Music reminiscent of the French Riviera with accordions and violins plays softly over the speakers as a cacophony of diners sharing stories streams out over candlelight tables. Waitstaff pour wine from the Willamette Valley and list off local and seasonal menu items like bison short ribs with quinoa risotto, and pumpkin puree. Behind the scenes, fires spark out of metal pans while aioli gets added as finishing touches to dishes set to make their way to diner’s tables.
Before leaving the pass, Stephanie Pearl Kimmel, owner of Marché restaurant in Eugene, ensures that each plate is up to her standards and is made with the same care for food that she carries. As she runs the restaurant, her voice is calm, yet commands attention. She is older than most of the employees, but her age comes through in her wisdom. Her passion for locally grown food stretches not only though her line of restaurants and cafes, but is not reaching out to local schools as well. Kimmel sparked a movement for the people in the Willamette Valley and beyond to enjoy food that’s fresh and locally grown.
Kimmel’s passion for fine cuisine began when she was young. Her father was a fighter pilot in the Air Force and travelled with the family across countries in Asia, Europe and North Africa.
“I was introduced to a lot of cultures, and I became interested in food and its place in these cultures,” Kimmel says.
The dream of cooking professionally wasn’t realized at first. Kimmel was attending graduate school for comparative literature before a job in a coffee house near campus changed the way she felt about running the kitchen. Before long, she dropped out of graduate school to pursue a career in the food industry.
“I fell in love with the kitchen and the culture there and the camaraderie,” Kimmel says. She had studied abroad as an undergrad in Sorbonne, France, and wanted to get back to the roots and culture that surrounded the agrarian society she had visited. She believes the “soul of France is on the farm” and wanted to bring that feeling back to Eugene to share with this community.
With the opening the Excelsior Cafe in 1973, Kimmel began her journey towards creating a community based around local and sustainable food practices. At first she started small, with only eight tables, but after a gradual expansion they began to make a name for themselves.
“It was really just us and a few passionate amateurs,” Kimmel says. “But we made it work.”
From the beginning, Kimmel wanted to bring the focus back to where the food came from. Her restaurant filled a niche in the Eugene market that hadn’t been tapped yet: locally grown food. Kimmel helped to pioneer the farm-to-table movement focused on the expansion of local farmers spreading goods to their communities and straying away from produce that has to be shipped in.
Kimmel sold the Excelsior Cafe in 1993 and turned her attention to the marketing department for King Estate Winery, but she missed being behind the line in a restaurant. In 1997, she opened Marché Cafe in the 5th Street Market area, and then in 1998 the restaurant Marché. Her mission and philosophy of fresh, local ingredients still carries through to every corner of the restaurant.
“The philosophies are part of the culture and the air here,” Marché manager Elizabeth Wettlaufer says. “Stephanie helps nurture that philosophy.” Wettlaufer has been working at Marché for the past five years making her way from hostess to manager while staying true to the farm-to-table movement.
Kimmel recently expanded her reach to work with local school boards to provide better school lunches to children. She’s hit a number of roadblocks along the way: budget limitations, the scale of farms in the area, and trying to preserve the ingredients that aren’t in season, but she hasn’t given up.
They have been working to take kids out to farms, and to have small gardens in the schools which will teach kids about the importance of farming and knowing where your food comes from. Throughout the month of October, Marché took donations from customers to help the farm-to-school program in the 4J School District.
“We’ve been working as a task force to have people step in and support this through grants and other options,” Kimmel says. “We have a long road ahead of us, but it’s so important.”
Now that she has established her restaurants, Kimmel doesn’t cook in the line very often, but she does mediate between the front and the back of the house. She makes her way to diner’s tables and talks to them about their food and their experience.
“It feels like we are all enjoying an evening in her living room,” Wettlaufer says. Kimmel’s heart lies in the kitchen, and on some days she dons her apron and makes her way to the back of the restaurant so she can cook the food she loves to share.