It’s Miller Time in Madison

After spending two years as chef de cuisine at L’Etoile, Chef Tory Miller and his sister, Traci Miller, purchased the French-focused restaurant in 2005.
After spending two years as chef de cuisine at L’Etoile, Chef Tory Miller and his sister, Traci Miller, purchased the French-focused restaurant in 2005. Zak Gruber

With a James Beard Award on his résumé and four thriving, diverse concepts, Chef Tory Miller is committed to turning Wisconsin’s capital city into a culinary hotbed.

This past summer, Chef Tory Miller opened the doors to his fourth restaurant, Estrellón, right in the heart of Badger Country. Given his reputation among Madison’s food faithful, it was hardly surprising to see the small-plates concept, which translates to “star” in Spanish, find its footing in the capital city of America’s Dairyland. The real revelation came shortly after.

The winner of the 2012 James Beard Best Chef: Midwest decided his most recent restaurant would also be his last. While it’s rare to see a culinary empire step on the brakes so abruptly, Miller isn’t anywhere near lacing up his chef shoes for the last time. If anything, the reality is just the opposite.

“I think as a chef you always have that entrepreneurial spirit. You want to keep pushing, keep driving to expand, grow, and do something different. But there is a certain point where you have to sit back and be thankful for what you have, and try to be the best you can be in all of your concepts,” says Miller, who was one of 20 semifinalists for this year’s James Beard Outstanding Chef.

In Chef Miller’s world, the idea of scaling back remains a relative one. He announced plans last month to oversee the menu at upcoming Dane County Regional Airport concept, Mad Town Gastropub. He recently turned 40 and has two sons—6-year-old Remy and 2-year-old Miles. He’s cooking seven days a week and still chasing that mythical 10-hour shift. “That is a real [goal],” Chef Miller jokes. But the crux of his decision came down to simple priorities. In addition to spending more time with his family, Chef Miller wanted to return to his roots. Literally. Managing his four restaurants—L’Etoile, Graze, Sujeo, and Estrellón—was vexing too many aspects of his entrepreneurial spirit. Chef Miller wanted to laser in on the food, local growers, and the connection with diners that had shifted his career from the bright Big Apple lights to Madison in the first place.

After graduating from the French Culinary Institute in New York City (now the International Culinary Center), Chef Miller worked gigs in high-profile kitchens like Eleven Madison Park and Judson Grill before deciding to return to the Midwest. Born in South Korea, he was adopted by a family in Racine, Wisconsin, when he was 18 months old, and grew up on a farm and in a restaurant—the still operating Park Inn Diner. One Wisconsin trait that stuck with him, even as he was navigating the ruthless chef culture in New York City, was his home state’s dedication to its food sources. According to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, there are 9,900 licensed dairy farms in the state (as of 2016) and 96 percent of them are family-owned. “It’s still shocking to me when restaurants in Madison are talking about where they get their food,” Chef Miller says. “I believe sourcing should be a way of life and not a way of marketing.”

Despite his Wisconsin ties, Chef Miller was unfamiliar with Madison when he arrived in 2003. One thing he did know: When it came to the state’s culinary landscape, it simply didn’t get any bigger than Chef Odessa Piper, the winner of the 2001 James Beard Best Chef: Midwest. Her restaurant, the French-focused L’Etoile, opened in 1976 and, in addition to becoming a city landmark, was a driving force in the growth of the Dane County Farmers’ Market.

In 2005, Miller purchased the restaurant with his sister and business partner, Traci Miller, after spending two years as Piper’s chef de cuisine. For a breakthrough solo venture, this was both an amazing and terrifying place to start.

“The best thing was that I had two years of experience in the kitchen at L’Etoile, working as a chef, before we bought it. But in the public eye it was, ‘Who is this new chef cooking at L’Etoile?’ I had been there for two years. If you had eaten there, you had eaten what I was making. So mentally I was ready,” Chef Miller says. Still, trying to face down a legacy was intimidating. “I was always chasing [success] in the beginning, and I feel like it was pretty detrimental to my personal relationships and my relationships with my cooks,” he explains. “I eventually realized what I was doing and that I didn’t need to outdo anything or outshine anybody. I just needed to be myself. That kind of shift made a big difference and made me a lot happier.”


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