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The Engine Room: An Evening at Sanford

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 ingredients, off-beat dishes and edgy techniques onto the sometimes reticent but nonetheless intrigued palettes of Milwaukee restaurant-goers.

For this pilot installment, I could think of no place better than Sanford. Truth be told, I still rue my decision to seek a head chef's position as my first job out of Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago instead of pursuing an entry-level post at Sanford. At the time, I bore the responsibility of a young family and was zealously angling for money. To a student and a mid-20s up-and-comer, Sanford emanated a mystique of grandeur.

So, as you might imagine, being given an all-access backstage pass during a typical Wednesday night service at Sanford was kind of like a NASCAR fan getting to ride shotgun with Jeff Gordon.

Why would they let me do this? Well, partially because I'm a chef that understands what a kitchen is and what is involved. But more so, as Chef Justin Aprahamian put it when I thanked him at the end of the night for letting me hang, "we've got nothing to hide."

It's 4 p.m. on a Wednesday night – Leap Day. The first reservations of the evening are set for 6 p.m. A couple of deuces followed by several more two-tops throughout the night equal a respectable 19 covers (not including walk-ins) for a dreary and misty evening.

I meet Chef Justin at the back door delivery entrance, which leads past the walk-in cooler and into the catacombs. If you live in an old Milwaukee house on the East Side, your basement is probably not much different. Minus the dry storage, chest freezers, a modest prep kitchen and plaques commemorating magazine and newspaper accolades from years gone by, the citadel of Sanford is unspectacular and in this way comforting – perhaps a poetic salute to its humble beginnings.

Only if you've never read anything about Sanford would you not know that the now-renowned restaurant began as Sandy's father's grocery store so many years ago. Many of the relics of this era remain, including an old-school meat slicer bearing an almost art deco design that is used to this day for slicing house-cured meats.

The main kitchen line is anchored by a veritable icon of French cooking – a cast iron cook top that throws off heat like an incinerator. Chef Justin is particularly fond of this piece of equipment and tells me he couldn't imagine life without it. He talks of its even heat distribution and the benefits of not having an open flame bend up around a sauce pot to char its inside edges.

The entire working kitchen is, to my layman's eye, roughly 15 by 20 feet with an additional galley way for pot washing.

After I get the grand tour, it's time for family meal. Family meal is a small spread of food made from leftovers or extras and put out for the staff – cooks, servers, hosts, porters – anyone who's hungry and on the payroll. Aside from feeding the famished help before hunkering down for service, it plays an important role in building team morale. Everyone heaps up their plates with, in this instance, a mélange of Penne Bolognese, ham sandwiches, a tasty little potato and queen olive salad and a delicious cake made by Sandy himself for a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photo shoot.

Groups of four or five take their turn sitting at a front corner window table to eat and, on most nights, discuss anything not work-related. But on this night, they are joined by an outsider. Me.

We discuss sourcing, farmer's market visits and typical nightly covers as Chef Justin intermittently receives briefings on upcoming event appearances and newspaper interviews, and appraises the occasional tasting spoon of passion fruit pastry cream or mushroom reduction used as a base for a transcendent truffle vinaigrette. "It's good," he may say, or "it needs to reduce a little more."

As the brigade continues to prepare for service, we're able to talk about menu philosophy. Chef Justin breaks out a three-inch-thick binder containing every single menu he ran in the past year. As I peruse some of them, I realize something. Despite the perception that Sanford is a top-dollar, elegant, exacting and refined restaurant (all of which is true), this is comfort food. Whether it's a D'Amato signature like grilled wild sturgeon on crab hash and pancetta red onion vinaigrette or an Aprahamian original like grilled scallops and shrimp, paprika almond crisp, almond cream and sherry gastrique, this is simple, earthy, honest food.

I pose a question about molecular gastronomy: "What do you think? Do you use it?"

While Chef Justin admits to dabbling in it and finding it interesting, he reveals that it is not preferable if it doesn't improve the flavor or the experience of eating. We shared this sentiment, as I've often felt that the molecular movement is all style and no substance. There are, of course, exceptions. But Justin encapsulated the restaurant's view of this modern movement acutely by recounting a story about a time he prepared sous vide pearl onions for the man he describes as a Jedi.

He tells me that Sandy, after trying the vacuum-packed and control-cooked onions, surmised that they'd have been better had he just blanched them properly and roasted them.

Sandy and Justin have no intention of doing anything just to do it. If it doesn't serve the food or enhance the experience, why bother?

Then we discuss "entrance" into the fabled Sanford kitchen. "What does it take to get the job here?" I ask. Resoundingly, the response is "attitude." Chef Justin continues, "no one here, except Sandy, went to the CIA [the Culinary Institute of America]. We can teach people how to cook. I can't teach them to want to be here."

As service approaches, I'm impressed by the decorous and accommodating nature with which my presence in the kitchen is received. As I described earlier, this is not a huge kitchen. There are plenty of folks scurrying about with last minute "i's" to dot and "t's" to cross before the first customers hit the table. But here I am, trying (most likely in vain) to fit in by wearing my chef's coat but nonetheless getting in the way as I scribble notes and crack off unwarned photos.

