A Chef with Many Hats

Chef David Swanson is a front-runner in Milwaukee for supporting sustainable farms and even has his own beehive for honey.
Chef David Swanson is a front-runner in Milwaukee for supporting sustainable farms and even has his own beehive for honey. Braise

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.”


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