Posts Tagged: driftless cafe

Community Builder: Luke Zahm

BY ARYN HENNING NICHOLS
Originally published in the Fall 2019 Inspire(d)

Much of Luke Zahm’s mission in life has been about creating identity.

Whether it’s as a chef, or at his popular farm-to-table restaurant, Driftless Café, or beyond that, cultivating identity for the Midwest.

“I found my identity and connection through food,” he says. “Being from La Farge, Wisconsin, I didn’t have much of a sense of place when I was younger. My mom worked at Organic Valley for 25 years, and when OV kids went off to college, we were given stacks of coupons for free products, which was amazing.”

“Sometimes I would trade them for beer,” he continues with a laugh. “Free milk, eggs, cheese, butter, orange juice – all that stuff was gold when you were in college. But often we’d use them to buy our own food. So I walked into a Whole Foods for the first time in Chicago, picked up a piece of Organic Valley cheddar, and saw La Farge, Wisconsin, written on the back, in a way that had relevance and meaning. And it struck me: ‘These are my people, this is where I’m from!’ That never left me. I loved watching the Driftless Region grow in that way.”

Before that, Luke often said, “I’m from somewhere near Madison.”

His first experience in a restaurant was a high school job at the Subway in Viroqua where, as luck would have it, he would meet the woman he’d marry someday: Ruthie Yahn.

Ruthie and Luke Zahm outside Driftless Cafe

Ruthie and Luke Zahm outside Driftless Cafe in Viroqua. / Photo courtesy Driftless Café

“I was a certified sandwich artist – my Mom still has the certificate – and Ruthie was a small town princess,” Luke says, clearly settling in to tell a good story. “She was the worst customer I ever had! I was going through a Goth phase – and she came in and ordered a sandwich and was all, ‘Do you even know what you’re doing? Can I just come back there and make my own sandwich?’”

Luke, now 40, laughs. Life went on for the two – Ruthie headed to college in Tempe, Arizona; Luke in Chicago. But a restaurant would bring them together again – a Wisconsin supper club – where they both worked the next summer.

“She came to work all tan, and says, ‘Oh hey, I’m Ruthie,’ flirting, and I said, ‘Ohhh, I remember you.’”

They once again went separate ways, but eventually, both transferred to U.W. Madison. They – along with many other old friends from Southwest Wisconsin – met back up and became a tight-knit crew. And Luke and Ruthie fell in love. After they graduated in 2003 – Luke’s degree is in behavioral science and law, and Ruthie’s in nursing – they got married, and stayed in Madison for several years more.

“I thought I was going to be lawyer,” Luke says. “But I was working in restaurants the whole time, and I always felt a pull back.” To food, and to the Viroqua area as well. They moved home in 2011, with their two kids, Ava and Benjamin, in tow, and Luke went to work as an executive sous chef for The Waterfront Restaurant in La Crosse.

“I started hanging out with a lot of big chefs – getting all techy with molecular gastronomy,” Luke says. “Eric Rupert (a Madison-based chef) was my mentor, so I was telling him about all these experiments. He literally grabbed me by my head and said, ‘Dude, you are from the mecca of organics. It gives where you are so much shape and meaning. Cook that food. That’s your role.’ At the time I didn’t love hearing that. But I kinda knew it was in my DNA.”

It was a pivotal moment for Luke. He went back to the basics, spending 14 months working at the Viroqua Co-op bakery and deli.

“They opened their doors to the idea of the restaurant I wanted to create. They helped me articulate what I wanted, and gave people a chance to taste my food,” he says. It was during this time he and Ruthie had another baby, Silas. So life was busy. But they decided to take the leap to create Driftless Café anyway.

“We cashed in all our chips. 401K, savings – all of it went into this idea of this restaurant,” Luke says. “I was taking our new baby to bankers meetings, saying, ‘Here’s what we have. Loan us money!’ Nobody would do it. One day, I had a conversation with a local farmer. I was explaining my vision of what I wanted the Café to be. I wanted to put a spotlight on what farmers are doing, honor the heritage of their roots, plus what they are coming to be.”

