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The Engine Room : An Evening At Meritage

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 carry an entitlement to promotion, and second: their jokes and barbs are more crass, vile and disgusting than any man's I've ever worked with.

For this, my third and final stop in the James Beard edition of The Engine Room series, I found myself far outside the posh and pricey metro Milwaukee Downtown on Vliet Street, a mere bean bag toss from Wauwatosa.

The restaurant I entered on one recent Saturday evening was none other than Chef Jan Kelly'sMeritage, one of three 2012 James Beard-nominated chefs in the Milwaukee area. Chef Jan was surprised to see me when I arrived because the internet failed to facilitate my emails confirming a visit. It was an awkward start to the evening but we quickly dispensed with the lapse in communication and settled in at the bar for a chit chat.

Chef Jan is about as subtle as a bee sting and as reserved as a cattle-caller. She must be this way because beyond being the well-known and respected executive chef of Meritage, she is also its owner. She is one part of a husband-and-wife team, but she readily admits that her share in the business lofts over her husband's given that he is a silent and mostly uninvolved partner as it pertains to the operation's day-to-day.

Chef Jan grew up in Orange County, Calif. ("before the O.C. was cool," she joked). She never went to culinary school because she didn't need to. She grew up in the family restaurant learning the rudiments of cooking from an early age and absorbing classic French techniques from her parents, who she says were fabulous cooks. The family restaurant was The Hobbit, still family-owned and operated.

Years ago, she began making occasional trips to the Midwest with her husband, who was training to be a speed skater. She developed a fast friendship with Wisconsin and soon decided to pull up stakes and make Milwaukee her home.

Her name was quickly thrust into the local foodie lexicon as the well-reviewed chef of The Knick and, most notably, the now defunct Barossa. Chef Jan spent over a decade working in Milwaukee restaurants, mostly finding contentment working for someone else. But, like any chef with a vision, the dream of autonomy became a desire too tempting to ignore.

She found a vacated building on Vliet Street in Milwaukee that had formerly housed The Highlander and Indigo when she began toying with the notion of opening her own place. Her early pursuit was plagued by hurdles and delays including a new roof, electrical work and equipment issues. As the process lagged, Chef Jan told herself, "This will be the thing that makes it not happen."

Her diligence paid-off though, as she eventually found herself in a comfortable enough position to open. Five years later, plaques line the wall upon entry into Meritage commemorating Chef Jan's many accolades, including being noted three times among Carol Deptolla's coveted Top 30 restaurants.

Her concept was simple and direly needed in the Washington Heights neighborhood: "Fine dining at a reasonable price." Her goal – an aspiration she remains committed to – was to have nothing on the menu over $20. The menu would highlight local ingredients and wholesome renderings of unblemished produce in its most recognizable forms.

Tomatoes that look and taste like tomatoes and uber-seasonal "pomme de terre"-like ramps and watermelon radish make up the spine of a menu that is regionally diverse, from Japanese pancakes to a Chinese sausage scone to pork katsudon and Indian lamb kabobs. But Chef Jan recoils at the notion that hers is a "fusion" restaurant.

The inspiration of the Meritage menu is born out of Chef Jan's eclectic encounters with food. She absorbs everything she sees and tastes. The genesis of a menu item is often Chef Jan saying to herself "I like this. How hard can it be to make?" Consequently, her next thought is "How can we do this in a different way?"

She has also sought to bring what she acutely describes as an "anticipation" to the menu. She is not

diverted by calls for certain staple items being available all the time. If it's not in season, it's not on the menu. She speaks passionately about the romance of having to wait for something, enjoying it when it arrives and bidding it adieu until the next season ushers it back again.

With a busy Saturday night service looming, Chef Jan was dispatched to the kitchen after server Marie asked, "What are the lamb spare ribs braised in?" She paged through her memory bank, recalling "beef stock, pomegranate, molasses, ginger." In the kitchen, I was briefly introduced to a small brigade of two. Sous Chef Clayton, who Chef Jan describes as a "great teammate" goes back with her a long way when they first started working together at Barossa.

Clayton was sporting a Milwaukee Brewers throwback hat and a gray t-shirt that read, in an ironically plain type face, "sous chef." Clayton is somewhat displaced in this profession as a one-time graphic design major at UW-Milwaukee and MATC. Despite an inclination to a career that was, in many ways, the opposite to cooking, Clayton has happily slung hash alongside Chef Jan for the last seven years.

Rounding out the trio was Kelly, a recent graduate of the MATC culinary program, who is responsible for salads and desserts. Her previous job was at the airport, cooking not exactly James Beard-caliber food, she admits. She is attentive and humble; well aware of what a privilege it is to work in this environment.

Chef Jan squired me about the kitchen, periodically stopping to show Kelly how to plate the banana Napoleon using a pliable bit of pressed banana that crisps when baked, and also dropping some lamb belly into the fryer. The hunk of belly gets hung up on the basket and Chef Jan reaches into the fryer, bare-fingered, to free it.

Everyone was talking loudly, because the radio overhead was blaring the play-by-play of only the second game of the Brewer's young season. Then, the iconic sound of Bob Uecker pulls everyone's focus, "Get UP! Get OUTTA here! GONE!!" followed by a rousing cheer.

