HOKAH, Minn. — When 18-year-old Jake Knutson was accidentally whacked in the face with a baseball bat by a little league player he was coaching last June, he had no idea where the injury would lead him.
The bat hit Jake with enough force to shatter his jaw, breaking it in two places. But when he got to the ER, the doctors quickly became concerned that the Hokah teenager had bigger problems than a broken jaw.
“That boy hitting him in the jaw was a miracle, it saved his life,” Knutson’s sister, Kaylen, remembered.
The doctors had noticed that Knutson’s blood pressure was unusually high and after running some tests, discovered he had a kidney function of just 9 percent. That was the start of an incredible journey for Jake and his family.
Jake was transferred to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where doctors there determined he’d need a kidney transplant.
Jake’s sister Kaylen, who works in Duluth, said she knew immediately she wanted to donate. She was a match, but the doctors were initially reluctant to let her be the donor because they thought Jake’s kidney issues might be caused by lupus. They had to check that Kaylen wasn’t also at risk of contracting lupus before they’d approve her to donate.
After more tests and waiting, the phone rang Dec. 21. The voice on the other end told Kaylen she’d been approved to donate.
“It was the best Christmas present I’ve ever received in my life for all of us,” she remembers.
Jake, meanwhile, wasn’t just dealing with kidney failure. Because of the baseball bat injury, his jaw also was wired shut. But mom Tanya said he showed real courage and the discipline to stick to the special diet recommended by the doctors, which meant he didn’t need dialysis.
As word filtered out to the Hokah community of the family’s struggle, something special happened.
Kaylen remembers her dad stepping outside their Hokah home and then telling her and mom Tanya to come out.
“Every single home in our neighborhood had green lights,” she said.
The Knutsons had recently put a green light outside their garage because green is the color for organ donation awareness. Neighbors noticed and, in a show of solidarity, had each put out their own green light.
“The entire community has come together and shown the utmost support,” Kaylen said. “There’s no way to describe it, this community is just special and we want to recognize that.”
As mom Tanya prepared to travel to Rochester for the transplant operation, she said the support from the community filled her with strength.
“Our neighbors, what they did for us. … I’ll never be able to thank them,” she said.
The support was much deeper than the green lights. Among other acts, Jake’s friends from his time playing basketball in La Crescent raised funds to help the Knutsons, and a Hokah fundraiser is planned in May for the family.
“It’s a humbling place to be,” Tanya said.
The transplant operation was a success, and Jake is now recovering at the Gift of Life House in Rochester. Kaylen said she never had any doubt about putting herself at risk to save her brother.
“The thing is, I know he would have done the same for me,” she said. “We’ve always had that bond.”
What makes Jake’s journey even more poignant for the Knutsons is that less than a year before, Jake’s best friend Mario Miller passed away at the age of 18 while waiting for a heart and lung transplant. Tanya remembers how Miller, who attended La Crescent-Hokah High School with Jake, stayed strong and kept his smile until the end.
“He raised the strength in Jake,” she said. “He watched him be so strong through something devastating. So I think, had that not happened, maybe Jake wouldn’t be in the place he is now to cope with this.”
Realizing how lucky they’ve been, the Knutsons want to dedicate themselves to raising awareness of organ donation to help others in similar situations to both Miller’s and Jake’s.
“You don’t have to be a living organ donor,” Kaylen said. “Just sign up. We’ve met so many people who are struggling and waiting.”
The family expects Jake to come home in March, and he’s already talking about playing baseball with the La Crescent American Legion in the summer and signing up for classes at Western Technical College in the fall.
Kaylen, who works as a behavioral health technician in Duluth, has taken weeks off work both for the surgery and to support her family. Her mom has a hard time coming up with the words to talk about the many ways Kaylen has helped.
“I just, what do I say to my daughter, I always try to find the words, but they just don’t come out right,” Tanya said, to which her daughter responded, “I tell her some things are just unspoken.”
