Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A great chef whose food you'll never eat

Jack Kaestner is the chef at the Oconomowoc Lake club just outside Milwaukee. He's been there for many years (I think he said 17). It's a private club, so you will probably not get to eat there, which is too bad. Chef Jack is a CIA (Culinary Institute of America, not the other one!) graduate, and a huge supporter of local food in the area. He has been involved in many organizations and initiatives to promote local eating, including as a founding member of the SE Wisconsin Slow Food chapter (or Convivium, as they prefer it). I have heard him speak a number of times on how farmers and chefs can work together for mutual benefit. In a profession that is somewhat famous for hotheads, he is a decidedly cool one (of course I've never worked in his kitchen, but I did see his whole staff smiling).

I am one of the lucky ones, because I got to enjoy one of his meals. No, I did not join the club. In observance of Earth Day, Jack and his crew put together a special dinner focusing on local ingredients. The members had to buy tickets, and all 75 seats sold out. I got to go as a representative of Death's Door Spirits, so I got to introduce the members to those great products as well as to meet some other producers. It was a good group, and a great menu, including spinach salad, a duet of pastured beef and turkey with mashed potatoes, and ice cream sundaes and a selection of cookies. I also got to try rabbit for the first time, in a paté no less. My impression was more about paté than rabbit (think cold meatloaf), but I did enjoy it. We had a chance to mingle with the diners before hand, then each producer gave a spiel about their products and approach, after which the members got to ask questions. A big focus was on what is meant by free range, most particularly with respect to poultry. I feel that the issues of concern closely mirror what we have heard in speaking to other groups about local food. And of course there is nothing like having a connection with the producer so that you can find out if the farming practices are in accord with your values.

One of Jack's points as a chef in a fine-dining restaurant is that you have to think about the sustainability of what you are doing. Or as he says, you have to shift from thinking about filet mignon to thinking about pot roast. For example, think of a typical beef steer: it weighs maybe 1,000 pounds. Think you like filet mignon? How about if I told you that there is only 4-6 pounds of filet on that 1/2 ton animal? Yes, that's 1/2 of 1% of the live weight. And you know how you see hanger steak on all the trendy menus just now? Well, there's only one (one!) hanger steak on each steer. Now as to pot roast, I have tasted Jack's, and I am a believer. You will never find a piece of filet that is more tender, and as a bonus, you actually get some flavor (which is my main complaint with filet), or in Jack's case, a ton of flavor.

I have to give a lot of credit to Jack for his leadership on these issues, and frankly, a lot of credit to the members of his club for giving him the freedom to serve pot roast at their daughters' fancy wedding receptions!

Jack has an informative web site, and has a great calendar that provides a month-by-month guide to what is in season at any point in the year. A great resource for planning ahead (perhaps for your own local eating experiment?).


No comments: