Soil & Soul

Owner of Harvest and The Old Fashioned, Tami Lax brings her passion and a family farm tradition to Madison tables.

When we opened Harvest in the fall of 2000, we were still hanging pictures on the walls minutes before we unlocked the doors. I don’t think I took a day off for the first three years. Many nights, I would find myself on my front porch, not even remembering the walk home.

A few years later, the space next to Harvest became available. The idea for a more casual concept had always been in the back of my mind, and The Old Fashioned opened in December 2005.

Being a part of the Madison restaurant community is a rewarding and humbling experience on a daily basis, and these feelings have been amplified by the accolades we’ve received from both local and national press throughout the years. The success of these restaurants comes from the people with whom I have the great fortune to work. We employ more than 150 people between Harvest and The Old Fashioned, and each one plays his or her own important role in our success.

As I reflect, I thank my lucky stars that I have a career I love, and that I love going to work every day. From my years on the line at L’Etoile to opening these two restaurants, my career was molded by the strong influence of my family’s farms and the farm-to-table culture that I grew up in.

Growing Up on the Farm

My connection with food came to me at a very early age. My earliest memories are of my Grandma LaPlant’s cooking wafting from the basement kitchen of her Cape Cod-style home, where she raised my mom and seven of my aunts and uncles. I remember her Hungarian goulash, her Jell-O molds with preserved pears or grated carrots, and her coleslaw that no one to this day can replicate. Sundays were spent with my family at her home, where I absorbed the importance of a strong connection to food and its role in bringing people to the table.

During the harvest time of summer and fall, my mom and aunts would pack us all up in the car and make our yearly pilgrimage to Door County to harvest fruit. Early summer would be strawberries, followed by cherries around the 4th of July. Fall brought my favorites: peaches and pears. All were brought back to my grandmother’s for cleaning and processing. These were not everyday foods; rather, they were only brought out to savor during special occasions and holidays. Of course, with 22 grandchildren, special occasions seemed to happen on a bi-weekly basis! Whether for birthdays, baptisms, or first communions, my grandma, aunts, and mom were always preparing a feast.

My father grew up on a dairy farm just outside of Green Bay. My grandparents were still farming the property until I was in high school. Their home and this farm were my playground as a child. The yard full of fruit trees, brambles, and grapevines; the fields full of vegetables. In fall, the perfect rectangular bales of hay towered to the roof of the barn. The air was dusty and thin as we would climb to the top, seeing who could get there first. Climbing to the top of the milk house to reach the plump purple mulberries of summer was truly an epic achievement, in no small part because I thought this mulberry tree was the only one in existence, having been brought from Europe and planted by an earlier relative.

Hidden under the ground of this dairy farm, my Grandmother Alice kept the most elaborate root cellar. Large heads of cabbage with their dried outer leaves hung from the ceiling. Carrots were carefully placed in square wooden boxes of sand. Onions hung by their necks on hooks from the rafters. Barrels of potatoes and apples had to be tended to daily to make sure nothing was rotting. Green tomatoes were individually wrapped in thin tissue paper and left to ripen around Christmas. The shelves that lined the walls were filled with jars of canned and pickled fruits and vegetables.

I was always struck by how it seemed that my Grandmother Alice was always baking or preparing a meal. Bread, Belgian pies, or kolache always seemed to be on the kitchen counter, just out of the oven. Concord grapes would be stewing in a giant stockpot on the stovetop for grape jelly. I even have pictures of her as a young mother, hunting rabbits for her family’s dinner!

When I was a young child, she would take me to the creek on the farm to catch crawfish. A simple stick with kitchen twine and bologna as the bait would entice them from under a river rock. I remember eating them for the first time and thinking how exotic the whole experience was.

My parents purchased vacation property in northern Wisconsin just after I was born. It’s funny to call it vacation property, because I can honestly say none of us have a vacation bone in our bodies when we are there. We always have a project going while dreaming of the next. My four siblings and I spent every day during summer school breaks and weekends the rest of the year at our cabin. My parents would make a game of us gathering wild edibles for our meals. My father would fish for rainbow trout while the rest of us would pick wild berries, mushrooms, and apples from 100-year-old trees planted by the prior owners. The property is rich with wintergreen, raspberries, chokecherries, pin cherries, gooseberries, blackcaps, blackberries, wild hazelnuts, mushrooms, and blueberries. My internal clock still gets a rush in spring waiting for the arrival of morels. This is where my foraging bug was born!

