Disturbing the Peace, Honoring the Place: Amy Huo is cooking farm-to-table in Eau Claire, damn the cost and consequences

Amy Huo pan searing lamb chops / / Photo by Becca Dilley

Amy Huo will tell it to you straight: she isn’t the easiest person to work with. “I have an addiction to doing something new, even if I piss off everyone,” she laughs. As a food truck chef and entrepreneur, she has built her reputation in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, by dishing farm-to-table food from her roving restaurant, the Locavore Mobile Kitchen. Its unpretentious fare includes the likes of burgers, breakfast sandwiches, chili, and poutine, but the food is scratch-made and the sourcing is ambitiously focused on local farms. While the local dining ecosystem has evolved rapidly in recent years (read our Whirlwind Tour of Eau Claire), Huo’s work stands out in a small city still dominated by national chains.

“Have you ever heard the term of ‘mindful disturbance’?” she asks. “This is a thing in regenerative agriculture and permaculture where you mix up a place and you disturb what’s there to make something grow better. I see my role like that—I’m mindfully disturbing what’s going on here to create space for something better to happen.”

Part of that disturbance, she says, is talking about her work—a lot. “This year I listed all the farms we bought from last year and what percentage we spend with every single one of them,” she says. “If anybody asks me, I’m like: ‘I spent [around] $20,000 with local farmers.’ […] I hope someday I don’t have to talk about that.”

Locavore Mobile Kitchen (along with other Eau Claire restaurants like The Lakely and The Informalist) represents the farm-to-table trend coming full circle. Over the past few decades, urban eateries in cities like San Francisco, Portland, and Chicago have forged mindful and direct connections to small farmers to bring their guests fresh and often unexpected local flavors. 

As the connection between farm and plate became more explicit and celebrated, smaller cities—often themselves cradled by farmland rather than suburbs—have picked up the torch. In the past decade or so, we’ve seen farm-to-table dining pop up in surprising places and in novel ways—out of the window of a food truck in Eau Claire, for example, as opposed to on the manicured table of an upscale restaurant.

As we talk with her, Huo speaks constantly of connections—to places like Together Farms, or to Forage, the incubator kitchen and event space that helped launch her truck and is now hosting our interview and recipe demo. “I want to try to represent this area because I think we have a lot of good things going on here agriculturally speaking, and I needed to be my own boss,” says Huo. “I needed to have control over every ingredient, and I needed creativity and freedom to express how great I think things are going here.”

From a mighty oak, a local acorn

Amy Huo // Photo by Becca Dilley

A Whitehall, Wisconsin, native—about 40 miles south of Eau Claire—Huo bounced between Madison and Delaware before returning to Wisconsin to work at the Eau Claire farmers’ market on behalf of Together Farms. In 2016 she helped open The Informalist (as sous and then executive chef) before leaving and launching her truck in 2018. She holds a master’s degree in English literature and has long been interested in the role food plays in writing. That academic perspective has helped her frame and process her mission.

The key experience of her life, she says, was a three-month externship at the renowned Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York. “Nothing like that exists around here, but we have all the bones to create something like that,” Huo says. “The uber farm-to-table, the stuff is produced in the greenhouse and then walked to the kitchen—the cooks take it from there, clean it, and then prepare it and serve it.”

The restaurant, she says, was classically structured, including its staffing: “Table captains, back waiters, front waiters, three sommeliers”—one of whom has a James Beard award.

On one of her first days at the restaurant, Huo was given an assignment: cleaning entire stems of Brussels sprouts, trimming them and picking off the sprouts that weren’t up to snuff so that they would be ready to be served to guests. 

“I was too aggressive cleaning off the ones that weren’t as good,” she recalls. “I’d filled up the compost bag right to the top. They had one Salvadorean guy who did all the dishes for the upstairs and the downstairs. It was so heavy—it was like 60 pounds to move this thing and I was the one who’d filled it up.

“So the chef—the CDC [chef de cuisine], his name was Bastien Guillochon—very French—walks over to the compost and he looks at it and then he looks at me and says: ‘What the fuck? Do you realize what you just did?’

“I had wasted half the Brussels tree. I had wasted ingredients they had worked with the farmers for how many months to grow; I had thrown them in the trash. On top of that, I filled it up and didn’t have the capacity to understand that somebody else was going to have to clean that up after me. I learned a lot of important lessons that day.”

A dish that reflects the land

Amy Huo plating lamp chops / / Photo by Becca Dilley

After 30 or 40 minutes of conversation, Huo gets down to business and produces four identical plates of food for herself, Michelle Thiede of Forage, myself, and my photographer. A mild, tender lamb chop anchors the plate, accompanied by a cherry-based sauce and a wheat berry risotto. The dish is garnished with some of the first produce of the year: pea shoots and spinach from Square Roots Farm in nearby Fall Creek, Wisconsin. The spinach tastes preternaturally sweet, closer to sugar snap peas than any spinach we’ve ever tasted. 

