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Odessa Piper: The Pied Piper
L'Etoile proprietor Odessa Piper has gained a national following of chefs and restaurateurs with her recipe for environmentally conscious cooking and dining

This article originally appeared in Isthmus on Oct. 25, 1996

At 7 o'clock on a crisp Saturday morning, a familiar, white-aproned figure dodges energetically among the early-bird shoppers at the Madison Farmers' Market. Odessa Piper, chef and proprietor of L'Etoile Restaurant, is in her element. Her red wooden child's wagon already piled high, she pounces on a cache of wild raspberries at Harmony Valley's organic farmstand. "Oooh, man!" she exclaims, popping one in her mouth. "I'll take them all."

In another hour, heavy crowds will have slowed the pace here to a crawl, but by then Piper and Tami Lax, L'Etoile's full-time "forager," will have finished their haul. This morning they've assembled a gorgeous late summer still life: brilliant red and gold nasturtiums; fingernail-size organic baby blue potatoes; a tangle of edible peavine; spiky, purple-flowered anise hyssop; and three enormous flats of gooseberries. Piper is rhapsodic. "I like to infuse anise hyssop into honey and drizzle it over really perfect fall pears," she says happily.

This fall marks 20 years for L'Etoile -- two decades of, as the restaurant's tag line says, "cooking with the seasons." A virtual institution on Madison's Capitol Square, L'Etoile celebrates and promotes Wisconsin's small farms and native harvest with an elegant and ecologically minded cuisine. In the process, Piper has helped foster a quiet revolution in cooking and dining that has spread far beyond her restaurant doors. Now the rest of the country is finally catching up. At age 43, Piper finds herself in the unaccustomed role of mentor, sage and patron saint of a growing body of young, environmentally conscious chefs and restaurateurs. She's been profiled by everyone from Bon Appetit! and Eating Well to Sierra magazine and PBS. She receives frequent invitations to guest chef at other restaurants. She's on the governing board of Chef's Collaborative 2000, a national lobbying group for healthy food and sustainable agriculture. And she's been asked by a top New York publishing house to write a cookbook.

Eric Rupert, Piper's former co-chef, says that within the restaurant community "she's widely considered to be among the top 10 chefs in the nation." Ironically, he adds, Madison-area diners are generally unaware of her emerging national reputation.

Stop by L'Etoile on a chilly fall night, sit down in the candle-filled dining room with the treetop view of the Capitol Square, and pick up a menu. See if it doesn't read like poetry. "Strudel of local wild mushrooms; apple cider sorbet; whitefish with seared cabbage and apples, Neuske's applewood bacon and cider vinaigrette; Fantome Farm's aged goat Boulot with hickory nut crackers; Moonglow pears poached in Wollersheim River Gold wine, with gold raspberries and anise hyssop ice cream."

This is Odessa Piper's ode to fall. Reading it, you can almost see the dried leaves whipping about the fields, the last berries straggling on the vine, bushels of apples at country farmstands and wild hickory nuts in the woods. More than that, a menu like this -- saturated with the taste and aroma of the season and conveying a powerful sense of place -- represents Piper's vision of the restaurant as a steward of the land. L'Etoile's cooks consider themselves partners in the struggle to preserve and protect the fertility of the soil and the culture of the small farm; accordingly, their menus showcase organically grown antique and heirloom varieties of fruit and vegetables, the wild nuts and berries native to Wisconsin's prairies and woodlands, naturally raised meats and local game, and artisanal cheeses.

This approach to cooking may not seem as original today as it did in the heady days of the mid-'70s, when L'Etoile and a handful of other restaurants around the country sparked the movement that would come to be known as "the new American cuisine." Today, organic supermarkets do big business across the country, and a younger generation of chefs has raised the "green cuisine" banner. But, still ahead of the pack, Odessa Piper has adopted an even more radical philosophy: regionally reliant cuisine -- cooking exclusively with local ingredients. "It's the next wave of thinking," she says.

In an age when any ingredient is just a phone call away, why would a cook voluntarily limit herself to local ingredients? Taste and ecology, says Piper. Fruits and vegetables raised nearby are almost always riper and better tasting, because they haven't been selected for long shelf life. And the environment benefits when food isn't packaged, processed and shipped all over the country. The only other restaurant that comes anywhere near L'Etoile's level of commitment to regional reliance is Alice Water's famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley. And, unlike snowy Wisconsin, California has a year-round growing season.