At Tory Miller’s award-winning restaurant on Capitol Square, L’Etoile, the chef’s tasting menu includes beef tartare with Oscietra caviar and pearl onions and La Belle farms foie gras with banana, miso, cocoa and walnuts.
At home — it’s more likely to be meatballs, tomato sauce and ice cream as Madison’s most celebrated chef races home after 12- to 15-hour days at his restaurants to try to make dinner with his wife, Kristine, and 3-year-old son Miles, or at least arrive before Miles’ 8 p.m. bedtime.
Miller, known for his four high-profile Madison restaurants, L’Etoile, Graze, Estrellon and Sujeo, is drawing national attention and new fans. Already the winner of a James Beard Award (pretty much a culinary Oscar), Miller, 42, took down “unbeatable” Iron Chef Bobby Flay on Food Network’s “Iron Chef Showdown” last month.
With all of his success, Miller, who’s been cooking since age 6, isn’t living in a mansion on Lake Mendota or driving a Mercedes-Benz.
Instead, he and Kristine rent a three-bedroom apartment on Madison’s West Side, near Verona, around the corner from Miles’ day care, and Miller drives a 2014 Chevy Cruze.
“We definitely live a way, way more modest life than anybody would think,” Miller said. “We feel so rich in the things that matter, which are food, and good friends and family. We say that all the time. We’re definitely not rich financially.”
Miller’s long work days are hardly glamorous. And then there’s the drive he makes to Rockford every other week to pick up his older son Remy, 7, who goes to school in Chicago’s Lincoln Park and lives primarily with Miller‘s ex-wife, Lili Calfee. Miller sees Remy every other weekend and also for vacations.
“It’s not super glam,” Miller said about the chef and restaurant-owning life.
To make it work, there’s a lot of juggling, Miller said, “but it’s what you do, and you love to do, and if you have a supporting wife and family, then you can make it work.”
Miller was 29 when he bought L’Etoile, the star of Madison’s restaurant scene, in 2005, with his sister, Traci Miller. Then L’Etoile’s chef de cuisine, or head chef, Miller took over the restaurant from chef-proprietor Odessa Piper, who had owned it for 28 years.
The siblings, who were raised in Racine, formed their Deja Food group right away. In late 2007, they partnered with Dianne Christensen, CEO of the economic consulting company Christensen Associates; and in 2010 moved L’Etoile from its second-floor location at 25 N. Pinckney St. on the Capitol Square, to the all-glass U.S. Bank Plaza building, also on the Square, and at the same time opened the similarly local-food focused gastropub Graze next door.
The restaurant group added two more partners, Tracey Solverson in late 2010, and Krys Wachowiak in 2012, the same year Traci Miller stepped out to focus on her career as a pharmacist. The group established the Asian-focused Sujeo at Livingston Street and East Washington Avenue in 2014, and the Spanish tapas restaurant Estrellón on Johnson Street in 2015.
“He’s incredibly creative,” Christensen said. “It’s absolutely wonderful to see him constantly evolving. The restaurants don’t stand still. The menus change, and he comes up with new ideas.”
After graduating second in his class from the French Culinary Institute in New York in 2000, Miller stayed in Manhattan and worked at Bill Telepan’s Judson Grill (the space later taken over by Flay), Eleven Madison Park and Jean Georges.
Impressed by that résumé, Piper hired Miller as a line cook at L’Etoile even though she didn’t have any openings.
Piper quickly observed the kind of quiet, assured humility Miller displayed on “Iron Chef Showdown.”
“He was someone who had so much confidence that he could be very humble and very straightforward,” said Piper, 65, who now works as a restaurant consultant based in Boston.
In part, Miller stood out because he went over and helped the dishwashers blast through the accumulated pots and pans from the morning prep.
“I have a soft spot in my heart for dish washing, because I had to do a lot of it,” Piper said.
Miller worked out so well, he became Piper’s chef de cuisine. She calls it one of the best hiring decisions she ever made.
