The Tastemakers

Heritage Holds True

Laila Borokhim & Mike Mcgee

By Candice Wagener | Photo courtesy Pop-Dot

At her charming downtown basement nook Layla’s, namesake (with a spelling twist) Laila Borokhim makes a twofold mark on the Madison restaurant scene: as a sole female proprietor—one of only a handful—and by offering the only Persian food in the city.

Borokhim’s Iranian father and his family came to the states in the late ’60s. Born and raised in Middleton, Borokhim’s cooking skills were heavily influenced by her mama (Persian for paternal grandma), at whose house she spent most of her childhood including every Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. Borokhim’s mother converted to Judaism before she married her father, making the family part of a small minority of Persian Jews in the world, Borokhim says. While Borokhim humbly admits her cooking is anything but traditional, she’s  creating her own version of Persian cuisine— for instance using fresh herbs over dry mixes, a common staple of Persian kitchens—while maintaining all she learned from her mama, who inspired her love of cooking. “I’m making it the way I like it and that seems to translate into people coming back here.”

Also inspired by childhood influences and making a noteworthy mark on the Madison dining scene, with a new take on comfort food, is Mike Magee, executive chef of The Wise since last fall.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Magee was always “hanging around somebody’s apron,” watching his grandmothers and great aunts take big sacks of fresh crayfish or shrimp and transform them into dishes like jambalaya.

Having worked under notable chefs like John Besh and Scott Boswell of New Orleans and Tory Miller, Michael Pruett and Dan Fox locally, he gained his knowledge of the fundamentals. But Magee also maintains the vision his predecessor Jessie Kloskey provided at The Wise, in paying homage to Midwesterners’ love of comfort food.

Classics like Chicken and Waffles, a hearty nod to the South, are given a spin by buttermilk-waffle battering the chicken and serving with maple syrup, a classic Northern condiment. Even the burger is taken up a notch with a smoked paprika aioli.

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