To keep dinner on the table in this challenging climate, Piper says she does what the Native Americans and our Midwestern ancestors did. She stocks a root cellar. She cans. This summer, she and L'Etoile's kitchen staff froze, dried and preserved thousands of dollars' worth of tomatoes and other perishable summer fruits and vegetables. "It's really nothing new," she says. "Our grandparents cooked this way. We've just rediscovered it on a more political and environmental level."

Needless to say, cooking this way requires extraordinary dedication. "There are a lot of people in restaurants across the country who are philosophically in agreement [with her]," says Alice Waters, "but there are very few committed to that extent."

Still, with entrees at L'Etoile ranging from $20 to $25 and dinner for two (including wine) averaging around $100, who can afford it? True, a comparable dinner in Chicago, San Francisco or New York would be cheap at that price -- but this is frugal Madison. "It's the real cost of food," Piper answers quietly. As a nation, America is just beginning to pay the price for 50 years of chemically dependent agriculture, she points out. Our rivers and lakes are polluted, our soil is exhausted from overfarming, and our farm culture is disappearing. L'Etoile is, she says, "a point of interface with farmers who are taking a lot more time and expense to preserve the fertility of their soil. And right now, we have to pass those expenses on."

But, she stresses, "you have to look at this as a 50-year piece of work. We have a whole generation of chefs buying and cooking locally now, and a whole ring of farms around Madison that are organic now. That kind of change only happens in tiny, incremental steps."

With that kind of business philosophy, it's easy to see why L'Etoile has never turned more than a modest profit. "People seem to think I toot around town in a Mercedes," Piper says irritably. Instead, she makes $27,000 to $30,000 a year and lives in what resembles a tiny woodland cabin tucked behind the modest ranches and Cape Cods of a near-west-side neighborhood.

An archetypal workaholic, Piper is rarely home anyway. Restaurant work is notorious for its long hours, and the careful attention Piper devotes to the smallest details at L'Etoile, coupled with the increasing demands of her out-of-town commitments, leaves her little time to rest. Piper acknowledges that she should have burned out years ago. ("Sometimes I think instead of burning out, I burned through.") What's kept her going is a quiet, deeply felt spirituality. She's a serious student of meditation. For a time, she attended Quaker meetings regularly. Her tiny nest of a home is a sanctuary of skylights and cascading house plants. Volumes of poetry, Annie Dillard's nature essays and David Spangler's Manifestation: The Inner Art on her all-purpose dinner/work table. Instead of a TV room, she has a music room -- complete with battered old upright piano, guitar and lute. The lute, for now, remains decoration. Piper is still waiting for the day when she finally has time to learn to play it.

For a woman who owns the best restaurant in town, Odessa Piper is thin enough to look like she lives on nuts and berries. And perhaps she does -- she has the perpetually distracted air of someone who forgets to eat, and her kitchen at home is, to put it politely, minimalist. (She has one good knife and three or four pots.) Piper's an otherworldly type, with a lean, ascetic face and eyes that tend to stare past you, as though fixed on some higher dimension. It's a disarming combination -- the airy philosopher and the sensualist chef. She can go into raptures over a homely rutabaga or a bunch of fall beets; she can also be difficult to bring down to earth.

Piper's deep, almost mystical connection to the land has its roots in her childhood. She grew up in rural New Hampshire in a quintessential New England farmhouse. Her father was a doctor. Piper was one of five children in a family passionate about food. They baked their own bread and made their own root beer. They tramped through the woods gathering wild mushrooms. They picked wild blueberries, froze them and ate blueberry pancakes all year long. In high school, Piper fell in love with a Dartmouth College anti-war protester and left school to help start one of the first back-to-the-land communes: Wooden Shoe, in Canaan, N.H. With no electricity or running water, the group raised all its own food and even ground its own grain for bread. "There was a lot of energy, we were all very committed, but I remember we were all rather skinny," says Piper.

When her romance broke up, she hitchhiked to the Midwest. There, she came under the influence of a community called Phoenix, which was to have a profound and lasting influence on her life.