When yet another loan didn’t come through, the previous owner of the Driftless Café came to Luke and said, “I’ll sell you the place.” Then that local farmer said, “I’ll finance it.”

“Now, I know I’m not the only farm-to-table restaurant out there… but I may be the only farmer-financed,” Luke says. “It was an amazing show of community trust. They really took a risk on this idea that Ruthie and I were worth it.”

Driftless Café opened under Luke and Ruthie’s ownership in 2013, and the restaurant quickly became a leader in local, farmer-focused dishes inspired by the region. And in 2017, Luke was named a James Beard semifinalist.

“Driftless Café’s motto is to do what it does at the highest level we’re capable of,” he says. “We want to be the authority on local cuisine, a bridge for the community, and a voice into the future.”

Luke at the Driftless Cafe bar

Luke at the Driftless Cafe bar / Photo courtesy Driftless Cafe

The same thing goes for Luke’s involvement with Viroqua Chamber Main Street – he’s been board president for the past three years. “I found I have a voice in it,” he says. “And I want my children to understand that to live and work in a community you have to be involved and active.”

The board has worked to inspire and empower future and current entrepreneurs to invest, sustain, and build up the community.

“In order to market the region, we have to capture those who are working to make things happen,” he says. In fact, years ago, Luke went to the Food Network in LA to pitch an idea for a show about food and a sense of place, highlighting this corner of the Midwest.

“They said, ‘To be fair, nobody gives a sh*t about the Midwest. All revenue is generated by the coasts. Good luck with the underwriting,’” he recalls. “Back in Wisconsin, I said, ‘Nobody gives a sh*t? I just don’t buy that.”

So when Wisconsin Foodie, an Emmy Award-winning show on Wisconsin Public Television, came to Luke about hosting the show after longtime host, Kyle Cherek, planned to step down, he was – of course – interested. After co-hosting a few shows last season, Luke took the job.

The TV spotlight might take some getting used to, though.

“I was canoeing with my daughter and her friend when another boater yells, ‘Hey, congrats on Wisconsin Foodie!’ I’m kind of an introvert, so it’s strange when people I don’t know recognize me,” he says with a laugh. “I’m trying to grow into that.”

“Maybe next time I’ll keep my shirt on,” he adds.

Life is – once again, or perhaps still – busy. Luke’s on the road four days a week filming with Wisconsin Foodie, plus working events and catering gigs, and keeping up with Driftless Café itself. He recently handed the reigns of Executive Chef over to Mary Kastman, an acclaimed chef from Boston who moved to Viroqua last year.

“Mary views and cooks with a different lens than I do, and I think that’s so important,” Luke says. “I see and taste the things she’s making and I’m floored. It’s so amazing how the same ingredients can make such different outcomes. I’m excited for her to create her own identity with food here.”

And luckily, Ruthie is – and has been – on board for it all.

“To be fair, Ruthie is the brains of the operation. Beyonce’s got it right, you know, ‘who runs the world?’ She takes care of it, and makes sure it works for our family,” Luke says. “Part of me would love it to slow down, and another part of me never wants it to slow down. When Ruthie quit job as labor and delivery nurse, we said, ‘Let’s do this thing ‘til it practically kills us.’ And when we put our heads together we could move mountains.”

At the very least – or perhaps the very best – they’ll move hearts and minds.

“Rural America feels like they’re not being heard,” Luke says. “Being from La Farge, or any small town – you’re telling me this doesn’t matter, and I’m going to prove to you that it does. I want to change how the conversation is going. I want to make sure at the end of my run with Wisconsin Foodie that people won’t ever be able to say this is flyover country again.”


Aryn Henning Nichols loves Viroqua and the Driftless Café, and is super inspired by Luke and Ruthie Zahm. They are walking their talks, and it is certainly showing.

Community Building is one of the most important things we can do in this life, so each fall, Inspire(d) features folks in the Driftless doing positive things to build community where they live.
Check out other Community Builders here!

