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 other reason to visit. Open just seven months, Chef Hauck-- sole proprietor-- has launched himself into the Milwaukee culinary conversation, earning accolades and a loyal following for his brand of modern French food; thoughtfully propped up by intermittent flourishes of molecular gastronomy.
When I pressed him over what it was that made him think that this assertive food would land harmoniously on the tongues of a notoriously comfort-driven Midwestern dining public, he said, "Well, you have to listen to people," further adding, "Because who am I? I'm no one."
I wouldn't go that far.
Chef Hauck cut his teeth in France, until he was – due to an expired visa – "kindly asked to leave." He then spent time with Michel Richard at Citronelle in Washington D.C., a highly-decorated chef and a world-renowned restaurant. After stints in New York and Cincinnati, Chef Hauck decided to bring his talents home. He spent a year as the chef de cuisine at the Mason Street Grill.
This was around the time that he and I first met. In the summer of 2011, we had been booked, back to back, at Cate's Kitchen, a culinary demonstration stage at Bastille Days. As I wrapped up my presentation, Chef Hauck was loading in for his. He asked, "How are things going at Hotel Metro?" (where I was executive chef at the time). I told him, "Good, but it's been a challenge." quickly adding "... but it wouldn't be any fun if it wasn't, right?" He laughed and said, "Yeah, if this was easy, anyone could do it."
And it was exactly this measure of levity and confident precision that I was invited to later observe at what has rapidly become a head-turning restaurant in Milwaukee, clearly primed for a solid run. As easy as cooking professionally is most certainly not, Chef Hauck and his poised team of uniformly-attired cooks have definitely made it seem so.
As a thick pea soup of fog hung over 1st Street in Milwaukee, I approached the restaurant knowing that heavy, unctuous, gravy-laden comfort food was probably the last thing I was going to experience at this restaurant which is fast gaining a reputation for refined and elegant presentations of offbeat flavors.
As the kitchen staff dotted "i's" and crossed "t's" before service, this first-time restauranteur and I sat down in the upper level of his partially sunken dining room. The space is decorated with rustic-looking, repurposed wooden table tops (fabricated in Bay View) under a spider web of hanging old-timey carpenters' lights that emit a soft glow of orange filament. I fired quick questions at Chef Hauck who returned them fleetly, like Pete Sampras effortlessly returning an Agassi serve.
"Has there been a dish that you've offered where you were unsure of how it would be received, and were surprised by its success?" I asked.
"Venison tartare." he responded. "It's good."
He swiftly filed through his resume and hit the marked plot points of his career, his attention never leaving his young operation. I scribbled notes furiously, as his eyes shot to his periphery, keeping close tabs on the 5 p.m. reservations being sat, the warm welcome delivered by his host, and the footwork of his wait staff; ensuring that the nuances of service and the well-hidden details of casual accommodation were being executed as scripted.
"What do you look for when hiring someone to work in your kitchen?" I asked.
"I can't teach passion," he said, disarmingly.
And while passion would appear to be the most critical component to success in the c.1880 kitchen, I gathered that adaptability would be a close second. The menu changes often. The dishes and their preparations are forged mostly in Chef Hauck's head; then disseminated unto his brigade, whereupon they must interpret and execute them perfectly. Having earned his early culinary stripes in Europe, Chef Hauck is a loyal user of the metric system; a system that cooks must familiarize themselves with in a hurry if they're going to have any hope of knowing what the hell is going on.
As the early reservations started to settle in, we made our way into the kitchen. Located directly adjacent to the end of the bar, the "pick-up" window is literally a doorless doorway that leads to the front line. There's no other way to say it-- the kitchen is small. So small, that I spent the majority of service, pressed against the fire extinguisher, trying to avoid getting my feet tangled with Erik on salads or any one of the bank of servers cycling up to grab their plates.
The first ticket rang in an order for two pheasant, (which Chef Hauck sources from MacFarlane Pheasant in Janesville). Ever the cost-conscious chef/owner, he instantly noticed that his line cook had grabbed them from the most recent batch, instead of using what was left of the old. Any restaurant-goer, I'm sure, would love to believe that nothing they eat in a restaurant is carried over from the previous day but if you believe that, just know, that without stock rotation and a principle that we chefs adhere to known as "first in, first out," your favorite dining spots would bleed themselves to a prompt and unceremonious death.
Just after 6 p.m., regulars of the restaurant, preferring their "usual" table, arrived to find their prime perch already spoken for. The host approached Chef Hauck to let him know. "It's fine." he said. "Sit them at table 10." He knew that the couple was agreeable and would be happy to sit anywhere. "I just want to know where they are," he said.
Tickets began to roll in steadily. Scallops, beet salad, lamb, foie gras. The kitchen moved quickly but quietly. Chef Hauck stood at the pass to garnish and touch every plate that left the kitchen, adding flourishes of horseradish powder or savory cranberry sorbet (made in-house, of course).
