From out of the ashes of early morning violence has risen the post-modern, industrial-chic, hipster haven known as Walker's Point. A hard-bitten bird with once-broken wings now soars below the Third Ward amidst the rusty sights and pungent smells of industry; boasting what some nationally renowned chefs might argue is the best damn food in the city.
For my first stop on this tour of Milwaukee's so-called "Fifth Ward," I was graciously welcomed into the kitchen at Thomas Hauck's c.1880, formerly owned by V. Marchese Produce and known then, as The Olive Pit. Chef Hauck, with his cuttingly dry sense of humor, recalled his mother's dismay upon seeing the green and purple color palate left behind; a sight that drove her nearly to the point of tears.
c.1880 is located along a highly motored stretch of Walker's Point where one good restaurant after another has staked its claim in recent years, drawing foodie-types with an adventurous appetite to an area of town that they'd have virtually no oth...
On a perfect autumn afternoon, with the mercury sitting at an almost absurdly perfect 72 degrees, my wife and I rolled over crunching gravel and crackling leaves along a sun-dappled path to an open field at NuGenesis Farms.
Swaying tall grass and the smell of fertilizer infused the crisp fall air as we walked from our parked car to a tasting event at the surging non-profit that – on this day – featured culinary duos of doctors and chefs for the purpose of forging farm-to-table culinary delights; an idea that (by the way) ranks near the top of my list of things that I wish that I had thought of first.
Once I accepted the reality that I did not think of it and someone else did, I was able to settle in and enjoy the afternoon. Our small group was quickly approached, almost before we even entered the fenced-in festivities, by the very person who did come up with this idea: NuGenesis founder, Kathy Bero.
Kathy Bero is a self-described "chronic volunteer." She stands tall with a commanding...
Chef Gregg Des Rosier does not necessarily want you to conjure up thoughts of hibiscus or camomile, nor perfectly triangular prosciutto and avocado tea sandwiches on tiered wrought-iron display stands when you think about the restaurant that he's called home for the last eight years.
So much so, that when I recently extended kudos to him for the tasty chicken curry and rice soup that I had enjoyed for lunch at the Anaba Tea Room just a few weeks earlier, he swiftly extended an invitation to sample his new fall dinner menu at the Garden Room restaurant, 2107 E. Capitol Dr., on the crust of Shorewood, during an "industry-only night" six-course sampling (all free, by the way) of his new vittles.
But, make no mistake, Chef Gregg did not invite local restaurant servers, hotel line cooks or lowly freelance food writers to taste his latest creations for the purpose of flexing his culinary muscle or divining a platform from which to exalt himself as the dernier cri of East Side chefs. His goal w...
For some reason, the world of the culinary arts has always been a boys' club. Puzzling as it may be, refined and thoughtful dishes are created in professional kitchens by louts that are categorically unrefined and crass. In fact, we in the business wear this irony like a badge of honor.
Depravity, in both words and actions, comes so naturally in this trade that to enter a kitchen where people are polite and proper might seem strange and even creepy.
Female chefs in recent decades have carved out a more than sizable stake for themselves in this hairy-chested industry; but, they have not done so by tendering a soft feminine approach. They've had to step loudly in order to be heard and wield sharp knives along with even sharper skills in order to be respected, making sure to "give" as good as they got and adopt a decidedly male ego.
I've always maintained throughout my cooking career that I would rather lead a staff of women for two reasons. First: they work harder than men because men often...
So, you're out at a casual restaurant or low-key bar with some friends. There's a new guy – a friend of a friend – who's sitting at the end of the table. You can faintly hear him rambling some nonsense about politics or art but you can't bring yourself to pay attention. He's deliberately styled, wearing thin little glasses despite his 20/20 vision and sporting a t-shirt/leisure suit/jacket combo and sipping some dark, burgundy-colored wine.
Then it happens.
Someone who is drinking that same wine says, "This is good." He retorts with a parking lot full of garbage about its flat bouquet, its poor year and the uninspiring aromas. He might say that it's "flabby" or unrefined. Then he starts talking about the most amazing cabernet he had while studying in Paris. And you're like, "This guy sucks."
If I seem as though I'm drawing this scenario from a specific personal experience, I'm not. But, you get the point.
If you've never seen the movie "Sideways," first of all, you should, and second of al...
It's an unnerving time inside the world of food. With restaurants closing at a record clip and the beleaguered economy still gasping for air, I've had to accept – with bemused resignation – the need for restaurants to lower the bar to turn a profit.
Out of this bankruptcy of innovation has sprouted a reductive fad that threatens to strap working-class communities firmly in the back seat to finer dining utopias like Chicago, New York and San Francisco. The fad is a concept known as "classic with a twist."
The idea is that you take a throwback that everyone knows and loves and you put a modern spin on it. It makes sense and is sometimes profitable but often lacks the actual "twist." And let's be honest; restaurateurs are loath to consider being on the cutting edge before revenue.
While the intention may be self preservation, Milwaukeeans, as a result, sometimes find themselves eating a suspiciously twist-less mac 'n' cheese while the rest of America's metro areas enjoy the spry and invigora...
It may surprise you to know that many chefs go out for lunch. It's not that we don't want to eat our own food, but working an open-to-close shift often leaves some time in the middle of the day, and who doesn't like a change of scenery?
Once food orders are placed and lunch service is wrapped up, I might take a drive or a walk to any one of a number of local, not fast food, but let's say quick-food joints. I like the soft tacos at Chipotle Mexican Grill. I also enjoy the tuna and the cheesesteak at Cousin's Subs. Occasionally, after ordering my food, the high school girl at the cash register will glaringly survey my attire – a chef's coat emblazoned with the words "Justin Johnson, Executive Chef" – and with a screwy face, ask, "Why are you eating here?"
I usually chuckle and say something like, "A chef's gotta eat too."
But why do we eat at these places? Why do we buy the things we do at the grocery store? Relax, it's not an existential query. We already know why. It's fast. It's cheap. A...
The spice rack. We all have one. Or in my case, what once was a spice cupboard replete with decade-old powders and amalgamated configurations of salt, bleached, then colored, then packaged and labeled as "fish seasoning" or "steak seasoning."
I've since purged most of these inherited dust vials, and today you will find nutmeg, sweet curry powder, cinnamon, saffron, lavender, Korean chili threads or Madagascar vanilla beans. More importantly, what you won't find is dried herbs, onion powder or garlic salt.
On a rainy Wednesday afternoon at the Frontier Airlines Center, I strolled through the annual Wisconsin Restaurant Expo in search of new and exciting products with which to enhance my menus and inspire my epicurean appetite.
As I surveyed a line-up of dried herbs and powdered "this and that," I asked the grandfatherly gentleman at the booth, "Are these all natural?" He responded proudly. "Yes, our spices are all natural." I then asked, "Are they irradiated?"
Since the legendary John Ernst Cafe opened in 1878, the hardworking and fun-loving Milwaukee-born have scoffed at "big city" food bent on fussiness and ostentation.
In time, and after an unprecedented run, this style of dining began to feel tired. Being served a plate of dense meatloaf with gravy and a side of peas and carrots by a beefy gal in a dirndl no longer felt novel; it just felt weird.
Naturally, this gave way to a new crop of chefs and food, which showed all of us youngsters that fine food is possible in this city known for brats and cheese.
While these new dining experiences and dazzling menus are well documented by our resident restaurant reviewers, there is little known among the general public about how that food becomes reality.
Welcome to my series, "The Engine Room," which will take you into the kitchens of some of Milwaukee's coolest restaurants, led by some of its most relevant chefs. These chefs are working to break the mold and introduce – not force – interesting ingre...