Small Viroqua, Wisconsin, pop. 4,362, hardly feels like the kind of place that foments revolution. Situated in the rural southwest area of the state, it is the county seat and largest community in Vernon County. The whole area has only three stoplights.
But the Driftless geologic region here stands out. Viroqua sits in a rare pocket of the Midwest—called the Driftless area—that remained unglaciated in the last ice ages. Its rolling hills and forests are conducive to small family farms which still dot the hillsides. With one of the highest concentrations of organic farms in the country (over 200 and counting), and the national headquarters of Organic Valley cooperative, the region is the epicenter of the organic food and farming movement.
That is exactly why Viroqua is home to the Driftless Cafe. Luke and Ruthie Zahm moved their family from Madison to Vernon County in 2013, drawn back to their home region by the vibrancy of the local food movement. Against all odds, they created a farm-to-table destination restaurant that draws regular patrons from as far as Madison and Chicago and have nurtured a diverse food shed that provides nearly 100% of the cafe’s ingredients.
“The community needed a vibrant place that reeked of soul,” said Zahm. “People travel a long way because they want something that is real and tangible, authentic. The Cafe is a powerful affirmation of a way of life that people feel a strong emotional connection to.”
Local Ingredients Invite Culinary Creativity
The menu changes daily, dictated by season and sourced ingredients from farmers, and often isn’t finalized until the afternoon. Chef Zahm has a sourcing philosophy he calls DUET – Difficult Us, Easy Them. He loves the challenge of unique ingredients that grow well for the farmer, and invite the opportunity for him to play as a chef.
On a cold winter day, the menu was filled with hearty, stick-to-your-ribs dishes with an international flair. One dinner entrée was a St. Brigid’s Meadows braised beef short rib, curio da lat spice and curio coffee rub, Driftless Organics herbed potato mash, Driftless Organics maple glazed carrots, and Wholesome Harvest spinach. Another was Culver Farms roasted duck cassoulet, Nueske’s bacon, navy white beans, Wholesome Harvest sweet potato and kale, Hanson’s Bakery garlic breadcrumb, and David Miles’ micro greens.
Vegetarian options included a Turkish-inspired Wholesome Harvest roasted sweet potato kumpir, canoe harvested wild rice, grape leaves, Driftless Organics cabbage salad, Westby Coop Creamery tomato brown butter, and almond dukkah with zhoug. One dessert offering was the Cowboy David Black chocolate salted caramel cake with candied bacon.
Edible History and Community
The food – and the Cafe itself – is rooted in the local community in multiple ways.
Take the Baked Wisconsin macaroni and cheese. This is not just a pasta dish; it is a cultural expression. Historically, the rural communities in the region used to be structured around local creameries. They gave a sense of place, shape and definition, as well as income. Some still do. Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville, Wisconsin is a farmstead creamery. Utilizing selective breeding, rotational grazing, and fine-tuned techniques, they craft Upland Pleasant Ridge Reserve, the most-awarded cheese in American history. It is one of the seven cheeses celebrated in the Cafe’s macaroni and cheese.
The Driftless Cafe serves a lot of salad greens. In fact, their large and consistent orders for greens helped launch a farming business for the Mount Hope Amish community. A member of the community came to the restaurant early on to ask what they could grow, and Zahm said the one thing they consistently use all year round is salad greens. Accordingly, the community turned the waste from their shared sawmill into energy, using sawdust to fuel heaters for ridge top greenhouses. In a few months, the Amish stopped by and offered Zahm 100 pounds of salad greens – about three times the amount he uses in a week.
Zahm bought the greens he needed, then called around to restaurants and food co-ops to find purchasers for the rest. Now the Amish mafia, as he affectionately refers to them, plug a Tracfone into a light pole each week to call for orders for their greens, sweet potatoes, and more. They have grown the business, hiring delivery drivers and selling to food service purveyors.
“I see the power of our buying decisions, how they affect people in the community and enable farms to grow,” says Zahm.
That community-centered ethos was firmly established as part of the Driftless Cafe in its founding. Financing it was “one of the more beautiful aspects of founding the cafe,” said Zahm. While he had a sound business plan, he had 15 bank meetings and couldn’t convince any traditional loaning institutions to take the risk. In the course of sharing his frustrations, he talked with a retired dairy farmer who had successfully invested in other local businesses. They talked about the restaurant and what it would mean for the community, and suddenly Zahm had a backer.
“The foresight of this family [who backed the Cafe initially] expressed our direction of seeing the need in the community and our emotional responsibility to provide for those needs,” said Zahm.
Meeting community needs becomes especially important in the winter. The number of destination diners drops off and locals fill the tables. One way the Driftless cares for the community is on their weekly Thursday burger night. For each burger sold, the cafe donates $2 to local nonprofits. The donations helped the local theater stay open through the pandemic and are now supporting a fledgling public forest school.
A Story of Rural Homecoming
For Zahm, establishing the Driftless Café has been a rural homecoming of sorts. Growing up in the Driftless region, he experienced a familiar feeling for many rural adolescents: the desire to leave. There was nothing for him to latch onto, no rural identity he found to offer a sense of pride in place. He was glad to move to Madison for college and try to find his way in an urban setting.
One day, though, he went into his first natural foods store. As he was perusing the cheeses, he did a double take. His hometown was on the food label, listed as the place where it had originated. It was a profound moment; he realized his rural home provided something that people in Madison wanted.
It planted a seed, and as Zahm went on to work in Madison restaurants he saw again and again how chefs hungered for the kind of ingredients springing from the Driftless area. He realized he wanted to return: to claim his roots in the home of the organic food movement, to celebrate the food where the artisans crafted it and the producers nurtured it, to cook where food wealth was abundant.
“Growing up as a rural kid plays so much into the work I do now,” said Zahm. “I am mindful about strengthening a rural identity through good food.”
Representing Rural On-Screen
In 2020, Zahm became the host of Wisconsin Foodie, a PBS show celebrating all aspects of the rich food culture of the state. He serves as an advocate, evangelist even, for a complex mix of cultural and historical regional foodways. “People don’t give Midwesterners credit for being very worldly,” he said. “But these inland seas brought people into this place for time immemorial. The oldest cultures in North America took refuge in these hills.”
Zahm points to the Sioux Chef, the Minneapolis-based restaurant and movement to restore Indigenous foodways headed by Chef Sean Sherman, as expanding his notion of regional cuisine. He began incorporating white corn grown by the Oneida Nation into the Driftless menu, sharing their story alongside menu items. “My whole lens about what is Midwestern has been blown wide open,” he said. “This sacred corn is older than their creation story – Skywoman fell to the earth with the seeds.”
Wisconsin food culture is influenced by modern migrants as well, from the Hmong people of Laos who were granted amnesty in the U.S., to Black chefs whose families traveled north in the Great Migration. As Zahm collects and amplifies these stories for the show, he incorporates techniques, ingredients, and origin tales into the menu at the Driftless Café.
“Transforming the narrative, that is our role as participants in this culture in this day and age,” he said. “We have an obligation to find people who need their stories lifted up and celebrated. When we do, diners walk away feeling changed – it is more than a meal, it’s an experience.”
Chef and storyteller Zahm is waging his own quiet revolution, a move towards a food culture that is multicultural, organic, and artisanal, with a strong local and rural identity. “There is something idyllic about this place,” he says of the Cafe. “People from around the world want to just touch and experience it.”