Western grad following farm-to-table dreams

May 1, 2014

From lacrossetribune.com: “Western grad following farm-to-table dreams” — Josh Powell has a vision. One day, he wants to be in the kitchen of his own restaurant. A customer might compliment his pork chops and ask where they came from, “and I can just point west,” Powell said.

And then, he’ll say something like: “See that pasture with those six hogs?”

After more than a decade in the culinary arts, the 32-year-old La Crosse native went back to school to learn more about the meat and vegetables that end up in his kitchen. Powell begins an internship at Organic Valley on Monday after graduating from Western Technical College’s agri-business science technology program.

“It’s a huge weight off my shoulders,” Powell said. “There were a couple times where I really thought about, ‘Is this the right idea?’ ”

Powell is one of 1,136 graduates who will be honored at 2 p.m. today at Western’s spring commencement ceremony in the La Crosse Center. College officials will grant 527 associate degrees and 242 technical diplomas, with 321 students graduating from Western’s certified nursing assistant program.

Powell’s Western degree marks his second spin at college. He also studied the culinary arts at Fox Valley Technical College, but he realized about two years ago that he needed to return to the world of higher education to realize his dream.

Powell wants to own a farm-to-table restaurant — a place that mixes modern cooking with “old-school” butchering, Powell said.

“I think butchering is kind of a dying art,” Powell said. “People don’t eat heart. People don’t eat liver. People don’t eat kidneys.”

Powell was the type of student who always added to the conversation in his classes at Western — often to talk about his favorite food, said Tracy Harper, an instructor and department head.

“Lots of discussions about bacon,” Harper said. “Every class.”

Powell’s passion for food was obvious, and it was infectious, Harper said.

His love for food dates back to the baked goods served up by his grandma and aunt. He wouldn’t settle for anything that wasn’t as tasty as his grandma’s cuisine, Powell said.

He started brushing up on his skills with different ingredients. About 12 years ago, he got a job at Syl’s Place, a Barre Mills supper club. Powell worked in the kitchen and behind the bar.

“Pouring drinks wasn’t really my thing,” Powell said. “I like playing with fire.”

He also has worked in kitchens at the La Crosse Country Club and restaurants in the Green Bay area.

“I was pretty lucky in my 12 years in the kitchen,” Powell said.

He was the executive chef at Pogreba in La Crosse but relinquished that title when he went back to school.

An unfortunate incident with a mechanical bull forced Powell to focus on his transition from cooking to agriculture. Nursing an injured elbow — compliments of the bull — Powell took two months off to focus on his studies.

Now, he’s back where he started, at Syl’s, but the horizon is completely changed. Western instructors and the people he met there have given him the ability to pursue his goals. They taught him things he could never have learned in the small garden of his childhood home on the North Side, Powell said.

He and some of his friends are raising livestock and testing recipes on family and friends, but Powell is focused on Organic Valley, where he’ll work this summer as an intern in the quality assurance department.

“Between a couple of my buddies, we’ve got to find a plan,” Powell said. “If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right.”

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