In the restaurant business it can be instinctive to want to work alone for fear of competition with area restaurants.
Michelle Thiede, co-owner of Forage, a commercial kitchen and event space, and a chef for over 20 years, knows that is tempting. But it’s not the best option.
“Anytime I can collaborate as a chef with other people, I grow as a chef and as a person,” Thiede said. “If you cut yourself off from that I feel you’re going to stop growing. The more we support each other, it’s going to make it better for the community and better for our guests.”
In the spirit of collaboration, Forage owners Thiede and Kristen Dexter were 100 percent on board when Volume One founder Nick Meyer approached them about doing a culinary crawl to kick off the newly minted Chippewa Valley Restaurant Week.
It grew from using Forage’s kitchen and event space to the entire top floor of building 13 in Banbury Place, where Forage is located.
The First Taste Culinary Crawl will take place at 6 p.m. Thursday and consists of 10 Chippewa Valley restaurants including Cowboy Jack’s, Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse, Mali Thai and others preparing samples.
There will also be live music and shops will be open to browse and purchase items as well. There will be a cash bar with featured beers and wines. Tickets are $30.
Considering each restaurant will prepare at least one sample, Thiede thinks it is a great deal.
Dexter hopes the event, as well as all of restaurant week, opens doors for future collaborations with not only restaurants but other organizations as well.
“We’re interested in collaborating definitely with chefs and other restaurants, but also anybody in the community who can imagine an event that has food as one of its elements,” Dexter said. “And what event isn’t made better when food is a part of it?”
Chippewa Valley Restaurant Week is here to help answer that question.
First Taste is just the beginning of the 10-day restaurant week, and though it has been a lot of planning, Meyer is excited to see how everything unfolds.
The week, which is sponsored by Volume One and Chippewa Valley Technical College’s new culinary management program, has 40 participating restaurants throughout Eau Claire, Menomonie, Chippewa Falls and Altoona that are offering special meals, featured drinks and menus prepared specifically for the week.
“Some (restaurants) are putting things they already have on special, some are doing items never on the menu you can only get during restaurant week, some are ditching the entire normal menu and doing just a special restaurant week menu,” Meyer said. “It’s cool to see how everybody’s approaching it.”
Deals can be found under “restaurants & offers” at chippewavalleyrestaurantweek.com.
Meyer said he’s been thinking about the concept for a couple years, adding many other cities have done restaurant weeks with much success.
He worked with Visit Eau Claire to send out a survey to restaurants about the best time of year to hold the event, falling on late September when restaurants are in a post-summer slump.
Of course, the week offers the chance for restaurants to get people through the doors, but Meyer said it is so much more than that.
For the community, it’s a chance to explore new places without worrying about spending too much money.
“It’s to have the community spend 10 days thinking about how they can get outside of their comfort zone a little bit in terms of places they’re going to visit, trying things that aren’t normally on the menu and challenging themselves,” he said. “We have an amazing restaurant scene, but ... it’s a fairly safe scene too. It’s a celebration of what we do have, but also look at what we could have if we kept working at it.”
In its first year, he expects restaurants will play it fairly safe. Many are going the “traditional” restaurant week route — supplying a two- or three-course meal for a fixed price. He hopes restaurants will take a look at what others are doing this year and continue to “raise the bar” in coming years.
In addition to restaurant deals, Meyer wants to see active participation in the scene. Foodies and food photography junkies can get their fix by taking pictures of their meals at any participating restaurant and using the hashtag #cvrestaurantweek on social media to be entered into a daily drawing to win a $25 gift card to local restaurants.
A restaurant passport available during the week challenges attendees to visit at participating restaurants by Nov. 15.
Those who visit 10 restaurants in the next two months can enter to win a four-night trip to the Moon Palace Cancun resort in Mexico.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen other restaurant weeks that have done this,” Meyer said. “What’s cool is it is encouraging people to continue to go to these local restaurants over the course of a couple months.”
Passports are available at any of the participating restaurants or at Volume One’s The Local Store.
Events also will be held throughout the week, such as local farm tours by Menomonie Market from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and local restaurant trivia at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 20, at The Plus.
Creating a culinary future
Another major part of the week is introducing Chippewa Valley Technical College’s new culinary program, which will start in fall 2018. Culinary instructors Jonathan Fike and Kevin Brown were brought on this year to begin planning the curriculum.
It is an amazing opportunity for budding chefs and restaurant owners, Brown said, but also for the local food scene.
“(Fike) and I are both planning on being very involved in Eau Claire,” Brown said. “The food scene is up and coming, and we’re glad to be a part of that and look at supplying all of these establishments with new prospective employees.”
Brown formerly taught at Nicolet College in Rhinelander for the last nine years and has experience in the restaurant industry.
Fike ran the culinary arts program and catering for Davis Applied Technology College in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Fike and Brown will prepare a bananas foster dish for the First Taste event, as well as speak about the culinary program.
The duo also will host a food panel featuring local farmers and a dietitian to discuss the future of Eau Claire’s food scene at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 19, at the CVTC Applied Energy Center, 2322 Alpine Road.
“The goal is to have as much local connection as possible,” Fike said. “Take industry trips out to farmers so students can get their hands in the dirt and actually understand what it’s like to be a farmer and where food comes from.”
Brown said the program will do one year of learning the basics and the second year will fine tune those, teach advance concepts and management skills.
“Not all of our students are going to go down the pathway of opening their own restaurant,” Brown said. “Our job is to train them and send them out into, hopefully, Eau Claire and be productive once they leave here.”
The culinary program will be housed in the college’s Business Education Center, 620 W. Clairemont Ave., with construction starting in December.
As far as the week itself, Brown hopes it generates excitement in the community and pride about what the restaurants, CVTC and businesses are creating in the city.
“A lot of people driving down Clairemont maybe don’t see what is happening downtown,” Brown said. “If you’re not an experienced or adventurist-type person who tries new places, here’s your perfect opportunity. This event can get people to places they haven’t been to yet.”
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