A Chef with Many Hats
David Swanson runs a culinary school, the Braise restaurant, and an initiative for Restaurant Supported Agriculture.
Few chefs have a full-service restaurant, a culinary school, and a local farm-to-restaurant distribution program. But Chef David Swanson does it all.
A former fine-dining chef who has been nominated for Best Chef: Midwest by the James Beard Foundation for the past three years, Milwaukee-based Chef Swanson started with the cooking school, founding the Braise on the Go Traveling Culinary School in 2004. In 2008, thanks to a grant from the state, he launched Braise RSA—which stands for Restaurant Supported Agriculture—to help other Milwaukee chefs gain access to local food. The restaurant followed in December 2011, when Swanson found the perfect space in Milwaukee’s burgeoning Walker’s Point neighborhood: a conjoined 1907 brick building and 1940s-era former bowling alley that now houses both the cooking school and the full-service dining venue.
Throughout the culinary renaissance that Milwaukee has undergone in recent years, Chef Swanson has been the front-runner in supporting sustainable farms. He even grows his own herbs and vegetables in the restaurant’s rooftop garden, along with hosting a beehive for honey. Braise RSA got its start when Chef Swanson and his team united a group of Milwaukee restaurateurs who held the same beliefs about supporting local farmers and sourcing sustainably.
“We had built relationships with dozens of farmers over the years while holding dinners and classes out in the farm fields,” Swanson says. “One of the things we consistently heard from farmers was how time-consuming it was to deliver items to restaurants while maintaining their farms. This gave us the idea to create a centrally located hub where farmers can deliver their products and we deliver to area restaurants.”
How the RSA functions is quite simple: Local farmers drop off their goods at one or two designated hubs, which are essentially other farms in the counties surrounding Milwaukee, and the Braise staff picks up the product at those hubs and brings it back to the restaurant for cleaning and sorting. Then the Braise RSA team packages everything up for the restaurants based on what they ordered for that week.
Since its inception, Jeff Joslyn, manager of Braise RSA, has continued to develop relationships with farmers while improving the delivery system and even building a new website where chefs can place orders. Originally, Chef Swanson started the RSA with a garage at one of the farms and delivering all the produce himself. Now, he has a staff with three trucks and uses the restaurant and culinary space to sort through the items.
The Braise RSA has grown to more than 30 foodservice members including restaurants, food trucks, caterers, and dessert shops. It has also grown its group of consumer customers (CSA) to 150 members. This year, Chef Swanson has been testing some prepared foods, like salsas, sauces, jams, and pickles, made from extra or less-than-pretty produce. All items are specifically labeled to identify their particular farm so chefs know how to write menu descriptions, with call-outs accordingly.
The RSA is mutually beneficial for restaurateurs and farmers, and Chef Swanson helps keep the costs low by hosting various fundraising events throughout the year. Farmers are not charged for their participation in Braise RSA, but restaurants pay a nominal fee.
“Many farmers don’t take into account the amount of time [required] to deliver all their products to different restaurants,” Swanson says. “And, for restaurant operators, it can be tedious to work individually with many different farmers. We’re trying to help improve efficiencies on both the farm and restaurant side. Rather than delivering four times a month, farmers can deliver twice a month and save on gas and other costs. And, we can give breaks on the costs for restaurants that place larger orders.”
Essentially, Swanson serves as an important liaison between farmers and chefs in this growing movement sweeping Milwaukee. “Instead of just providing a grab bag of produce, the RSA is more structured,” he explains. “I work with restaurateurs to figure out what they need, and go back to the farmers to figure out how to meet the requests. Some farmers are just not able to supply 200 pounds of carrots in a week, so that’s why we work with multiple farmers who together can meet those needs. It helps chefs have [realistic] expectations of what staples they can expect, so they can plan their menus.”
Overages aren’t a problem either, because if a chef doesn’t need the whole bounty of carrots, for instance, the RSA team helps sell the excess inventory to other chefs. Or, chefs have been known to split hogs in season because many farmers only sell whole hogs at a time. Chefs can also work with farmers directly, through Braise RSA or on their own, to develop plans for growing what the restaurant needs and so they know what to expect based on the season.
In His Kitchen
While Swanson earned his Kendall College culinary whites under the tutelage of acclaimed French fine-dining chefs Pierre Pollin (Le Titi de Paris) and Roland Liccioni (Le Francais) and then clocked time at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans and the upscale Sanford Restaurant in Milwaukee, his cooking at Braise is simple, yet elegant, and highly focused on the freshness and seasonality of the ingredients.
For example, during a class at the culinary school, Chef Swanson taught how to make homemade tagliatelle pasta, showing the steps to roll out and knead the dough to properly activate the gluten for tender noodles that still had some bite when cooked gently in heavily salted water. He tossed the noodles with a blend of fresh basil from the rooftop garden, extra-virgin olive oil, and lemon—a pistou that made for a bright and cheery dish. Next door, Braise restaurant was grilling homemade bratwurst outside for a quick, simple lunch, and a baker was prepping bread in the wood-fired oven for that evening’s dinner service. Somewhere in the back, a staff member was likely butchering a hog.
Due to this extreme reliance on seasonal food, the menu changes frequently and unexpectedly—but Chef Swanson’s loyalists are fine with it, welcoming the surprises. Turns out, his customers get just as much education in the dining room as they do in the culinary school or through membership in the CSA.
It’s also relatively easy to figure out what to teach at the culinary school when the restaurant has such amazing access to seasonal foods. “If we’re heavy on one food like tomatoes, we can do a class around that, and teach people how to preserve and can,” says Swanson, who has held foraging classes in the spring and hog butchering in the fall.
Thanks to another grant awarded this past spring, Swanson hopes to grow the RSA program. The more farms that volunteer to house food from other farms, the more opportunities for Braise to branch out into the surrounding region and offer more variety. Braise pays its hub farms $200 in rent, and those farms receive a percentage of goods sold.
“We keep trying to make the program more affordable and efficient for the farmers and the chefs,” Chef Swanson says. “We’re [encouraging] farmers to print labels with UPC codes and place them on their boxes so that we can scan the codes using our smartphones as they come into our warehouse. That information can go right to our database—for example, if Farm A dropped 20 pounds of red peppers at Farm B, we know what and where that product is a day before we bring it back to our main warehouse, so we can notify our chefs.”
One might wonder, how does he do it all? “I have a great team and different department heads who manage the RSA program, the kitchen, the private events, and the dining room, so I don’t need to be on the line every night,” Swanson says. “We have a big-picture scenario, and what we’re trying to do goes beyond just running a restaurant.”