We comment first on the lamb, which is surprisingly delicate. “This lamb is not so gamey,” notes Huo. “It’s from Lambalot Acres, which is just south of here—really great people. They’re one of the only lamb producers in the area. The lamb has a nice fat layer. [The cherry sauce is] a little tart, a little acidic, and a lot of depth, and the risotto is quite creamy. I left half of it whole so you get the texture that pops in your mouth.”

Cooking farm-to-table guarantees that you’re paying more for ingredients, and it generally means more time and hassle in the kitchen, too. What it doesn’t guarantee is better flavor; locally grown artisan ingredients shine only with the specialized care of a chef who knows how to showcase their strengths. That care is what helps Huo’s business survive.

“I do grass-fed beef, and most people are like: ‘Grass-fed beef, it’s super dry and crumbly, and I don’t want to eat it,’” says Huo. “I do a sausage grind for my burger—I mix it with pork fat and emulsify it with ice, and make it into a legit sausage patty, but all it has is salt. Whatever the pig ate, and whatever the grass-fed beef [ate], you mix those two things together and you get the juiciest, best-tasting burger you’ll ever have.”

That sort of attention to detail comes through in Locavore Mobile Kitchen’s breakfast sandwich. It’s a dish that’s easy to phone in, but Huo builds it up, layer-by-layer, to create a reflection of the countryside that surrounds Eau Claire. It starts with a slow-fermented sourdough English muffin from Little Wissota Bakehouse in Chippewa, Wisconsin, and features ham from Together Farms, eggs from Amanda’s Eggs & Pasture Poultry, cheese from Castle Rock Dairy, and butter from Garden Valley Farmstead in Hixton, Wisconsin.

“It’s 100 percent from the area,” says Huo. “The baker even uses grains from Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota.”

Huo explains that she’ll have to raise the price of the English muffin sandwich from $8 to $9 this year; thankfully, she adds, her customers will (mostly) understand. “I have gained a reputation here specifically for working only with farmers,” she says. “So people know whatever I do they will trust that that’s what my priority is. I do not haggle with the farmers, I don’t negotiate—if they say that it’s this price, then I have to figure it out from there.”

Is there a culture clash, we ask, with older folk who are driven solely by price and quantity? Huo nods.

“You’ll get those guys who are like: ‘$8? That better be a goddamn good sandwich for $8,’” she says. ”Honestly, my answer is: if this isn’t your thing, that’s okay. Not everybody can pay that. But I’m hoping there are enough people with this as a priority in their life that they can spend that money.”

Recipe for Fresh Lamb Chops with Dried/Preserved Fruit Sauce

Fresh Lamb chops with dried/preserved fruit sauce from the recipe vis Amy Huo / / Photo by Becca Dilley

Amy Huo writes:

“Early spring is the most difficult time to work with local ingredients in the Upper Midwest—even more so if you restrict yourself to using local ingredients. Stored starchy vegetables like radishes,

beets, potatoes, squashes, cabbages, etc. begin to degrade at this time or sprout, making them mostly inedible. I tend to rely on fresh butchery and then try to pair my choices with pickled, dried, and otherwise preserved foods that have mostly maintained their quality over the winter. 

“For this recipe, I have chosen dried tart Door County cherries paired with fresh lamb chops. Fruit and meat are one of my favorite combinations, and the dried quality of the fruit enhances the deeper and darker flavor of the cherries. You could use any dried berry, or even apple or pear, but be sure to seek out the ones that don’t have sugar (or have minimal sugar) added to their processing. It can always be added later, but if the sauce is too sweet from the beginning, then it’s difficult to balance the sauce at the end.”

Ingredients

1 long red Florence (or just a red) onion
1 garlic clove
½ cup dried tart cherries
¼ cup maple syrup
2 cups stock (lamb if you can get it, or beef)
¼ cup dry red wine (omit if you prefer this N/A)
1½  tablespoons apple cider vinegar
Butter
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Preheat a grill pan, grill, or heavy-bottomed pan until it’s smoking. Salt the lamb chops liberally and let sit. If you have a dried vegetable salt—like ramp or similar—using that will add an extra layer of goodness to your lamb chops. Regular kosher salt is great, too. 
  2. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter to pan or grill. Mince onion and garlic and add to pan until softened. Add the tart cherries, wine, syrup, vinegar, and the stock. Simmer on medium heat and stir every so often.
  3. At this time, dry your lamb chops on both sides and sear or grill them, depending on your desired doneness, 2 minutes on each side. Set them aside to rest.
  4. Your sauce should be reduced by half now and the tart cherries should be plump. Now it’s decision time: if you prefer a smooth sauce, carefully use your blender (cover with a towel and start on low) to blend it until it is your desired smoothness. You can also leave it chunky. I usually blend half and leave half unblended. Return the sauce to the pan, and add salt, pepper, and more vinegar to taste. 
  5. Add a large pat of butter to the sauce at the very end and let it melt slowly to give your sauce some velvety goodness.
  6. Serve your lamb chops with a couple of tablespoons of sauce drizzled over and buttered pasta or other starch of your choice. Simple sauteed greens are also a good choice (and usually readily available).

Read more chef profiles and get other great recipes in The Growler’s Minnesota Spoon column here.

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