When chefs David Lorio and Beth Hinner look at a farmers market stand, they don’t see a random grouping of vegetables. They see potential dishes, already on the plate. “It’s like jazz improvisation,” Lorio says. “When you’re playing a solo, you just go with it.”

Lorio and Hinner are talking about the skill and effort it takes to pull off farm-to-plate dishes. Ever since they opened Thrive Foodery in early 2015, they’ve focused on putting fresh, locally raised food on their menu. The two estimate roughly 75% of the food served at their restaurant comes from locally sourced food.

Nathan Bychinski at Red Eye

Nathan Bychinski at Red Eye

That ratio fluctuates, as it does for almost all the restaurants in the Wausau area featuring local food. Restaurants such as Red Eye Brewing, Sconni’s and Back When Café also emphasize local food to one degree or another. It comes with rewards and challenges, these chefs says.

Customers are increasingly embracing the benefits of farm to plate—freshness, taste, environmental and community mindfulness. The trade off is that consistency can be difficult, so a chef needs to have a flexible menu. Few restaurants can employ 100% local food. The now-closed Café 27 in Stevens Point pulled it off for awhile, only by having a menu that existed exclusively on a chalk board and was never the same two days in a row.

That said, a number of local chefs say using fresh local food is a passion. Farm to plate may seem like a growing trend, but it’s really a return to a more traditional way of preparing food: You eat what’s growing, where you live. My own great-grandfather was a farmer in southern Wisconsin and sold almost exclusively to restaurants. A no frills, hard man who lived nearly to 100, he would have punched you in the nose if you called him trendy. To him, farm fresh foods weren’t a trend, they were a reality.

Following the chefs

When chef Joe Thomas started at Sconni’s in spring 2016, he was exactly what owner Ben Swanson was looking for—someone with a bent toward local food. The result has been a number of new dishes and new relationships with area farmers.

Thomas’ beet burger, with beets from Stoney Acres farm near Athens, has drawn acclaim even from those who don’t care for beets. A dish involving bone marrow, sourced from Wisconsin grass-fed beef, is remarkable for its uniqueness and flavor.

So far, about a half-dozen menu items at Sconni’s feature locally sourced food, and Thomas and Swanson hope to increase that to 50% of their items with an upcoming menu redesign. “I’ve been an advocate of local food for awhile,” Swanson says. “I even had our restaurant do a worker share a couple of years back.” (Staff worked on a farm for a day or two each to see where and how local food is grown.)

At Red Eye Brewing Co., patrons can’t miss the names of local farms such as Stoney Acres, Red Door and Ninepatch written on signs and the menu. Red Eye has become known for its creative food as much as its own-brewed beer. Chef Nathan Bychinski has been a chef for 15 years, and worked in a farm-to-plate restaurant in Colorado. He brought that mindset to Red Eye when he joined in 2014, and the restaurant has run with it. Red Eye’s specials regularly make celebrities of seasonal vegetables, eggs and meats from local farms—for example an “Over the Rainbow Pizza” made of summer squash, tomatoes, cauliflower, beets and basil.

All of the cheese used by Red Eye comes from Wisconsin producers such as Sartori. The bread comes from Main Grain Bakery in Stevens Point, which uses the old-fashioned sourdough technique. Bacon comes from Neuske’s Meats exclusively, Bychinski says.

We’ve come a long way

Farm to plate is a great idea, but the logistics aren’t easy.

Almost all restaurants rely on food distributors to deliver most of their ingredients. These distributors source items from different parts of the country to maintain a predictable, reliable supply any time of year. That’s why, for example, the potatoes, lettuce and meats served at most places probably originated halfway across the country, even if the same foods are growing a few miles down the road.

Bone marrow at Sconnie's Alehouse & Eatery

Bone marrow at Sconnie’s Alehouse & Eatery

It’s a lot more work to buy from individual farms, and restaurants that do are somewhat tied to what’s in season. To work, a farm-to-plate menu needs to be flexible. Red Eye, for example, uses locally sourced food for its “chef’s menu,” which customers expect to change anyway. At Thrive, Lorio and Hinner print their menus in-house, so they can offer a new one every day.

One upshot is that seasonal produce can become a source of inspiration. At Thrive, Hinner says they love to give staff an ingredient and tell them to create something, Iron Chef style.

But even middle-man food distributors are catching on. Lorio says some companies now can tell restaurants where the food was grown and try to source as nearby as possible. For example, a Madison food company that Thrive uses preserves locally raised food throughout the year, making it possible to offer Wisconsin-made products even in winter.

When Back When Café opened in 1991, Jolene Lucci says she got funny looks from Wausau residents just for creating a vegetable sandwich.

To Lucci, the farm-to-plate phenomenon is nothing new. She grew up on a farm in the Pacific Northwest, where many restaurants long have served what’s in season at nearby farms.

Today roughly 75% of her menu items feature products gathered locally. That used to be a lot harder when Back When first opened. There were far fewer farms that could provide a restaurant with local products, and to find fresh organic ingredients, Lucci had to travel to Chicago and Minneapolis.

A multitude of local growers have sprouted up since then, evidenced by the proliferation of area farmers markets. Lucci regularly builds menu specials around, say, heirloom tomatoes from Maplewood Gardens in Elderon, organic beets and carrots, local seasonal berries, asparagus and rhubarb.

Back When may have been the first in Wausau to tout a farm-to-plate philosophy, but is now one of several. And Lucci says she’s glad for that. Together, all of their different approaches create a positive, progressive perception of Wausau area dining.

The more people ask for local food, the more it will become available. Area farmers have more options to sell their wares, strengthening the food ecosystem, and keeping more money in the community.