Christy McKenzie ’04 takes the open kitchen concept seriously at Pasture and Plenty (P&P). It was a key component for her in 2017, when she remodeled a former Rennebohm Drug Store on University Avenue — and not just because it’s trendy on HGTV. For McKenzie, the open concept gave her a highly functional and transparent kitchen that could be used to prepare food, teach cooking classes in person or virtually, and host community events with a homey flair. The open kitchen is central to operations at P&P, as well as to its mission. Not only can customers see which local farms produced the food on their plate, but they can also see how their plates and meal kits are prepared.
True to the P&P ethos, McKenzie was happy to work with the Wisconsin Alumni Association to celebrate some of Wisconsin’s local cheesemakers and producers. She opened P&P’s doors to stage a gorgeous, cheesy photoshoot for Badger Insider’s “State on the Plate” feature in the Spring 2022 issue. McKenzie also used her eight years of experience working at the headquarters of allrecipes.com in Seattle, WA, to style the food on set and maximize the beauty of a meat-and-cheese tray.
You have a degree in community and environmental sociology from the UW’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. What set you on that path?
I had taken a gap year in between high school and college, and I traveled a little bit. I was out in Oregon and then came back to Madison, and I happened to be working at a local co-op when a professor but Jack Kloppenburg was a regular customer, and he stopped one day and said, “What are you doing behind the counter here? Why aren’t you in school?” I said, “Well I’m just on a gap year. I’ll be starting at the UW in the fall.” And he said, “Well, what are you going to study?" And I said, “I really think I want to own a business someday, so I’m thinking about being a business major.” And he said, “Yeah, but what really are you passionate about?” And I said, “Well, I’m really passionate about how people get together around food and how we share food and culture.” And he said, “Well that’s what I study.”
It was wonderful luck that I found the program in CALS that I did because through it, I was able to research and study food in a way that I really didn’t know existed before coming to the UW. Looking at food and culture, community economic development around food, international food policy, and issues of food and identity — it was such an amazing path that one small conversation put me on.
Have you always been passionate about locally sourced food?
I went to Italy for the first time in high school [and that] was the first time I really saw a culture that was so centered around a joyful experience of food. American food culture that I grew up with was more about processed foods and convenience foods. So, when I went to Italy, I really experienced local food in a way that connected to identity.
With a scholarship from the rural sociology program, I studied regional food in Italy and its connection to identity and the power of agritourism to reinforce that identity. Through that experience, I had a chance to have farm stays and learn about what it meant to see the olives on the trees and where the olive oil was being made, and then enjoy a meal that included that olive oil at dinner. It really got me thinking about that cycle of connection. It was that kernel of inspiration that came from Italy that lit a real passion for how you can have a deeper relationship to food and a deeper commitment to local.
And that’s your inspiration for Pasture and Plenty?
Absolutely. And that was something that my husband and I [struggled with] when we lived in Seattle, before we moved back to Madison, and we both had more than full-time jobs. We were commuting in and out of the city, and we were always frustrated that things were going bad in our fridge. I didn’t always have the time to do the whole-food cooking that I would’ve done. In starting Pasture and Plenty, the real goal was to provide a way for people like us to be able to access high-quality local food and support local farms. I thought if I solve that for myself and for our family, I probably am solving a need that a lot of other families face. Making convenient food choices sometimes stands at conflict with ethics for buying local and eating locally.
How did you develop connections with so many farms in the area to source your food?
Some of the connections came through the executive chef that we launched the business with. Some of them came through REAP and through visiting farmers’ markets and talking with other restaurateurs about farms that they were working with. Now we’re working on developing more diverse relationships, so we’re working with the Farley Center to support smaller, newer farmers. We’re also working to bridge some culture-gap and language-gap barriers to be able to support a more diverse community among farmers, and Spanish-speaking farmers specifically.
You helped style our charcuterie boards for the Badger Insider photo shoot. What’s your favorite take on a snack board? What are your go-tos, and how do you like to style them?
We’re so lucky in Wisconsin to be surrounded by such high-quality cheesemakers and meat producers. I love a variety. I love to see a board that tells a story and allows you to jump in and taste different flavors — one that really thinks about flavor combinations and celebrates the individual makers. My favorite things on the board, though, are almost always the bites you have in between tasting the main attractions. You’ve got your cheeses and your meats and the hearty components, but I love beauty heart radishes on a board because they give a crunch and a pepperiness. I love different kinds of pickled things on a board because [they] can introduce such a great texture, and the acidity or the brine clears your palette and gets you ready for the next bite. I just love playing with that diversity of rich and sweet and salty and sour things on a board. The essence of that grazing is to give yourself a lot of different experiences.