When Piper joined Phoenix, it was a group of two dozen young disciples of a charismatic New Age visionary, Joanna Guthrie. Guthrie, whose mental breakdown in 1974 splintered the group, established her community in Wisconsin's Kickapoo Valley with an organic farm. "We raised sheep, we gardened, we hand-milked six cows," says Piper. "The whole idea was practical spirituality -- which meant stewarding the land and practicing mindfulness in our daily lives."

In 1972, the group moved to Madison and wrought a kind of cultural revolution on the local dining scene when it opened a small restaurant dedicated to classic French cuisine: the Ovens of Brittany. Not that anyone in the group knew anything about cooking, much less French cooking, says David Yankovich, the Phoenix member who eventually took over as manager of the Ovens. The restaurant was Guthrie's idea.

"It was all about creative artistic expression," he says. "That was the spiritual impulse behind Phoenix. We didn't care that much about food, and we didn't care at all about business." Piper agrees: "We were a bunch of kids who didn't know jack shit, cooking from cookbooks. We applied ourselves rigorously to Julia Child and Simone Beck. We made food, we made mistakes, we made it again, until finally we began to understand it."

Piper taught herself to cook at the Ovens and discovered her aptitude for fine pastry at its upstairs Baker's Rooms, which she ran until she left in 1976. But her years with Phoenix and as a "hippie farmer" left her with more than skill with a pastry knife and a respect for compost. Today, New Age, Quaker and Zen spiritual philosophies inform her working style. She values silence (or at least no blaring boomboxes) in the restaurant kitchen. "If you're listening to the radio, you're not listening to your work." She encourages her staff to practice mindfulness -- cultivating the little arts of a perfectly turned pastry or how to care for a tool.

But most of all, what has alternately inspired and infuriated several generations of staff members is that Odessa Piper clearly believes that what she's doing at L'Etoile isn't and never will be about running a business. It's about saving the world. She herself says simply, "My life is in service to those early ideals. They're what motivates me most profoundly."

When Piper and then partner Jim Casey opened L'Etoile in 1976, she wasn't even close to articulating her current culinary vision. "I was 23," she says. "I didn't know myself, much less what I wanted to do." What she did know is that she wanted a better workplace. "I became an entrepreneur in an effort to provide the conditions I would have loved as an employee -- a clean, beautiful, creativity-affirming workplace. Business ownership was a byproduct." Over the years, Piper's model of an ideal workplace did attract an extraordinary collection of talented, creative chefs. Many of them received their first training at L'Etoile, and many had a profound influence on the development of the restaurant's current cooking style and philosophy. They are not all complimentary about the experience.

"Unfocused and undisciplined" is how several former employees remember Piper -- attributes they say led to chaos in the kitchen. The restaurant's menu changed daily (it still does), which provided great creative opportunities, but also set an intense, demanding pace. In that atmosphere, Piper's airy impracticality drove her cooks nuts. "We tried to keep her as far away from the kitchen as we could," remembers former head chef Greg Upward.

Piper says she knows she can be difficult to work with. "I'm a pretty creative force. I take a perfectly good recipe or system and tinker with it. I'm constantly tinkering -- I can't help it."

Piper herself remembers L'Etoile's first decade as physically exhausting and emotionally draining. Jim Casey left after just six months. There were too many artistic temperaments under one roof. She was insecure about her cooking skills and uncomfortable as a supervisor. Worse, the restaurant hovered dangerously close to financial collapse. "It was touch-and-go all the way. More often than not, I didn't pay myself. I slept in other people's houses, and one whole summer I slept on my sister's porch."

It never seems to have occurred to her to give up, though. "There were times when the difficulties were so great I wanted to escape, but I had no place to run. The restaurant was like a child I felt irrevocably committed to. I had the restaurant in my prime child-bearing years, and I'm convinced my maternal instincts attached to it."

Those maternal instincts are also responsible for Piper's delay in expanding L'Etoile. When Piper acquired the storefront space below L'Etoile some years ago, she announced plans to open a "Farmer's Market Cafe" as an informal and less expensive sister to the restaurant upstairs. Then Piper's marriage to her former business partner, Bernhardt Voetterl, fell apart. Worried about losing control of L'Etoile, Piper dragged her heels on the divorce and froze all plans for development. Today, she says she's emerged with full control of the business and building, and is actively looking for business partners to sign on to the Cafe and other projects. Piper also has a new fiancé, Terry Thiese, a Maryland-based fine wine importer -- but she says Thiese and she will remain strictly "life partners."

