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On a sticky weekday morning in August, a new restaurant called Estrellón (“big star” in Spanish) is humming with advanced prep and wine deliveries. All wood and tile and Mediterranean white behind a glass exterior, the Spanish-style eatery is the fourth venture of Madison culinary star Tory Miller. Opening is just three days away, and everything is crisp and shiny and poised.

Fine palates choose the best: Horticulture professor Julie Dawson, standing, getting data about the taste and texture of various breeds of tomatoes from (left to right) celebrated chefs Jonny Hunter, Tory Miller and Dan Bonanno. They conducted the tasting at Miller’s new restaurant, Estrellón. Photo by Gerhard Fischer.
Fine palates choose the best: Horticulture professor Julie Dawson, standing, getting data about the taste and texture of various breeds of tomatoes from (left to right) celebrated chefs Jonny Hunter, Tory Miller and Dan Bonanno. They conducted the tasting at Miller’s new restaurant, Estrellón.
Photo by Gerhard Fischer.

But in the dining room, the culinary focus is already years beyond this marquee event. This morning is largely about creating the perfect tomato. Graduate students from UW–Madison working on a new program called the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative have set the table with large sheets of white paper and pens. At each place setting are a dozen small plastic cups of tomatoes, diced as if for a taco bar. Each container is coded.

Chef Miller takes a seat with colleagues Jonny Hunter of the Underground Food Collective and Dan Bonanno of A Pig in a Fur Coat. The chefs are here to lend their highend taste buds to science, and they start to banter about tomato flavor. What are the key elements? How important are they relative to each other?

Despite their intense culinary dedication, these men rarely just sit down and eat tomatoes with a critical frame of mind. “I learned a lot about taste through this project,” says Hunter. “I really started thinking about how I defined flavor in my own head and how I experience it.”

This particular tasting was held last summer. And there have been many others like it over the past few years with Miller, Hunter, Bonanno and Eric Benedict BS’04, of Café Hollander.

The sessions are organized by Julie Dawson, a CALS/UW–Extension professor of horticulture who heads the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative (formerly called the Chef–Farmer–Plant Breeder Collaborative). Her plant breeding team from CALS will note the flavors and characteristics most valuable to the chefs. Triangulating this with feedback from select farmers, plant breeders will get one step closer to the perfect tomato. But not just any tomato: One bred for Upper Midwest organic growing conditions, with flavor vetted by some of our most discerning palates.

“We wanted to finally find a good red, round slicer, and tomatoes that look and taste like heirlooms but aren’t as finicky to grow,” says Dawson at the August tasting, referring to the tomato of her dreams. “We’re still not at the point where we have, for this environment, really exceptional flavor and optimal production characteristics.”

Nationwide, the tomato has played a symbolic role in a widespread reevaluation of our food system. The pale, hard supermarket tomatoes of January have been exhibit A in discussions about low-wage labor and food miles. Seasonally grown heirloom tomatoes have helped us understand how good food can be with a little attention to detail.

But that’s just the tip of the market basket, because Dawson’s project seeks to strengthen a middle ground—an Upper Midwest ground, actually—in the food system. With chefs, farmers and breeders working together, your organic vegetables should get tastier, hardier, more abundant and more local where these collaborations exist.

Please continue reading this story on the Grow magazine website

Note: The Seed to Kitchen Collaborative is one of the projects that will be featured at the upcoming Horticulture Showcase on Thursday, Sept. 15, and there are still tickets available to a dinner event featuring the work of the Collaborative that will take place immediately after the showcase.

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