Born in South Korea, Miller was adopted at about 18 months old and doesn’t know his birth parents.
“I didn’t grow up a real Korean,” Miller joked with a cooking class of eight students sitting around the kitchen bar in Estrellón one Monday night last month. Miller was demonstrating how to make Korean bibimbap, something he also made as one of his four dishes on the “Iron Chef Showdown.”
He grew up working at his grandparents’ diner in Racine and remembers heading to the restaurant every day after kindergarten.
“I have vivid memories of being on the step ladder and making food when I was like 6 years old,” Miller said. He began working there legally at 13.
The restaurant, Park Inn, is still there, although his family doesn’t own it anymore. Still, Miller likes to visit, and was there over Christmas with Kristine, Remy and Miles.
Miller’s parents, Bob and Joani Miller, and his brother, Trever, still live in Racine. Traci splits her time between homes in Racine and Madison.
Miller went to college at UW-Stevens Point for two years and dropped out. “I just wasn’t feeling school, and I knew that I wanted to be a cook somehow. It had always been a big part of my life,” he said.
He had worked for two years in Stevens Point restaurants when he saw a commercial on the Food Network with Flay and Drew Nieporent (Tribeca Grill, Nobu). They were promoting New York’s French Culinary Institute.
Miller marvels at the irony of that now after his competition with Flay. “I still remember seeing that commercial, and I was like, ‘Ah, I’ll look up the French Culinary Institute.’ It was everything I wanted as far as going to New York.”
The yearlong program was more than $25,000, “but it was the opportunity I was looking for,” Miller said.
Flash forward 20 years to “Iron Chef Showdown,” where Miller took on Flay on Jan. 10 while exuding an easygoing humor.
“I wasn’t necessarily calm,” Miller said. “I was definitely excited, and I think that comes out in gibberish. I didn’t know what I was saying.”
Cooking with his team, he always manages to have a good time and that comes through, Miller said. “Our profession is also our passion and our joy and our love, and it’s what we want to do.”
Itaru Nagano, 40, L’Etoile’s chef de cuisine, said the competition was really stressful at times. Nagano and Desiree Nudd, Miller’s former chef de cuisine at Estrellón, were Miller’s sous chefs in Los Angeles when he taped “Iron Chef Showdown” last summer. Nudd is now a sous chef at Somerset in Chicago.
Because of Flay’s history with judge Giada De Laurentiis, Nagano said he figured they didn’t have much chance of winning. “The odds were kind of stacked up against us,” he said. “We really didn’t know what to expect.”
Nagano calls Miller, a 2012 recipient of the James Beard Award “Best Chef: Midwest,” a great boss. “That’s the No. 1 thing that people should know. He’s one of the best chefs to work for because if you try hard and you put in the effort, he has your back 100 percent.”
Most of the time, Miller, despite his growing reputation, isn’t in the limelight.
His typical day starts at Ford’s Gym on Winnebago Street after he drops Miles at day care. He’s been working with personal trainer David McKercher for almost three years, doing a lot of weightlifting.
“Tory’s a super hard worker,” McKercher said. “He’s definitely not in there for any other reason than to just put in some work, get a little bit better, be a little bit healthier. I know he loves it because it’s some time away from that other world — that big food world that he lives in.”
Then Miller checks in at the Deja Food office in the same building that houses Graze and L’Etoile.
After that, he makes his kitchen rounds. He talks to Graze’s chefs first and figures out whether he needs to work lunch or make any menu changes. Then he meets with Nagano at L’Etoile.
He’ll visit Sujeo, and Estrellón, in no particular order, and will typically end up at one of those restaurants for the night. Miller tries to balance his time between all four restaurants, but that can be difficult, he said.
The time Miller spends at home varies, and “is always going to be a struggle,” said Kristine Miller, 32, herself a pastry chef, noting that the time element was hard to adapt to early in their marriage.
