There is a new era of conviviality among some of Milwaukee’s better know and awarded chefs. This charms me, to say the least. It was just a few years ago that I was sitting at the lounge bar of Hinterland finishing up something rustic and gamey, drinking beer, and talking to a newly minted acquaintance, a chef at one of downtown Milwaukee’s much-lauded restaurants.
I remember being in a great mood. The weather was still Vespa-friendly; I had just had a great meal. “Wisconsin Foodie” was in its second season, and those involved in the show were feeling sanguine about the local food scene and what we might be doing to contribute to it.
At every turn, there seemed to be yet another talented chef that had decided to stay in Milwaukee or, better yet, had headed out on a kick-ass culinary sojourn and then returned. So I turned to the chef and asked where local chefs hung out together, where did they drink and laugh, tell true kitchen stories, steal talent from each other, and share secrets? “We don’t,” he replied flatly, “I don’t know anybody who does that.”
I was surprised and dejected by this. Anthony Bourdain had just done a show about a secret place in New York where only chefs can go to for meals and drinks, where they can be themselves and mix like so many good bacteria in a Petri dish. The result was a better citywide restaurant scene.
It seemed obvious to me that, given a city of decent size, all chefs would want to do that. The more they mingled, the better the quality of their cooking. I briefly wondered if I was a bit too idealistic, since I was kind of newbie to this whole foodie thing. My doubt was dispelled when I thought about the number of smart, affable chefs I had met, all with “like it here better than anywhere” attitudes. They were predisposed to great ingredients, which were locally available. How could these minds not meet, drink together, and kibitz? Was Milwaukee so small a town that chumminess impeded a separate space for a chef club? Or was it just a bit too big, with everyone cooking within individual bubbles?
On the Vespa ride home that night, I ran all that through my heart first, and then my head, and, as I put my key in the door, felt a bit like Mick at the really scary part of “Gimme Shelter,” as he shouts out to the roiling crowd, “Everybody be cool! Can’t we all get along?” The good news is the crowd has loosened up and come back around, and is even currently swaying together to something like “Far Away Eyes.” I first noticed this phenomenon at a dinner featuring Wisconsin cheese at La Merenda, this past spring. “Wisconsin Foodie” was filming an evening of brilliant courses by local Milwaukee chefs, which were paired with renowned Wisconsin cheeses. The menu was full of unexpected culinary surprises. At times it seemed as if the Dadaists had come back and decided to cook, but it all worked splendidly, underscoring the caliber of local talent that we have.
La Merenda’s owner/chef Peter Sandroni has always played well with others. I observed him and few of the other talents cooking at that dinner working together in fields, barns, tents via-a-vis chef David Swanson’s Braise On The Go Traveling Culinary School. A good thing to be sure, but I knew these men and women to all be drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid of Swanson’s RSA, establishing the crew that night in La Merenda’s kitchen as friends. The stage is set, I thought, but no more than it has ever been.
The tipping point for me was mid-December at, of all places, Hinterland. I had the perfect 45-degree angle to view into the kitchen as nine Milwaukee and two Chicago chefs prepped, assisted, plated, garnished for each other and observed their colleagues’ work in admiration. This was a pop-up dinner, as the trend goes, but it was the first event I know of where that number of premier Milwaukee chefs took turns as only the finest most self-possessed musicians, can, essentially jamming in front of each other for the benefit of each other and for the audience too. None of them was doing it to show the others up, or put any others down. The courses were terrific, many stellar, and the lion’s share of the ingredients came from local farms regularly used by the chefs.
Equally impressive was the vibe in the dining room post-meal, when the chefs came out for a round of applause and then a drink. They entered the room as one and were received accordingly. It suddenly hit me that I had found my Petri dish. The same chef who had stated to me two years earlier that chefs never hang out was now standing about 50 feet from where he had broken my idealistic heart, laughing with a cadre of the others. I drove the Vespa home, I cued up “Lovin Cup” from “Exile on Main Street,” and I felt better.
That dinner, as it turns out, has served as an icebreaker for this kind of thing.
A similar evening will be presented at Hinterland this coming February by microbrewery enthusiast John Lavelle. Five courses will highlight what he considers some of our best local breweries and our best local chefs. He is calling it “The Best Of Milwaukee Beer Dinner: The First of Five.” The following four will be presented across 2012. The first will have courses from the chefs of The Rumpus Room, Hinterland, Tess, Sanford and Roots.
This may all sound like a Milwaukee culinary kumbayah circle, but here is why it’s cool.
Inviting someone over to your house and sharing a meal is indicative of a relationship that is deepening. Similarly, when a chef and restaurant unselfishly invite other chefs to cook in their space, mess things up, screw with the line stations, etc., and the other chefs agrees to come in, pull off their dishes, absent a lot of the tools they are accustomed to working with in their kitchens, simply because they are all are so different, that mishigas, is a very good thing. A better analogy might be going camping with someone. You’ve got what you brought, you’ve got each other, there will be bonding of some sort or another.
And it continues. In early February, a nice chunk of Milwaukee’s chefs will be coming together at the Iron Horse Hotel in a culinary music mash-up called SoundBites to benefit 88.9 Radio Milwaukee. Chefs will basically take over the Iron Horse on all three floors, creating amazing signature small plates, while the DJs spin “sonic pairings” to go with the dishes.
Because I was involved in pulling this event together, I was able to see firsthand how close many of the chefs really were. When asked to participate in the event, the resounding response of the chefs and restaurants on my short-list was essentially, “Who else is going to be there? Oh, those guys! We love those guys! We’re in!”
Another chance to experience this sort of thing happens in April at the Intercontinental Hotel with SloPig, an amazing porcine wonder of an event exported from Madison in celebration of properly raised, tasty pigs. Madison chefs have been known to be exceptionally convivial for some time. (Except when they are not, in which case you get a bar fight.)
Maybe all this newfound culinary camaraderie is due to the warming trend our winter seems to be having, with people emerging more readily. Maybe, with the spate of new restaurant openings slowing post-2008, the recession resulted in the city’s kitchens needing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Who knows? I have never spent a 14-hour day in a demanding kitchen; I have never argued over ingredients and menu choices; I have never done a three-month learning trip to Italy, only to return and have a couple send back their plates because “this doesn’t taste right — it’s just not very Italian.” (As happened to one of Wisconsin’s most famous native-born exports, while he was cooking in a Wauwatosa ristorante.) Maybe all of that makes one less likely to mix with your profession’s own at the end of the day.
For the past few years, I have had the unique advantage of standing just outside the bubble and observe as the solidarity of Milwaukee’s gastronomic scene as it has grown. I have gotten to know many of these talented women and men firsthand. In my mind, they are all in one place, a sort of “knights of the round table” of cooks for my city. Why should they have drinks, laugh and talk with each other, instead of simply doing the great things in their own kitchens, which I have come to enjoy so much? Perhaps all of this mixing is just a moment in time, a brief shining moment, the quintessential “Camelot” moment for Milwaukee’s culinary scene. Still, I’m glad the mixing is going on.