BY JEANNETTE HURT | PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
Justin Winkler is no relation to the actor who played the Fonz, but since becoming the opening executive chef for Stella Van Buren, the Italian steakhouse at The Westin Milwaukee, the question has come up. This classically trained, Culinary Institute of America grad has worked in upscale hotels and resorts across the country, most recently at the helm of Clearwater Beach Marriott Suites on Sand Key in Florida. In between showing off his culinary talents, the 33-year-old Pittsburgh native talks food, family and outdoor grilling.
How did you decide to become a chef?
I was a busboy at the local Bob Evans restaurant, and I thought the cooks were the coolest people ever. I got my start as a garde-manger. I was good at it, I loved it, and that’s all she wrote.
What was one of the first things you made there as a cook?
It was the sunshine skillet: an omelet ring, crumbled sausage, cheese, breakfast fries, scrambled eggs and sausage gravy. Every time I go home to Pittsburgh to visit my family, I go to Bob Evans and order that.
How did you decide to come to Milwaukee?
My wife, Kasamanda, and I have a 10-month-old daughter, Rylie, and we wanted to move closer to family. My sister and brother-in-law live in Port Washington, and right now, we’re living with them while our townhome is being built. We’re extremely happy to be here.
What do you like to cook at home?
I like to grill. I like the technique, the flavors. … I’m experimenting with smoking and using different woods. I use all wood (to grill and smoke); I really enjoy that barbecue feel to it.
My wife loves it when I make breaded shrimp — it’s my own take on Bonefish Grill’s Bang Bang Shrimp.
How about your daughter?
She eats everything. She hasn’t disliked anything yet. When my wife was pregnant, I (asked) her to eat everything, so that (our daughter) would develop a taste for it.
What has to be in your pantry?
Kosher salt, fresh cracked pepper and homemade chicken stock.
Tell us a bit about your culinary philosophy and opening Stella.
My philosophy is just keep it simple. It’s simple food cooked well. I’m very proud of that. How can you take something that’s been done a thousand times and make it new and fresh? Take a caprese salad, for example. People are still figuring out ways to reinvent this wheel. That’s the whole, basic concept of who we are and what we do.
What are some of your favorite examples of this on the menu?
I like the burrata bruschetta for one of the small plates. You taste the fresh, crisp acidity of the tomatoes with the creaminess of the cheese. The chicken parmigiana is another one of those dishes. It’s a 7-ounce chicken breast, pounded thin, with a Parmesan bread crust, and then it is served on top of the sauce, with smoked mozzarella on top. Some (versions) are drowned by the sauce. You’ll recognize this dish, and yet it is something else.
Tell us about the steaks and sides here.
We use Midwestern beef from Meats by Linz, which is fantastic and right from Midwestern farmers. We make everything in-house, and use a real veal glace in our red wine au jus. It’s lip-smacking good. And for our smashed potatoes, we hand-smash them using cream and butter, but what makes them so good is our ratio of cream, butter, salt and potatoes. We also cook our potatoes in water with garlic and bay leaves. Then we top them with roasted garlic. The Brussels sprouts are deep fried, and then they are tossed in our brown butter vinaigrette. The brown butter is cooked perfectly — two more seconds is too long. That’s key.