Having had her own business, Dough Baby, for 16 months on State Street before it closed in October, makes her understand the demands on Miller.
“Now I understand 1,000 percent everything he has to do,” she said.
Family is important to Miller and his tattooed arms tell the story. His left arm represents family, his right arm, the restaurants.
When Remy was born, Miller got Remy Joong, his son’s first and middle names, done in Korean characters with his son’s birth date. Because Kristine has Scottish heritage, when Miles was born Miller got the Scottish flag with what Kristine calls a Korean-Scottish lion-dragon and Miles’ initials.
His right arm features various representations of each restaurant, including stars for L’Etoile. He’s in the process of getting a crown for Estrellón, but hasn’t had time to finish it.
These days, fun for Miller is hanging out with Kristine and his boys, making tomato sauce and meatballs and eating ice cream.
Kristine, who is pregnant with another boy, due in April, said they make the most of the time they do have and when they have Remy, Miller tries to work less.
Miller said when he moved to Madison in 2003, he didn’t plan on staying. He thought it would just be a stop along his way.
“I definitely wasn’t planning on living here forever, like I am now.”
Wisconsin has detailed the sources of unnatural green growths of vegetation and bacteria that stink up long stretches of the upper Wisconsin River amid cottages, homes and campgrounds.
The study — the largest of its kind in Wisconsin — details how and where sources of phosphorus pollution would need to be reduced to return the waters to a healthy state.
However, there isn’t a sure path to meeting that goal because existing laws don’t mandate that agricultural polluters take action to meet water-quality standards, and government doesn’t fully fund programs to help farmers make improvements voluntarily.
The state Department of Natural Resources has scheduled a series of public meetings next month to describe its draft study of the river basin from Lake Wisconsin to Vilas County. The study covers about 9,156 square miles, or 15 percent of the state.
“This effort has spanned almost eight years and builds on previous watershed work conducted in the basin,” said Kevin Kirsch, a DNR water resources engineer who is managing the project.
The river basin encompasses or touches parts of 21 counties. It includes 109 stretches of streams and rivers and 38 lakes or reservoirs — such as Petenwell Flowage and Castle Rock — whose use is impaired because they are polluted with the nutrient phosphorus.
Farm nutrients carried by rain and snowmelt are the main source of Wisconsin’s most widespread lake and stream pollution problem.
After the Clean Water Act was enacted in the 1970s, nutrient pollution from industry and sewage plants was sharply reduced under strict federal standards, but agricultural pollution is addressed largely by voluntary grant programs. Grants are available to farmers who want to determine how much they are polluting and to reduce the harm by limiting disposal of manure on fields or through changes in planting practices.
The DNR’s study of the Wisconsin River basin is mandated by Clean Water Act provisions requiring states to list water bodies whose use is impaired by pollution, detail its sources and suggest limits on future pollution.
“There is still much work to be done to achieve water-quality standards and reduce algae blooms and the other negative impacts associated with excess phosphorus loadings,” said Sharon Gayan, director of the DNR water quality bureau.
In some areas, farmers have formed to publicize pollution-reducing practices and encourage others in their industry to join.
Taking that a step further, the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District has been coordinating efforts to pool money from local governments to reduce farm runoff. A strict timetable has been created for meeting state standards under a provision of state law allowing limits on farm runoff to be added to the sewer plant’s water pollution permit.
More programs like that one, changes in laws, and more money for voluntary measures are needed so that all sources of pollution are brought fully under control, said Adam Sodersten, spokesman for the Madison-based Clean Lakes Alliance.
“Most importantly it will take a transformational and cultural shift in how we approach lake health” like the societal shift to recycling and composting that took place decades ago, Sodersten said.
The upper Wisconsin River study includes Lake Wausau, Big Eau Pleine Reservoir, Lake Du Bay and Lake Delton.
For more information on next month’s public meetings and how to comment on the plan, go to dnr.wi.gov/topic/TMDLs/WisconsinRiver.