These 5 Local Couples Work Together in Milwaukee Restaurants

Love stories, with food.

Maanaan Sabir and JoAnne Johnson-Sabir
The Juice Kitchen

At home, these juice experts create fresh fruit and vegetable concoctions for their family. Those new recipes then join the menu at The Juice Kitchen, the Lindsay Heights company the couple owns. “The research and development arm of the business is our home kitchen,” says Johnson-Sabir. After years of bringing locally sourced juices to the community, the Sabirs now plan to expand the business to include more food offerings, using the same healthy ingredients – kale, collard greens, squash, plantains – that they cook at home.

As their business grows, the pair benefits from complementary personality traits. Sabir is often the visionary, thinking “two or three steps ahead” about long-term goals. Johnson-Sabir is the “task-oriented implementer” who can make those visions a reality. “Plus, she’s more compassionate, I’m more of a steamroller,” Sabir adds. “If there’s a roadblock, I’ll kick it down. She works with the bricks.” Not to mention, as Johnson-Sabir points out, they simply enjoy working with each other. “We have fun together,” she says. “I’m always finding joy in it.”

Jason and Cristina Tofte
Tofte’s Table

Jason and Cristina Tofte specialize in food they might serve at home; photo by James Stukenberg

Work and family have always overlapped for this couple, who first met as co-workers at Eddie Martini’s. In 2016, a year after taking over The Steaming Cup café in Waukesha, the couple opened the restaurant Tofte’s Table. Chef Jason runs the kitchen, while Cristina works directly with servers and guests. “We balance each other out,” Cristina says. “We’re fortunate to be a good team.”

The restaurant’s seasonal menu features the same comfort foods that the Toftes would serve their guests at home. “The whole concept of the restaurant is sharing what it’s like if you were to come to our house for dinner,” Jason says. And while their schedules don’t allow much time to cook at home these days, the couple tries to set aside a couple of Sunday evenings a month to check out new restaurants with their daughter. “Jason will order a ton of food, and we’ll all try it out,” Cristina says. Naturally, this is also how dinner is served at Tofte’s Table – with communal seating and plates that are meant to be shared.

Lisa Kirkpatrick and Paul Zerkel of Goodkind; photo by Mike Miller Images

Lisa Kirkpatrick and Paul Zerkel

The restaurant business helped bring these chefs together. “She was a nighttime sous chef, and her daytime counterpart was the lead singer in my band,” explains Zerkel. “She came to a show to see him, he said we’d be perfect together and that’s how it all started.” Twenty years later, the two are married and among the co-owners of Bay View restaurant Goodkind, where they work side-by-side in the kitchen. “We both learn from each other,” Kirkpatrick says. “Our styles of cooking are very different, but I think we play off each other, and there’s a strength that comes out of that.”

Kirkpatrick and Zerkel both take Wednesdays off, which gives them a chance to spend time together outside of work. When they cook a special meal at home, they often go for hearty dishes like soups and stews. Still, “it’s hard for a chef to cook small batches of things,” Zerkel says. When a home-cooked dinner yields way too many leftovers, the couple will bring them to work to share with the staff.

Ross Bachhuber and
Melissa Buchholz in the Odd Duck dining room; photo by James Stukenberg

Melissa Buchholz and Ross Bachhuber
Odd Duck

For Buchholz and Bachhuber, running a restaurant and catering business is more than a full-time job. “You wake up, go straight to work, and you’re there all day until 11:30 at night,” Buchholz explains. The Bay View couple, who own Odd Duck, fuel their long days with food they cook at home. To save time, Buchholz and Bachhuber will start by prepping “components” such as broth or roasted vegetables that they can easily add to salads, soups or pastas throughout the week. Or they’ll make large batches of healthy one-pot vegetarian meals such as curry and couscous dishes they can save and bring to work for several days.

At work, Bachhuber is the chef, and Buchholz handles everything else, from front-of-house management to accounting. With such a clear division of responsibilities, Buchholz says, it helps that her counterpart is the person she trusts most. “With your significant other, there’s a little more understanding, and maybe more commitment than you could otherwise count on,” she says. “You’re bound together not just by business  contracts.”

Zach and Katie Espinosa
The Bartolotta Restaurants

Zach and Katie Espinosa of The Bartolotta Restaurants

With a chef and a sommelier living together, it’s no surprise food and wine play a big role in the Espinosa household. When cooking at home, Katie Espinosa, an advanced sommelier and operations director for The Bartolotta Restaurants, and husband Zach, executive chef at Mr. B’s Steakhouse in Brookfield, work together to find the perfect pairing. “Sometimes it starts with food and sometimes it starts with wine,” Katie says. “Sometimes she’ll challenge me,” Zach adds. “She’ll say, ‘What would you pair with this – and why?’”

On a night at home, the couple might do steaks on the grill, or keep it light with seafood and vegetables, or opt for familiar Mexican dishes, which Zach calls his “go-to comfort food.” The repertoire is always expanding. “We’re always looking for a great Indian or Thai recipe,” he says. And while Zach may be the professional chef in the house, Katie has culinary chops as well. Her signatures include lasagna with homemade Bolognese sauce. “That’s the dish he asks for on his birthday every year,” Katie says. 

‘Love Stories, With Food’ appears in the February 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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