The Tastemakers

Odessa Piper, a 'Recovering Chef' Who's Working the Markets

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

People have come to know Odessa Piper as a champion of regional foods, successful restaurant owner, committed teacher, award-winning chef and wise soul. When she's at the farmers markets, though, which is where you'll find her every weekend, her calling becomes clear.

She's a pollinator.

"I get a little like a dizzy bee," she says, moving among the patrons who hover around the stands on a steamy Saturday in June at the Silver Spring market. It's a short bike ride from her home, and she'll visit the market in Takoma Park or Dupont Circle the next day as well.

The slender 55-year-old is keen to load up her basket with herbs from the longtime local growers, fresh whole chickens and organic flowers that will lend grace as centerpiece and salad ingredients. But she says her role there is to share information and support as many of the producers as she can.

And if Piper can ease a customer into trying something new, like anise hyssop, the culinarily underappreciated herb she's currently in "Johnny Appleseed mode" about, her efforts are rewarded.

It's a role she grew into during her late teens and early 20s as she learned to farm and forage in her native New Hampshire, and in the almost three decades when she ran L'Etoile, a restaurant in downtown Madison, Wis., known for its regionally reliant cuisine.

There, Piper developed working relationships with 100 farmers, using their vegetables, fruit, cheeses and meats in ways that were simple yet groundbreaking in the Midwest of the 1970s. It is no coincidence that the Dane County Farmers' Market, across the street from L'Etoile, simultaneously became the largest producer-only market in the country.

She has legend status among America's food luminaries, yet she remains modest. No formal training, she offers as a frequent disclaimer; not like the scores of aspiring young chefs who worked stints in L'Etoile's kitchen, or the faculties of famous culinary schools that have asked her to teach the teachers about making connections between farmers and restaurant ingredients. Piper hopes to put more energy into that kind of instruction in the near future.

"She's the epitome of strength and femininity, gentle and wise, with a strength of mission," says Eve Felder, associate dean of culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. "Odessa took a really challenging area of the country and was able to be successful with local, sustainable food."

Over the years, Piper's name and philosophy about food have become linked with Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame. Piper might have brought that on herself in the 1980s in attempting to explain sustainability and seasonal, organic cooking to journalists who would come to call. The result: Odessa, the Alice Waters of the Midwest.

"I went to California to meet her in the mid-'80s and presented her with hickory nuts and pieces of Wisconsin cheese," she says. "Alice is wonderful, deeply generous. What I was doing wasn't as finessed. I can't speak highly enough of her."

The feeling's mutual. Reached at her office in Berkeley, Waters relayed that "Odessa was a pioneer, supporting a network of suppliers in the cold, difficult climate of Wisconsin. To this day, she remains a purist."

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