potential.

“The market is driven by urban movements, but you’re starting to see smaller cities embrace it. Rural markets and communities have had better access to locally grown food in the past as well as local food infrastructures that urban communities don’t have,” Hunter said.

Wisconsin is a state rich in agriculture, resources and plentiful farmer’s markets. So where can a curious consumer find meals prepared with slow, local food? The answer is everywhere, once you look past the Chipotle and Jimmy Johns on the street. The movement can be dressed up or dressed down, but it remains rooted in its passion for environmental sustainability and community support.

All Dressed Up

I dined at Harvest, a restaurant with a fitting name and filling food. Named by Organic Style magazine as one of the top 20 restaurants in America and most recently named one of America’s top Farm-to-Table restaurants by Gourmet Magazine, the establishment serves as a stark contrast to the student-run café situated in a church basement.

Located on the Capitol Square in downtown Madison, the restaurant has an aire of rustic luxury. Warm, mustard yellow walls surrounding candlelit wooden tables provide a cozy, earthy feel, while contemporary metal chandeliers resembling cornucopias lend to more luxury. Upon entering the room, it was clear this meal would not be a mere seven to eight dollars.

Before even looking into the slow food menu, I was provided with what I decided to call a slow drink menu. I call it this for two reasons: first of all, the Door County Cherry Drop is made with Death’s Door Vodka, wheat from Washington Island, Wisconsin, Door County Montmorency cherry juice, and fresh lemon juice, all products from Wisconsin. Second of all, it took 33 minutes from ordering to arrival of the fruity cocktail, something I chuckled at until I realized the cocktail alone cost more than a full meal at the Slow Food Café.

Contributing to the upscale feel, waiters wearing crisp white shirts and black aprons came out with trays of a mysterious item for the entire restaurant. “The chef has provided a complimentary amuse-bouche,” announced one of the waiters. I’ll admit, I tried to discreetly Google what the translation was under the table and found it meant a “bite-sized hors d’oeuvre,” in this case consisting of a parsnip and cardamom soup intended to “prepare the palette.” The small dish was presented in a bowl. I picked up my spoon only to encounter a light tap on the shoulder and our kind waiter informing me that I must “lift and sip straight from the bowl.” Embarrassment aside, this did not seem unordinary for a restaurant of this caliber; however, an event later in the evening had taken me even more by surprise.

Partway through dinner I went to the restroom, returned to my table, sat down on the comfortable suede bench to find something puzzling before me. Had I somehow beautifully refolded my napkin as I threw it on the table before I left? Is it a new napkin because I accidentally dropped, or even worse, brought the napkin to the restroom? I was determined to find out, so without providing a reason I asked my dinner partner to head to the restroom. As soon as he left an employee swiftly walked over, effortlessly refolded the napkin, and left without a word.

Harvest undoubtedly provides exceptional service in addition to a luxury feel, but what of the food? Similar, but not identical to the Slow Food Café, Harvest aims to bring Madison a unique dining experience and a menu enhanced by seasonal, locally grown and organic ingredients. The key word here is “enhanced.”

My dinner consisted of three plates and a side. The first was a charcutière plate for two, consisting of pancetta, coppa, finocchiona, grilled rye bread, whole grain mustard, and cranberry-mustard jam. Next came pan seared scallops in a truffle beurre blanc sauce, complemented by wilted red cabbage. And if you’re not salivating yet, fennel-crusted tuna over forbidden black rice garnished with ginger wasabi aioli came last with a side of seasonal shitake mushrooms.

Fact: scallops and tuna are not local products of Wisconsin; however, the complementing food items, or enhancements, come from the Dane County Farmer’s Market, Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Co-op and Harmony Valley Farm to name a few producers. At Harvest, you’re paying for more than the contribution to a sustainable community and environment. You’re paying for the lux factor, the service and the fantastic meals. With a high price tag, the restaurant is not accessible to everyone, and oftentimes local, organic food comes at a higher cost in general.

“People forget about the economic cost of agriculture. There are subsidies as well as environmental costs that aren’t necessarily integrated into the price given to the consumer. You’re paying for environmental consciousness and sustainable practices, as well as looking into supporting the community based on farmers and land use management,” Hunter, additionally a co-founder of the Underground Collective, explained.

The Underground Food Collective cooks and experiments as a collective group, without a head chef or owner. The collective also started Underground Meats and the Underground Butcher, creating handcrafted salami and cured meats to be used in restaurants around the area as well as purchased individually. The business also offers a variety of classes and workshops, some in collaboration with the Slow Food Café, which highlights the overlap of the movement in Madison.

In June 2012, the Underground Food Collective opened its first restaurant, Forequarter Madison, with weekly additions and changing menus focusing on seasonal ingredients. Although not as pricy as Harvest, Forequarter is still selectively accessible, with small plates at $12 on average and entrees starting at $22.

“It’s more expensive to use some specific local ingredients but there are also other things to take into account, such as resourcefulness and better use of ingredients,” Hunter commented on higher-priced restaurants.

With the combination of an upscale atmosphere and local products’ higher prices, I made the personal, fiscally responsible decision to skip dining at Forequarter. It was time to return to the Slow Food Café and to get there early this time.

Back to Basics

Although disappointed I couldn’t initially indulge in my first visit’s meal of bangers and rutabaga mash with stout gravy, root veggie mac and cheese, summer-preserve sauté with Parmesan, and to satisfy the sweet palette, homemade s’mores, my successful café visit wholly exceeded my expectations. A fresh meal of samosa, rice and chapatti treated the taste buds as a café director eagerly expressed her inspiring passion for simplicity, sustainability and recycling. Members of the slow food movement stand strongly against waste, so if there are ever leftovers, the café gives the food to the homeless shelter down the block and recycles all materials used in the prep and serve process.

While it isn’t a glamorous eatery, the organization features guest chefs at Monday night dinners, including semester visits from Tory Miller, the head chef at Graze and L’Etoile. These chefs also give seminars on how to prepare a variety of dishes and contribute to the café’s weekly changing menu. Don’t let the modest, communal dining room fool you, because the blend of ingredients, culinary contacts and sincere interest in creating a great meal is something to boast about. Good food is good food, no matter the mood lighting or staff’s attire.

Returning to the notion of a typical café or restaurant, running out of food is inappropriate from a business perspective. But again, the UW-Slow Food Café is atypical, and while most would view running out of food negatively, the café directors viewed the hiccup excitedly, as growth of their organization and the slow food community. A shortage is rare, as it only happened one other time, and the recent rising number of customers has prompted exciting changes. The café looks forward to gaining more volunteers, interns and eventually renting a larger space to accommodate an increasing number of loyal customers. So walk in, slow down, eat up, branch out and enjoy.

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