Culinary Crossroads

Marcelle Richards looks back at lessons learned and relationships built exploring the Madison food community.

When people ask me where I’m from, I say “California, but Madison is home.”

It’s the first time I’ve ever given a place that designation. I’ve been here for ten years as of May—longer than any other place I’ve lived. I come from a long line of runners. Mostly runners headed away, rather than to something. Blind fight or flight. I’ve done both.

I landed in Madison, where I came into myself and paused long enough to learn a third option: take home with you, but you must build it first.

As I prepare to move in August, it is different this time: intentional and expectant. I realize I’ve built something that will last, and that I can take with me. Madison has taught me what I need to know at this juncture and something else awaits to be had. The knowing requires trust.

Madison has taught me to trust. I have learned to trust myself, and in something greater, because I have been able to affirm lessons in the seemingly mundane. For me that means seeing that we are all connected—us two-legged folks—LGBTQA&XYZ and whatever else, and rooted ones, and flying ones, and crawling ones, within the great space that holds us. It’s a web of connectivity, and a safety net if we tune into our relationship with it. We cross here, even, as you read. Each crossing can be a lesson, and if we acknowledge its potential, it acts like a homing device that moves us away from that which doesn’t serve, and toward that which does.

Food has been a compass for me. To eat is one of the most primary tenets of survival. It’s a lens through which I explored the lessons of the sensual world in which we live.

I’ve established myself as a food writer, but it was never just about food. Food was a means to experience, in its most ecstatic and fully expressed form, essence. Being a food critic taught me discernment; story gathering taught me connection; cooking taught me manifestation. Writing teaches me the process of gleaning essence; I’m an essence writer.

A wise friend told me, “You’ll meet who you need to know.” These are some of the people and places in the community that taught me more than how to find a good meal.

Chef Tory Miller, L’Etoile Restaurant and Graze Gastropub: Chef Tory and I met through an interview I pitched for Our Lives. I wanted to tell his story, but also I went in recognizing him as someone who could be a valuable teacher, and he certainly was. But I had to make the ask. When the story ran, I hand-delivered a copy of Our Lives with my resume. That spring, I began my culinary internship. I was told L’Etoile was different from any other place I’d ever worked, or would work. There was magic; the place where vision meets will and creation is possible. Play. Make your first impression your best. Get a little weird sometimes. Ask.

Anne Topham, Fantome Farm: She and Judy Borree started making French-style farmstead goat cheese in the 1980s, i.e., before goat cheese was cool. Some of her equipment is even custom-made because so few models and mentors existed when they began. Judy still helps with the business and with tasting and milking. It started with a passion for re-creating a piece of chevre a friend brought back from France. Then came a goat. Anne left academia, and the rest is history. It’s special to see her cheese anywhere, but we are lucky to have her in person at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. Anne can’t see herself retiring, because she doesn’t want to. Give life to the passion that never grows old. Work for beauty.

Leanne Cordisco, Chocolaterian Café: I first met Leanne pre-Chocolaterian, just as Christine’s Toffee was getting stuffed into swag bags for the Emmys. Her candy-business path started off with a fortuitous rejection of a wine-accessory idea she pitched to her would-be angel investor, and to which he said no. But he saw her gusto and asked her to start up a candy company instead. She said yes. Popular Snacks now has a retail home in Chocolaterian, an unofficial queer hotspot and neighborhood darling where Leanne comfortably fits the part in or out of the kitchen. Leanne taught me to say yes. Take the leap and land beyond where you imagined.

Anna Alberici, Greenbush Bar: Sometimes you just want pizza to taste like pizza. It takes all types, and we need those who keep the past awake. She is a bit of a Lorax to me, one who bears witness to the cautionary tale of what once was. The Greenbush neighborhood appeals to my empathy for those communities that once called it home before they found themselves uprooted. In the context of the queer community, there’s something to be had from that. Take care of one anOTHER. Every “other.”

Theresa Pullara-Oubel and Rashid Ouebel, Bunky’s Café: There’s something so damn good about plain ol’ spaghetti and meatballs here, though the Mediterranean picks are great, too (the falafel is a favorite). It’s homey and warm, and the food is a part of that, but the staff completes the picture: good vibes beget good vibes. Put out what you want back.

Ken Monteleone, Fromagination: In retail, floor space is money, and as a former Lands’ End executive, Ken of all people knows that. That’s why I so admire his decision to use so much floor space for a community table designed to bring strangers together with cheese and companions. Take a risk and go out of your comfort zone. Put your dollars behind your beliefs.

Mary Celley, The Bee Charmer: Not everyone believes in something higher, but when she described a beehive as a “golden city” I felt tingles. They all manage to get along, she said. Our models for community can stretch beyond those of our own devising if we let them, and we might be better for it. Find her bottles of liquid gold at the Dane County Farmers’ Market.

Plaka Taverna: When I want to cater to my inner old man—and believe me, he is alive and well and set in his ways—I go here. Taking a solo early morning journey to this lake-facing cafe is my favorite way to enjoy the peace of aloneness, usually with a paper, the Rock the Casbah special, and an ever-filling cup of coffee. One thing I’ve learned is to give myself what I give to others. Treat yourself to a date, and remember why you fell in love in the first place.

Macha Teahouse and Gallery: This is my favorite place to seek quiet, which is perhaps my biggest craving these days. Don’t miss the homemade pork buns, which I believe to be the path to world peace. Food is an excellent way to practice presence. The richness of our worlds is created within, and really can start with something as simple as showing gratitude and enjoyment for what is on your tongue, right here, right now.

Robert Von Rutenberg, Von Rutenberg Ventures: Robert and his brothers Bill and Jack own NauTiGal, Captain Bill’s, Mariner’s Inn, and Betty Lou Cruises. I first happened upon NauTiGal during an ACT 6 event; I was newly out and still getting my bearings, but I will always associate those waterfront lawns with my fledging period in the queer community. I later came to know Robert better when we were on the American Culinary Federation student competition team at Madison College. While I respected the charitable involvement of his and his brothers’ businesses, I came to see part of the spirit behind it. I looked to Robert as our team’s mother hen—he was one of the busiest people I knew, but he always made time to be kind, a lesson I need reminding of. Be kind, no matter what life throws at you.

Thank you for bringing me home, Madison. Regardless of how we stay or scatter, we are home because we take it with us. Welcome home.