My father kept a large garden on my grandparents’ farm. His specialty was pumpkins and large Spanish onions that he sold wholesale to the locally owned grocery stores in Green Bay. My siblings and I played a big part in this business by helping tend to the garden: planting, weeding, hoeing, harvesting, and delivering. The yearly celebration of the onion harvest was my mom’s Onion Ring Festival. All of the neighbors would bring their picnic tables and coolers to our yard for an afternoon of eating onion rings and drinking beer. My mom would spend the entire day beer battering thick-cut slices of onions and frying them for all the guests in her makeshift garage kitchen.

From Vinyl to CDs, from Farms to Tables

After college, I worked for a local music-store chain for 12 years, in management and as the music buyer. When I entered the profession, the vinyl album was KING. But as time went by, the CD took over and my passion for music turned into being a security guard. My professional career needed a serious shake-up. By this time, my family’s farms were no longer in operation, and I saw many others not being passed on to their family members. I wanted to be involved in a business that could help turn that tide. I also needed to be doing something that would feed my soul. So I decided to do something most people would advise you never to do: I made my hobby into my profession. My hobby, my true passion, is cooking.

I knew that if I wanted to learn about cooking great food in a sustainable way, Odessa Piper’s L’Etoile was the place. I contacted Odessa and asked if she would consider hiring me for an internship or apprentice position. After meeting several times, she hired me for a line position in her kitchen. My tenure with Odessa was invaluable, not only from what she taught me, but what I learned from all the other amazing staff members who worked there. A sustainable restaurant is not only one that buys locally, but is also one that runs its business sustainably.

My intention was to work with Odessa for two years, move to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America (at the time, you had to have two years of practical restaurant experience to enter their program), and finally, return to open my own restaurant in Madison. But time flies, especially in the restaurant business. So after five-plus years at L’Etoile, I felt pulled to open my own restaurant.

The summer between leaving L’Etoile and the construction and opening of Harvest, I started a small business called Wisconsin Wild Edibles. I would spend my days foraging wild edibles and selling them to restaurants around the country. Meanwhile, I was reading about an organization in Italy called The Slow Food Movement. At the time there was not a contact in the U.S., but plans were in the making for a New York office. I contacted the office in Italy and expressed my interest in starting a Wisconsin Slow Food Convivium. With my friend Leah Caplan, we founded one of the first Conviviums in the U.S.! Until three years ago, I was a member on the Slow Food US Ark and Presidia Committee, helping to identify and save traditional and endangered foods from extinction.

The opening of Harvest was a blur. Every night was busier than the last. We were on a roll, and then 9/11 happened on our one-year anniversary. We as a country fell to our knees, and so did the fine-dining restaurant business. It took a couple of years for things to get back on track. Shortly after we got back on our feet, the space next to Harvest became available, and the time was right to open a second restaurant. It was a concept I’d been mulling over for years.

After five years of learning firsthand what it takes to run a successful restaurant, I knew I didn’t want to do this alone. I wanted exciting people whom I respect to partner with me in this new project. I contacted Bob Miller, now living in Boston, whom I had met working at L’Etoile, and asked if he would consider moving back to join me in the venture. I was a huge fan of Lombardino’s and had become friends with Marcia Castro (one of the owners) through Madison Originals. Talking one evening, I asked if she would consider partnering with us as well.

Another crucial piece that fell into place was my partner, Jen De Bolt. We met through mutual friends, and she was in an entirely different field of work and was contemplating law school. She and I have similar spirits, where we were raised to believe nothing was out of reach or was gender-specific. So picking up a hammer or crowbar was very natural. At the time of opening the new restaurant I had been diagnosed with a rare case of endometriosis and was out of commission after surgery for several months. Jen took charge of not only physically helping with the demolition of the space but also coordinating the initial construction through my partners and me. Being so intimately involved in its physical beginnings, Jen made the choice to stay on as a member of our management team and to forego law school. My business partners and I will be forever grateful for her decision.

The Old Fashioned turns eight in December, and Harvest will celebrate its 13-year anniversary this September. In my short time, I have seen the downtown area grow from a couple of restaurants to dozens, making Madison’s Capitol Square an exciting destination for diners. With every new innovative restaurant that opens and thrives, it just sends the message that Madisonians are serious about their food, and will continue to support farm-to-table restaurants. It is a great honor to be a part of Madison’s restaurant community.