Tom Gresser is my new idol and he's not even a cheesemaker.
He is, however, the only tavern owner I know who has a "Swiss cheese appetizer" on the menu that consists solely of a huge slab of Wisconsin Baby Swiss simply warmed on the grill using extra virgin olive oil. That's it. Really -- who could ask for anything more?
Tom owns the legendary Roxbury Tavern, located in the metropolis of Roxbury, Wisconsin in rural Dane County -- one mile east of US Hwy 12 on County Highway Y. I had the unprecedented honor of spending nearly three hours with him last night at the Carr Valley Cooking School in Sauk City.
The class information said it would be a "tasting" but after six courses that featured an "Inside Out Cheese and Pulled Pork Sandwich," a "Gonzoburger," a "Wilted Spinach Salad," a cup of homemade "Roxbury French Onion Soup" topped with hand-torched Carr Valley Canaria cheese (awesome!!), Chili Rellanos and Poached Pears served with Carr Valley Ba Ba Blue Cheese -- topped off by a bottle of Lake Louis Cream Rock Ale -- my diet was officially shot. I'm not sure what I'm going to tell the Weight Watchers lady when I weigh in this week (perhaps that I was attacked by a never-ending cheese course?), but it was definitely worth it.
While the 20 or so of us attending last night's cooking school were having a grand old time, there was one couple in attendance who I noticed was not - I suspect they were expecting a bit more "hoity toity" food and left early.
Too bad. The rest of us decided Tom was our new hero.
And rightfully so. A champion of using only the most local and freshest food - Tom knows where every ingredient comes from - including each farmer's name and where they live. He says he likes to use fresh ground beef from Wyttenbach Meats outside Sauk City because the beef "is raised on the Sauk prairie. I can drive by and wonder which one will end up on my grill."
Born and raised in Racine, Tom worked for most of his life in the food service industry (with a short stint earning a horticulture degree in his 40s) and in 1989 decided to buy the Roxbury Tavern. He said the first few years consisted mostly of a blue-collar crowd smoking and swearing at the bar. But then he visited the Riley Tavern - a biker watering hole near Verona - and noticed that although the clientele was the same, the atmosphere was not -- no swearing allowed, minimal smoking and families eating at tables along side dudes wearing leather jackets.
"I thought if they could pull that off in Riley - then I could do the same in Roxbury." And he did. Today, Tom's clientele is an eclectic mix of guys still sitting at the bar (they stopped swearing and smoking years ago), families with small children at tables and even professionals from Madison who might be working on their laptops and eating a Roxburger at the same time.
"I made it into a place where I wanted to be - I got rid of the jukebox, pool table, televisions, put up a no smoking sign and every step of the way, people were telling me I was going to go out of business. Well we didn't - we now have a place the staff really enjoys working at and I couldn't ask for any better help," Tom said.
In addition to what appears to be a simple menu (don't let it fool you - everything, and I mean everything is made from scratch and Tom's culinary skills are second to few), the Roxbury is renown for hosting local community fundraisers and is a political hot spot.
In fact, Tom's agreed to host a June 24 fundraiser for the Northwest Dane Senior Center to raise money for exercise equipment for the area's senior citizens. Organizer Lisa Lutz says tickets will be $10, live music is planned and she's even trying to round up an old piano for an outdoor "piano burning" that will serve double time cooking a turkey as it goes up in flames. The not-to-miss event runs from 1-5 p.m. Bring your friends.
At 64, Tom says he has a good 6-10 more years running the Roxbury but he looks like he could last forever. Don't take any chances - get yourselves to the Roxbury soon and you'll never want to leave.