As more travelers show an interest in local cuisines, a Milwaukee chef is taking the trend a bit further with a cooking school that travels to the food's origins.
The Braise Culinary School holds classes on farms and in forests during warm months. Most classes start with a farm tour — or recently, a walk in the woods — so students can see how food grows before they learn to prepare it.
"The idea, basically, is to reconnect people to their food," chef and owner David Swanson said.
He came up with the idea while working on a business plan for a restaurant and attached cooking school.
"One question that I would think that would come up is: 'Where is this food coming from?'" Swanson said. From there, it was a short jump to offering classes — sometimes literally — in the field.
Swanson, 39, worked in restaurants in the Chicago area and Milwaukee for about 20 years before opening the cooking school in 2006. Since then, he has cooked in apple orchards, wheat fields and breweries. This year's first class began with a mushroom hunt in woods near the University of Wisconsin-Washington County.
Swanson partnered on the class with Britt Bunyard, a mycologist and editor of Fungi magazine. Bunyard led about two dozen people through woods and clearings he had scouted the day before.
"There's no need to run from spot to spot," Bunyard said: Dozens of morels were waiting to be picked.
Gail Groenwoldt, 39, of Milwaukee, signed up for the hunt after seeing morels priced at nearly $50 a pound in her grocery store. During the hunt, she also spotted ramps. A side order of the onion-like plant cost her more than $20 in a Milwaukee restaurant.
"This is why we should learn to forage," Groenwoldt said.
After the hunt, Swanson sauteed morels, ramps, asparagus and potatoes and then added veal stock to make a vegetable ragout. The cooking lesson, Groenwoldt said, was "a treat."
Sara Wong, 33, also from Milwaukee, has taken Indian, sushi and Thai cooking classes. On a trip to Vietnam, she ate dog.
"I'll try just about anything," Wong said. She learned about Swanson's school at a community supported agriculture, or CSA, fair. "I like unique experiences in food, so I thought this would be fun."
Many of Swanson's classes are taught on CSA farms. The farmers sell shares of their crop in the spring, often for $500 or $600, and then deliver boxes of produce weekly during the growing season.
Typically, about a third of Swanson's students are CSA members eager to learn how to prepare the food they're receiving. Others are foodies, and some just want a new experience.
"The farmer will talk about what they're growing, what their practices are," Swanson said. "People will ask questions about what they are growing in their garden, how it pertains to them."
He varies the menu to reflect the season and the farms' specialties. A previous class at Pinehold Gardens, just outside Milwaukee, featured garlic, greens and fingerling potatoes. This year's class will be in August and focus on heirloom tomatoes.
Swanson also plans classes at a creamery near Madison and a wheat field on Washington Island in Lake Michigan. On the Washington Island trip last year, he showcased the wheat with a panzanella salad made with wheat bread, cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, olives and feta and scones made with granola from the hotel where students stayed. He also used locally-made Death's Door Vodka to create vodka-braced strawberries with cream fraiche.
It was a great adventure, hauling cooking materials into the field in an old pick up truck, Swanson said. But, "wheat is just beautiful, just looking at the wheat in the wind is nice."
For those more interested in eating than cooking, Swanson hosts a series of Sunday dinners at farms. Guests receive quick tours of greenhouses or strawberry patches before settling down to meals that may include roasted chicken, strawberry shortcake or grilled summer squash.
Dress is casual, and "the big thing," Swanson said, is "breaking the bread, talking with the farmer about the things they are growing."
In all cases, he tries to keep the food simple so students or dinner guests can make similar meals at home.
"The idea is to get more people to cook," Swanson said, "and if they make the connection to the farmer, some of the best meals I've had are simple meals."