Luke Zahm loves his community.
“I love being completely immersed in the culture of the Driftless through its farms, food and people,” Zahm, owner of the Driftless Cafe in Viroqua, Wis., said. “As a kid who grew up in Vernon County, I’m constantly amazed by the people who come here looking for a piece of their identity and find themselves in love with this place. I really enjoy being a part of creating that experience for others and opening their eyes to the power and beauty of this place.”
In fact, Zahm is amazed and proud of the fact that the organic food movement is the focus of the region he calls home, and he’s not shy extolling the virtues of either of them.
“I’d like to think that I’m helping foster an identity for the area by shining a spotlight on the vibrancy of the food movement that has taken hold in the region,” he said. “As a kid who grew up in La Farge, I really struggled to find an identity that suited the person I was becoming. I’m extremely motivated to help people understand that there is an emerging identity here in the food and farming culture. In fact, Vernon County has the second highest concentration of organic farms in the United States. A $1 billlion organic food sales engine has taken root in my hometown. I’m excited to be a part of this identity and celebrate it to the rest of the world.”
Zahm is a very active board member of the Viroqua Chamber of Commerce, helping to create outlets that bring people together to grow the community. He’s also a board member of the Friends of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve in La Farge. The Reserve, he said, is a very special place that was, in a sense, saved from development in the 1970s. The land sat idle for about two decades, when Zahm’s mother and other impassioned citizens urged the federal government to de-authorize the land and turn it over to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. The land is wild, pristine and utilized with an emphasis of silent sports recreation, which allows it to be enjoyed by many. Zahm also created, and leads, the Viroqua “Chef’s Table” with the Viroqua Area School District. The program takes seasonal ingredients and creates a school lunch menu that uses them as a basis for education in the lunchroom.
Matt Johnson, weekly publisher of the River Valley Media Group and managing editor of the Vernon County Broadcaster, said Zahm is the perfect neighbor. He said the young leader is approachable, positive, an ideal mentor and a gifted communicator. His work with local students, in particular, drew praise from Johnson.
“He’s doing it in a way you would see from a seasoned teacher,” Johnson said.
In fact, Zahm exudes years of experience and expertise, even though he’s still young.
“It’s easy to forget that,” Johnson said.
But, it’s the people Zahm is most proud of.
“I am so proud of the people we grow in the restaurant,” Zahm said. “I’m proud of my farmers who grow amazing food and share it with the world. I’m proud of the community we cultivate as restaurant. I’m proud that I was a kid who grew up here and is working hard to translate my idealism into realism.”