The culinary team not only remains focused, but abides my nuisance with polite calls of "behind" and "excuse me." I'm in their world. Observing. Reporting. They are unfazed. I'm even invited to taste their creations and many of them indulge me in a quick interview. "How long have you been here?" I ask. "Mmm ... five years," Joe tells me. "Where did you go to school?" I ask. "Le Cordon Bleu in Minnesota."

This is a team of serious cooks. They wouldn't be here if they didn't have ability and understand the menu, the restaurant's provenance and Chef Justin's standards. These guys have the temperament of generals. They're polished, proficient and mature.

When Anthony Bourdain wrote "Kitchen Confidential," which I first read recently, he wasn't talking about these guys. Most cooks, and even chefs for that matter, blame their tools: "My food sucks because I need a new oven." One gets the impression that such a cop-out would be wholly rejected here. The Sanford kitchen is replete with old reliables that have been cared for and maintained with the love and altruism of a parent.

It's the last day of the month and sous chef Casey runs his eyes over shelves tallying the February inventory now, just moments before service. He comes down the line where Chef Justin is plating, for me, a sample of the tasting menu's intermezzo – a spin on peanut butter and jelly, it's a peanut butter cookie with a Concord grape sorbet made from local Concords – and asks about caviar. I miss their whole conversation because the grape sorbet is changing my life.

After jotting some things down and taking a few more pictures, I notice Chef Justin fingering together an arrowroot slurry. "Are we thickening a sauce?" I ask.

Now, young chefs and cooks should really pay attention to this. If you take only one thing from this article, take this: arrowroot is a white powder that, when mixed with a bit of water, acts as a thickening agent much like cornstarch, and if you've done your training in fine dining under persnickety technical purists, you've probably been taught never to use it. It's a technique that is abused to embarrassing degrees in most Chinese take-out restaurants and can absolutely engulf flavor if done haphazardly.

But here's the lesson. The slurry is applied at a point where, Chef Justin says, the flavors are at their apex. A place where continued reduction will take the sauce to the other end of where it needs to be. It will become over-reduced. Perhaps bitter. Sickly sweet. Maybe too salty. Our classic training tells us to reduce to the desired consistency. This is an area where training and the blind adherence to a method can hamper you as a chef. To ride out the technique and watch it destroy the food you're cooking only because you were taught to "reduce until nappe" instead of trusting your eye, your instincts and your taste buds is one of the great travesties of young chefhood.

Pretty cool stuff.

The first tables of the night are ushered in and handwritten tickets are brought to the kitchen. This team could turn out 19 covers of multiple courses standing on their heads, and the early going indicates that this will be a relaxed service.

But then, in an instant after the first courses are called, Chef Justin is put through his paces by a special request. A diner has the temerity to go "off menu."

Their wish is a salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, in February at a restaurant known for seasonality, and pasta with marinara!

I am stunned. The kitchen staff is not. Chef Justin barely bats an eye as he looks over at me with a grin of resignation and sets off to the cellar to procure the ingredients for a summer salad and vegetable marinara. He doesn't stomp. He doesn't recede with exasperation. In fact, as he walks away, he calls back to the line, "Does anyone need anything from downstairs?" Total aplomb.

When he returns, I ask him, "Don't you ever want to say, 'Do you know who I am?'" He laughs. The answer is "No."

Orders continue coming in steadily as the chef puts as much mettle into this surprise marinara as any of his signature dishes. There's some angel hair pasta in house, and the sauté station is cleaning and separately sautéing fresh broccoli, cauliflower and kale. As Chef Justin finishes the marinara and calls for the food processor, he tastes the vegetables. "They need a little more time," he says. Where most chefs tasked with a special order might say "Good enough," or "Throw it on the plate and send it out," he has no intention of lowering the restaurant's standards on this unannounced special request.

This divergence causes little disruption in the cumulative attitude of the line. Cooks light-heartedly joke about books they're reading, have read or were supposed to read at the behest of their leader.

"I've read the first chapter of 'Kitchen Confidential' three times," Joe says. "That's a good chapter," affirms Chef Justin with a laugh.

Then, moments later, having seemingly jacked the curveball of the night out of the park, the chef's fiancé Sarah, the restaurant's manager, comes in to deliver a screwball.

Sanford, as much as anything else, is known for the chef's tasting menu. The idea is, "Trust the chef." You don't know what's coming and that's the point. It's fun.

But, another diner eyeing up the seven-course tour has limitations: Little or no seafood. No cilantro. Add foie gras.

I've worked in many kitchens where this might easily send a frying pan or other available blunt object soaring clear across the kitchen. In this way, Sanford is the antithesis of what many cooks and foodies believe to be true about restaurant kitchens, and Chef Justin is the antithesis of the alpha-male chef. With feet firmly on the ground and not displaying so much as a perceptible eye-roll, he processes the request, looks over at me, and says:

"They'll still get a great menu."

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