Chef Hauck's food I.Q. is high. His knowledge of food is effortless. He knows it's good. He's also comfortable in his own skin and doesn't seem to second-guess his concepts. He did, however, become slightly self-conscious when I ask him about his tools. To my eyes, the kitchen was well-equipped with a nice, newer looking range and stainless steel pots and pans. But, in Chef Hauck's cooking history, he has likely been spoiled with some of the greatest (and most expensive) equipment available to chefs and restaurants.
"Would I like to have a French cook-top?" he asked rhetorically. "Yes. But I got this range from a church for twelve hundred bucks. You can't beat that."
Even so, what Chef Hauck and his team turn out of this modest kitchen is herculean. The plates are precise. The techniques are consistent and well-understood. Some of them are used, not only to bring color, texture and fireworks to the plates, but to improve the actual eating experience. He employs transglutamine, an enzyme that catalyzes a natural bond between proteins, to fuse two filets of rainbow trout together (sourced from Rushing Waters in Palmyra) so that both sides have a crispy skin. "It also helps the fish to cook perfectly." he added.
But, it's not just about chemicals and powders at c.1880 either. Chef Hauck uses classic techniques that he takes to the end of the Earth and then, sails them over the edge. For a garlic puree, in order to sweeten and de-bitter the garlic, he cooks it seven times before pureeing. Why seven times?
"Because six isn't enough and eight is just ridiculous." he jokes.
I taste spoonfuls of a little bit of this and a little bit of that throughout service; forbidden rice, a pear puree, a grapefruit "julius" and their housemade baba ganoush, which is essentially a roasted eggplant spread that is served with sous vide rack of lamb. As Chef Hauck gives the final stamp of approval to a dessert on its way out of the kitchen, he says, "This, we garnish with pineapple glass," as if I know what that means and is, furthermore, the most normal thing in the culinary world. It's a pineapple puree with pectin added to it before it is spread, paper thin, on a smooth piece of Lucite. If the idea wasn't cool enough, it also happened to be downright fun to eat.
Knowing that Chef Hauck's food was borderline avante garde, I half expected it to be confrontational, as is often the feeling I get from "tweezer food" where it's almost as if the chef is antagonizing you with how much he can eviscerate your quaintly-realized ideals of what food is supposed to be. But as I bellied up to the bar for a tasting of his menu favorites, I discovered that the food did not challenge me to the point that I felt like I was experiencing performance art more so than I was nourishing my body.
A salad of shredded beets and potatoes with dill yogurt and horseradish powder was utterly satisfying; homey almost. The expertly-poached foie gras torchon (looking to be right out of Thomas Keller's bible of modern French cooking, "The French Laundry") was decadent, with a crisp, tart salad of pickled celery and fennel with black pepper honey and cranberry sorbet. I licked the plate clean and when the bartender returned to clear it, she asked "How was it?" to which I snobbishly responded, "Terrible. I hated it."
A crispy Pork Belly with forbidden rice and mushrooms was Earthy and rich. A dish of scallops, perfectly seared, and served with a white chocolate and sunchoke puree and sliced almonds, was a revelation. Finally, when a sous vide veal cheek was placed in front of me, I could only extend a request for clemency. "I just realized that [Chef Hauck] is obviously trying to kill me." I told the bartender. After forcing a few more delicious forkfuls down my gullet, I could only wave my white napkin in surrender.
"Do you have room for dessert?" she asked.
"I barely have room to take another breath of air," I answered, "but how can I say no?"
What came next was the highlight of the evening. Chef Hauck calls it the "Whatchamacallit" after the popular candy bar. It's a smear of chocolate mousse with dark and milk chocolate pearls, chards of rice crispy squares and two quenelles of house made ice cream; one chocolate and the other, brown butter. After moaning over several mouthfuls, I decided that, instead of the "Whatchamacallit," it should be renamed the "Holymotherofallthatisgoodandholy," because it is that good.
As I digested and tried to figure out how I was going to navigate myself out of the bar stool with the buttons of my fitted shirt becoming stretched to their functional limits, I tenderly sipped a hot cup of coffee (drip-brewed table-side, of course). I began to eavesdrop on the conversation between the couple seated next to me. As they enjoyed the beet salad (that I had experienced earlier), and the endive salad with a smear of pureed olive, the man said, "It's different, but kinda good." And the woman added, "There's a sweetness you're not expecting. It's excellent."
Excellent indeed. Hauck's dishes are bright, offbeat, purposefully plated and intelligently crafted. He has soundly developed both sides of his chef brain. It is, after all, important to be both an artist and a technician. c.1880's early success is the result of Chef Hauck honing both of these skills to a fine edge. And if his seven-months-opened restaurant isn't already on the the James Beard radar, it won't be long before it is.