Things are calmer at L'Etoile these days. The restaurant is financially stable, and the national attention she's getting has made Piper more relaxed and self-confident. More to the point, the unexpected departure a couple of years ago of two key staffers -- former head chef Rupert and sous-chef David "Wave" Kasprzak -- forced a massive reorganization. Piper says she asked herself what the lessons of sustainability could teach her about running her own business, and decided the traditional hierarchical restaurant management structure had to go. Today, L'Etoile is a model of '90s team management. Instead of a head chef who oversees the kitchen and every single plate that leaves it, L'Etoile now has four or five "station chefs," each responsible for a specific section of the menu. Tami Lax, the "forager chef" and kitchen manager, says the cooks feel empowered, and staff morale is "10 times better." Piper now works one-on-one with each cook, tasting a sauce here, suggesting a touch of fresh fennel there. "They like my palate, I like their skill," she says.

In fact, critics and admirers alike agree that Odessa Piper has a remarkable palate. Simply talking with her about food can be a heady experience. She has a visceral, sensuous appreciation of taste, an encyclopedic memory for flavor, and an intuitive sense of one ingredient's affinity for another. Rupert, who is now executive chef at the Opera House, believes one reason is that "she knows the growers, she's even visited their farms and walked on their land. It may sound hokey, but I really think that comes through in her food."

"Farming is cooking," Odessa Piper insists. "See, cooking isn't this thing that happens in the kitchen. It's the whole cycle. When I was foraging with my family, when I was gardening and trying to figure out how to get the cherry tomatoes to grow sweeter, when I was leaning my head against the warm flank of a Jersey cow at 5 a.m., that's passion about food!"

How does that passion translate into restaurant cuisine? Take hickory nuts -- an indigenous Wisconsin nut for which Piper has a nearly religious reverence. "You know what she does with hickory nuts?" asks Rupert. "She takes a Moonglow pear from Ela Orchard, poaches it in Riesling, cores it and fills it with a hickory nut praline. Then she wraps it in puff pastry, bakes it, and sets it on top of a pool of creme anglaise that's been swirled with cider caramel sauce." After a pause for appreciation, Rupert adds, "If someone put that down in front of you and said your grandma made it, you'd almost be able to believe it. It's cooking from the heart, it's cooking with love in it."

While lacking the accouterments of material wealth, Piper feels she has achieved many of her dreams, and is, in her own terms, a rich woman. "I feel myself to be infinitely wealthy -- the abundance I get to deal with every day is intoxicating."

Equally pleasurable is the fact that at its 20-year mark, her restaurant has finally come of age. "We were in an ugly duckling phase for many years," she says. "Now, we've found our focus."

Its growing pains over, L'Etoile is ready for the next stage of its life, and Piper is too. After so many years of unstinting devotion, she's slowly but surely pulling back a bit from the restaurant's day-to-day operation. The restaurant is ready for less of her, she says -- and she's ready for something more.

Something like fiancé Thiese? "He represents the 'Odessa, it's time to get a life' phase." The two will begin married life this winter as a commuter couple, dividing their time between Madison and Silver Springs, Md. Piper says it won't change much at the restaurant. The days of tempests in the kitchen are over, and L'Etoile's current staff is a devoted and professional crew, used to running the place in her absence. In any case, Piper says she's looking ahead to some new beginnings. She'll begin work on the L'Etoile cookbook in January. As she puts it, "I have books to write, a man to marry, a personal life to craft and a cafe to start. Also, my 43-year old body has been working 12 hours a day, six days a week, on my feet, for too long. People shouldn't be line cooks after age 35."

What should they do instead? Trust Odessa Piper to have a vision: "My goal is for L'Etoile to be like a school and all the key staff like teachers, helping and advising people coming up through the ranks. If I could come down and occasionally perch on a kitchen table and quietly make a perfect pie crust and teach an apprentice -- that to me would be heaven."

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