It's amazing to see that Meritage has flourished in its location. It sits along a sleepy section of Vliet Street just on the outer crust of Tosa. While pizza shops and wine stores have opened and closed around it, Meritage has held strong for the last five years and revitalized the strip as a destination.

The inherited line-up of equipment is battle-tested and replete with dents and grooves that tell the story of failed businesses. How Chef Jan has breathed life into these pieces and goaded them into producing a quality product is beyond me. Whether because of the kitchen or the prices her customers are willing to pay, Chef Jan tells me, "We'd like to use things like rack of lamb or halibut, but we just can't."

Instead, Chef Jan has decided to make amazing food out of more commonplace produce. On special, tuna with a kimchi pancake and Chinese long beans and a vegetarian special of that same pancake with asparagus, yellow pepper, Napa cabbage and eggplant.

At 5:30 p.m., Chef Jan gave the green light that the kitchen was ready for service by simply saying, "And so it begins."

Hand-written tickets began coming in quickly. I stationed myself on the other side of the line as to not get in the way. With an outsider on site (me) to document the evening's service and observe Chef Jan's process, the staff was all too eager to playfully rib their leader.

The ebb and flow of the evening was carried by a symmetry of banter between cooks and servers. Peter razzed Chef Jan about being a "Beardian" like a tight-knit confidant would a crony from the old neighborhood who has been propped up by kudos and needs to be knocked down a peg.

Chef Jan's response was a succinct "Shuuuut up." tossing it off like the self-deprecating toiler she is. This, however, doesn't slow the pointed darts from the hard-bitten front of house. A mis-plated dish is met with "She gets some accolades and suddenly you can't question her anymore," and while she, quiet and focused, plated a special, Peter looked over and whispered, "Don't disturb the 'mojo'."

Chef Jan retorted, "I build the towers so that they fall while you're walking out there."

"That's no secret," Peter replied, adding, "So it ends up being my fault."

Being sure to get in the last word, Chef Jan bit back. "Well, it's certainly not going to be my fault."

Not to be out-done, Peter mumbled, "Well that's another conversation entirely."

But don't let the joshing discourse fool you. The service staff believes in this food and is happy to serve it. Marie returned to the kitchen, shouting "The lamb dish is being devoured!"

Chef Jan continued to hold court and was "johnny on the spot" with the jokes. An order is called out – "A chicken and a trout!" – to which she followed up with "...walk into a bar."

This reminded her of an old joke about a turduckin that I'll spare you, given that this is a family website.

Sous Chef Clayton handled both saute and grill. Pans of sauces and vegetables lined the flat top and stove. Clayton is that sous chef that every chef wants. Calm. Organized. Positive. He spinned his tongs on his finger at the joint between orchestrating a symphony of moving pans front to back, wilting spinach, sauteing cabbage, grilling steaks, simmering shredded turkey, turning, tossing, sprinkling, mounting. He even took the time to joke with his mentor about whose presence is the bigger curse at Miller Park.

In an instant, as Chef Jan watched her sous, she suspended pleasantries to coach him on the technique for cooking the kimchi pancake and dictated to him what's on order. As rows and rows of rustically plated dishes lined up at the pass, confusion set in as servers (with Chef Jan's help) tried to figure out whose food was whose.

Any person who has ever spent any time in a professional kitchen knows that this is a highly common and almost a nightly occurrence. Chef Jan wore trademark pink glasses and I gleaned that there have been a few "Are you kidding me?" looks that have peered over those rims.

The kitchen went quiet, as the team was now "in their heads." Chef Jan wrestled with baby eggplant, proclaiming, "No eggplant is going to get the best of me." The smells in the kitchen were amazing as food was now flying out. The dining room was full and "compliments to the chef" poured back into the kitchen.

Then came a phrase that will send shivers down the spine of any kitchen. A sound that brought the bustle to a disconcertingly quiet halt. "We've got a vegan!" Chef Jan shared a knowingly ominous glance with me as a chef, who she knows has also been dealt this curve ball.

She huddled up with Marie to brainstorm a plan. After paging through the menu, a light bulb went off when she realized that the evening's vegetarian special also happens to be vegan. Chef Jan has no problem preparing vegan dishes, but admits that a call ahead is appreciated so that she can prepare a dish that stands alone and isn't just an after-thought.

I asked Chef Jan at the end of the night what she would tell someone who was looking to open their own restaurant. She told me that she would never discourage someone from opening their own place but warns, "You've gotta love it," adding that if someone tells you that you have a winning personality and are a good cook and should therefore open your own restaurant, "you might want to go and work in one for a while before undertaking it."

What I learned at Meritage is that there is food that you like to look at and take pictures of, there's food that you mark a special occasion with or try to impress your friends with, and then there's the food that you just want to eat. This is that food.

It would be easy for the rustic menus of a veteran chef who admires her younger counterparts, like Dan Van Rite or Justin Aprahamian, to come across as confused or insecure. But, they don't. When I asked Chef Jan what it was like to hear the news that she had received her first James Beard nomination, she paused and shook her head, conceding, "It was surreal because, I'm not that chef."

But you are, Jan. You are.

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