Q&A Tom Hartz

If you’ve had the good fortune of enjoying a meal at Lake Geneva’s Simple Café, you’re familiar with its farm-totable approach. Each recipe is infused with the freshest possible ingredients in interesting and inventive ways. To celebrate our third annual “Taste of Fall” section, we asked Simple’s Tom Hartz to explain his philosophy about food and its essential importance — not merely as fuel for our bodies — but for its communal value and the relationships it fosters.

PLEASE TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOURSELF AND HOW SIMPLE CAFÉ CAME TO BE:

I want to be useful. John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” I try to execute that rather simple idea every day. Some days I am more successful than others, but I will always keep after it.

Like many residents of Lake Geneva I migrated from the Chicago suburbs. That was 1991. Work, quality of schools, and pace of life led me here. Looking back, I can connect the dots that brought me to this day. I never could have planned it that way but I wouldn’t change one moment of it either. Lori and I raised six boys (ok, it was mostly Lori), started two businesses, made many friends, and continue to enjoy all that Lake Geneva offers.

Lori and I read Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle about her family’s year-long effort to eat only what was grown locally. That was 2008. What began as a discussion about delicious food at our dining table quickly grew into buying the closed Napa Auto Parts building and turning it into a restaurant. We believed that the residents of Lake Geneva would enjoy great food grown by their neighbors. Simple Café opened its doors in the middle of winter 2009 and we appreciate each person who has walked in since.

WHAT DOES SIMPLE CAFÉ’S SLOGAN, “CHANGING THE WORLD, ONE BITE AT A TIME” MEAN?

We have observed that people often seem disconnected from each other, their food, their surroundings, their neighbors. When a customer takes a bite of food at Simple, we hope that they feel and taste the nature of the relationship between the farmer and them, the relationship between the food and the earth, the relationship with the person sitting across from them. We want to reconnect people to their surroundings, to one another, to the food that sustains us. We want to help make that change.

A monk by the name of Thich Nhat Hanh summarized it best for us when he described bread. “With just a little bit of mindfulness, you can truly see where your bread comes from. It has not come from nothing. Bread comes from the wheat fields, from hard work, and from the baker, the supplier, and the seller. But the bread is more than that. The wheat field needs clouds and sunshine. So, in this slice of bread there is sunshine, there is cloud, there is the labor of the farmer, the joy of having flour, and the skill of the baker and then — miraculously! — there is the bread.” It is all about relationships.

WHO ARE SOME OF THE LOCAL FARMERS YOU WORK WITH?

Lynn Lein at Yuppie Hill, Eric Rose at River Valley Ranch, the Kosters at Geneva Lakes Produce, John Hudoc and Tom Cicero at Hometown Sausage Kitchen, Jerry Lee and Teresa at the Sweet Corn Lady, Gilbert at Lonesome Stone Mill, Levi and Emily at Alden Hills Farm, to name a few. They are the ones who make our food taste delicious.

SIMPLE SEEMS TO BE VERY COMMUNITY-ORIENTED AND HOSTS FUNDRAISING EVENTS TO BENEFIT LOCAL ORGANIZATIONS? WHY IS THAT IMPORTANT?

Because we need everyone’s efforts to change the world. The quantity and quality of groups in our area who are organized to help others is remarkable. These groups are the ones who are trying to eradicate hunger, teach our children, provide housing to the homeless, and assist those with intellectual and physical disabilities. We feel our place is to help them raise money and awareness for their efforts.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE ITEM ON THE MENU?

In the winter, it is the mushroom gruyere omelet; spring it is the Simple Benedict with asparagus; summer I fill up on blueberry pancakes, and in the fall I enjoy the turkey butternut squash Brussels sprouts hash. Our farmers provide a wide variety of delicious and fresh ingredients. I try to take advantage of them all.

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