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Experienced chef creates new business
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It’s just organic flour, butter, eggs and vinegar plus filtered water. However to chef Monique Hooker, they are both the basic ingredients of her new business and a path to changing the world by beginning at the local level.

“I think of Aldo Leopold and his vision of land stewardship, how we use it to grow our food, how we produce our food,” Hooker said. “We are the stewards of the land. Every project we do must reflect this.”

This is the ethic drives Hooker’s latest project – frozen pastry crusts in four varieties – pie crusts (pâte brisée), sweet short pie crusts (pâte sucrée ronde), puff pastry pie crust squares (pâte feulletée carrée), and puff pastry pie crust rounds (pâte feulletée ronde).

The piecrusts are currently available at the Kickapoo Exchange Food Co-op, the Viroqua Food Co-op, People’s Food Co-op (LaCrosse), and Oneota Food Co-op (Decorah, Iowa). Hooker is currently working on USDA organic certification and plans to distribute the pastry dough further afield through Fifth Season Cooperative in Viroqua.

Sustainability is key to Hooker’s effort, hence her decision to use only organic ingredients, sourcing as close to home as possible. Her hope is to lead the company she has begun to where it becomes a self-sustaining operation creating local jobs, and serving the local area (Southwest Wisconsin).

“I didn’t need a job; I didn’t need a company,” Hooker said. “What I did need was to leave behind what I know.”

The accomplished French chef sees her new venture as teaching both entrepreneurship and an understanding of food that helps preserve the beautiful land surrounding us.

 “If we don’t pay attention to what we eat, we will loose this,” Hooker said, gesturing toward the windows of the Gays Mills Community Commerce Center with a view of the  Kickapoo Valley.

Hooker’s new business, ‘Monique’s,’ operates from the Kickapoo Culinary Center, a shared-use kitchen housed in the Gays Mills Community Commerce Center, the same building housing the village offices and library.

“I had been asked by Brad Niemcek (the kitchen’s coordinator) if I would be interested in using the kitchen when they were first planning it and were looking for possible interest,” Hooker said. “We worked for a year at my home perfecting the recipes. I probably went through a hundred pounds of dough.”

Heading back into the kitchen, Hooker proved to be very much a part of the production process. Standing on one end of the sheeter, an automatic roller that allows them to roll the dough progressively thinner, was her assistant of 12 years, Trina Lewis of New Albin, Iowa. Hooker positioned herself at the other end next to Therese Lechnir, who is new to the operation. Hooker showed Lechnir how to move the dough to and from the conveyor belt, minimizing the amount of touching and watching for the stickiness that indicates the need for a light dusting of flour. After the final rolling, Hooker demonstrated the technique for hand cutting and folding the piecrusts onto squares of brown waxed paper. Two folded crusts weighing just over a pound go into each package.

Differences in temperature and humidity can make subtle changes in how the dough handles. For Hooker, this demonstrates the importance of knowledge in the people working with it.

“This is a handmade product,” Hooker explained. “Every step of the way someone is involved, someone is asking questions, someone has to find the answer.”

And that is a good thing, to the local chef. It’s not an automated process. It involves people learning skills and sharing them with others.

“It’s fun to watch people grow and learn to understand the philosophy of what I do,” Hooker said.

Someday, she hopes the business will be taken over by Lewis and the other employees, who will continue to create a product that gives customers a choice that is simple, tasty, and made in line with the ethics of sustainable production.

Hooker stresses that she is not telling customers what to buy, but simply offering them the choice of a preservative-free pastry crust that helps them make those unique foods that feed memories. She is making it easier and quicker for the home cook who wants to make an apple pie for dessert or a potpie for dinner.

Food is about community, about family and about home to Hooker. The chef hopes to foster those with a product whose creation fosters an ethic of sustainable land use and quality in food.