Driftless Day Trip: Viroqua, Wisconsin

ViroquaDowntown

By Inspire(d)

Viroqua, Wisconsin, is just one of those places – the kind you hear about and so want to visit, but getting there seems impossible – literally. We’re pretty sure it’s uphill both ways. But once you do get there, and you take in the views of valleys and bluffs, you wonder: “What took me so long?” And then, “I might never leave.”

That seems to be the case for a lot of people who call Viroqua home. Folks came for a variety of reasons – like those who settled there in the mid-1800s, it might simply be the beauty of the region pulled them in. Or more recently, the surge of organic farming – not to mention the headquarters of organic biz-moguls Organic Valley nestled one town over in La Farge. Maybe it was the Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School that drew one family to town, and the great food co-op recruited another.

Whatever brought these people together, they’re working hard – together – to make their little town of 5,000 special, sustainable, and a fun place to be.

Which, in turn, makes it a fun place to visit! We made our way on a sunny weekend to check out this little community big on cooperatives. The historic downtown is easily traveled on-foot and is filled with quirky stores, handmade shops, cafes, and boutiques. And behind every counter is a person recommending the place next door or just down the street. Calling these people friendly would be an understatement.

We’ve laid out just a few of our favorite spots to help you find your way – whether it’s packing out into the 8,000+ acre Kickapoo Valley Reserve, or hunkering down for a quiet romantic weekend, enjoy all the bounty of the Driftless Region!

Get Outside:

Kickapoo Valley Reserve. S3661 St H 131. La Farge, WI . 608-625-2960. kvr.state.wi.us
The “KVR” (as they say…) is one of the most impressive expanses of land in the entire Driftless Area. 8,500 acres between La Farge and Ontario, Wisconsin (just a few miles from Viroqua) cradle the Kickapoo River, offering up unlimited recreational opportunities. Originally pegged for a controversial damn dam project in the early 1960s, the project failed to ever be completed, leaving this treasure to eventually become a public reserve.

Snowflake Ski Club. Westby, WI. snowflakeskiclub.com
Giant ski jump in a town of 2000 (just up the road from Viroqua)? Awesome. Make sure to mark your calendars for the 92nd (yes, you read that right!!) Annual Snowflake Ski Jumping Tournament January 30 and 31. Fun!

BlueDogCycles

Bluedog Cycles & Brewdog. 201 South Main Street. 608-637-6993. bluedogcycles.com| Pete and Alycann Taylor have been holding things down at this unique bike shop since 2005. Not only do they offer great products and service, but they are great resources on getting outdoors near Viroqua. Stop in, tell them we sent you – and check it out before you get outside!

 

Check It Out:

Viroqua Public Market. 215 South Main Street. www.viroquapublicmarket.com | The Viroqua Public Market is the center of many good things downtown. First, the market serves as an outlet for hundreds of vendors from across the region. The same building also houses Bramble Books and the Viva Gallery, as well as the occasional indoor farmers market. The building also houses the Rooted Spoon (more below).

PublicMarket

 

Temple Theatre. 220 S. Main Street. 608-6637-8190 | www.temple-theatre.com Refurbishment was finished in 2002 on this anchor of downtown Viroqua. With nine murals, a full rehab of the 1922 Temple Theatre’s Wurlitzer organ, and the grand marquis, it’s a grand venue for events and performances.

TempleTheatre

The Ark. 401 E. Jefferson Street. 608-637-7824. artarkviroqua.org | Viroqua’s community and regional arts center – offering classes, space, movement, and a home for the arts in the midst of the Driftless Region.

Viroqua Farmer’s Market. Saturdays 8:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., May – October – Location: Western Technical College Parking Lot | Rockin’ farmers market – amazing variety of local and Driftless Region products.

Driftless Folk School. www.driftlessfolkschool.org | Ever wanted to learn more about practical, sustainable, lifelong skills? Do you like to work with your hands, create objects, or learn traditional crafts? Check out all of the classes at the school – from ‘Clay in a day’ and ‘Design your own small building,’ to ‘Fruit tree grafting’ – the possibilities are great, and ever changing. Check out the schedule online.

Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center. (Coon Valley) 608.452.3424. www.norskedalen.org | Norskedalen or “Norwegian Valley” is a 400-acre site dedicated to preserving and interpreting “the natural environment and cultural heritage of the region”. Open daily for visiting, in addition to special events, a guest cabin, historical displays, and much more.

Eat / Drink:

Driftless Café. 118 W Court St. www.driftlesscafe.com | “Seasonal menus – Locally Sourced – Written in Chalk” Seriously good local food. Really, these guys aren’t messing around. We mean it. Go now. Get a Wisco Pop with dinner, and don’t skip dessert.

DriftlessCafe2
DriftlessCafe1

Rooted Spoon. 219 S. Main St. www.rootedspoon.com | Adjacent to The Viroqua Public Market, these fine folks host “219 Drinkery” every Friday, often with different themes, and an amazing brunch every Sunday. They also offer incredible monthly dinners and special events, but are not open for regular daily service. Plan ahead to hit one of their events – great space, good people, fun menus.

RootedSpoon

Tangled Hickory Wine Bar. 120 S. Main St. www.tangledhickory.com | Downtown wine bar with changing seasonal entrees, a wide and affordable wine list, and nice ambiance. Happy Hour specials on wine and appetizers everyday from 4-6pm.

Viroqua Coop. 609 N. Main St. viroquafood.coop | Cooperative awesomeness! Beyond the normal co-op grocery and bulk findings, offerings include a great deli/hot bar, coffee and bakery counter, fun gifts, and a fantastically selected beer cooler. You can even get Kickapoo Coffee or a WiscoPop!  Early or late-ish, this is a great stop for supplies!

WiscoPop! www.wiscopopsoda.com | If you didn’t already know it (perhaps you read the story here?), we love WiscoPop! Three Viroqua business partners making incredible craft brewed soda from nothing but great ingredients. Their product is currently available only on tap or by special order mini-kegs (bottling coming soon!). You can find them in Viroqua at the Coop, Driftless Café, and across the region.

Kickapoo Coffee Cafe. 302 S. Main. www.kickapoocoffee.com | Since 2005, Kickapoo has been sourcing and roasting incredible coffee beans from around the globe. We drink it here at Inspire(d) HQ every day! Co-owners TJ Semanchin and Caleb Nicholes don’t cut corners when it comes to finding the best coffee beans possible and coaxing out their incredible flavors. The Kickapoo Coffee Cafe in Viroqua is an amazing meeting spot in Viroqua, with exceptional beverages and offerings. Kickapoo Coffee also offers monthly tours and coffee cupping / tastings at their production facility– it’s a wildly educational (and caffeinating) experience! (Check website for details.)

Kickapoo2
Kickapoo

Stay:

Heritage Inn. 220 & 217 East Jefferson Street. 608-637-3306. herinn.com  Beautifully restored historic Inn with private baths, cable, AC, etc. Just a block off of Downtown Viroqua, leaving you easily on foot for in-town adventures!

Natures Nook Retreat. S4878 Cty. Rd. S. 608-637-3928. www.naturenooksretreat.com | Rural Kickapoo Valley cabin rentals meant for relaxing – there’s the Little Barn, Cabin-in-a-barn, and Kinship Place gathering space. The west fork of the Kickapoo River runs through the 95-acre property, including access to brown trout, kayaking, and hiking trails.

Kickapoo Valley Reserve. 608-625-2960. kvr.state.wi.us | If you really want to get out there and enjoy the woods, this is your place to throw down a tent and watch the stars. 25 sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis with minimal fees. Remember to pack necessities as the KVR is a little ways away from civilization – which is all the more of a reason to visit!

PLAN AHEAD:
Driftless Wisconsin Portal. driftlesswisconsin.com
This portal is a fantastic guide to all things in the Viroqua area. Take a look and plan your own adventure!

Community Powered Radio – WDRT 91.9FM. Also listen online: wdrt.org
Viroqua’s community powered radio station. You’ll hear an eclectic mix of music, shows, and events broadcast from their downtown studio!