Crazy Kitchens

Crazy Kitchens

Pfister Hotel executive chef Brian Frakes recalls the whole scene in vivid detail. Frakes was an 18-year-old student at Florida State University working the weekend shift as a line cook at Conch Key Joe’s, a popular bar and grill in South Florida. Just as the tickets started flying in – order after order for chicken wings, cheeseburgers, fries – he suddenly noticed a foul smell. “Our drains exploded,” Frakes recalls. “We were up to our shins in…what comes out of drains.” As the dishwasher frantically tried to sweep away the rising pond of rank brown water with a squeegee, the…

Pfister Hotel executive chef Brian Frakes recalls the whole scene in vivid detail. Frakes was an 18-year-old student at Florida State University working the weekend shift as a line cook at Conch Key Joe’s, a popular bar and grill in South Florida. Just as the tickets started flying in – order after order for chicken wings, cheeseburgers, fries – he suddenly noticed a foul smell.

“Our drains exploded,” Frakes recalls. “We were up to our shins in…what comes out of drains.”

As the dishwasher frantically tried to sweep away the rising pond of rank brown water with a squeegee, the young line cook’s shoes filled with the stuff, drenching his socks. But still he kept cooking.

“The tickets took precedence,” says Frakes, now 37.

In retrospect, he says, a manager should probably have closed the kitchen while the smelly mess was cleaned up, but the first thought in any restaurant kitchen is to get the job done. Cooks are warriors in battle, and you don’t ever want to lose.

“I enjoyed the fact we were in the trenches getting it done,” says Frakes, whose hiring at the Pfister last June marked a return to his home state after 25 years. “Always, you come away with a sense of pride about what you’ve accomplished.”

The Milwaukee dining scene can be pure pleasure for the customers at the tables, but back in the kitchen, things can get pretty crazy. At the city’s hottest dining establishments, chefs live in a pressure cooker. The kitchen is sweltering, the hours are long, the stress is intense, the staff can be combustible, and you’re only as good as your last meal.

It’s a race that really has no end. Each day, there’s the chance to serve 40, 95, 200 of the best meals your diners have ever known – or to fall short and disappoint yourself and your customers. It’s a job with nights of chaos and bliss, a job pros like Frakes love – most of the time.

Frakes is now passing on what he knows to the staff at the Pfister, where he runs all of the hotel’s food operations. In a single morning, he might taste a new kind of bread, a salad served in the café, potatoes served in the employee cafeteria and the dessert planned for an evening event. There is pleasure in this, yes, but it takes true passion to stay at it day after day.

The Food Network – led by personalities like Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali – has placed chefs on an air-brushed throne. Reality TV has put ego, more than talent, on display. All of which can be misleading. Unassuming Riversite head chef Tom Peschong puts it this way: “Cooking is not rocket science.” The 54-year-old has been in the business long enough to see that he’s carrying on a tradition, not founding it.

Television has brought greater attention to cooking than perhaps at any other time in history. Some chefs say the overdramatic, expletive-laced dialogue on reality TV shows like “Hell’s Kitchen” doesn’t really go on in a restaurant. Others say it depends on the night. Animosity between the wait staff and the kitchen sometimes goes with the territory. And sex between servers? Workplace romps are the inevitable result when the hires are young and attractive.

The analogy between a restaurant and the theater – with chefs as performers, diners as the audience and the dining room as a stage – is apt. Customers never see the back-stage drama, the innumerable hours spent to achieve the parade of exquisite plates. Here, then, is a chance to peek backstage and see what life is really like for some of the city’s top dining stars.

The Household
Wauwatosa’s cozy rustic-Italian Ristorante Bartolotta opens at 5:30 on a typical weeknight. Roughly 45 minutes earlier, as the adrenaline for the night is building, an important daily ritual takes place.

In the dining room under the watchful eyes of the old-country ancestors whose framed faces line the walls, the staff sits down to eat – what many restaurants call Family Meal, a time to come together as a team, the calm before the storm. A buffet is laid out – salad and maybe pasta, steak tacos, burgers or, on weekends, stew or a pork roast.

“It’s the only time I sit down and eat like a decent person,” says 32-year-old executive chef Juan Urbieta. At Family Meal, the Bartolotta staff chat, eat and talk shop: They learn the nightly specials, review pronunciation of Italian dishes, taste a new wine or address a problem like service.

Urbieta and 39-year-old Brent Perszyk, his counterpart at Bartolotta-owned steakhouse Mr. B’s, say Family Meal, observed in both restaurants (and many others around the city), keeps the staff, bottom to top, connected. It’s not unusual for divisiveness or even hostility to develop between the servers and kitchen staff.

“I’ve worked in places where servers are afraid to go back to a chef with a dish [that a diner has complained about],” says Urbieta, who was born and raised in Oaxaca, Mexico. He and Milwaukee native Perszyk say they try to keep an open line of communication front to back.

The two are working head chefs, which means besides the administrative tasks (scheduling, budgets, menu writing), they work on the line alongside their staff – the sous chefs (the chef’s right hand; “sous” is French for “under”) and line cooks. As many reiterate, being a chef goes beyond running the kitchen.

Tom Schultz, the goateed 31-year-old chef de cuisine at Holiday House, has been working in restaurants for probably half of his existence. He lived a double life – studying history and philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee – while the lure of the restaurant tugged at him. Just 20 at the time and with no culinary school training, he started working at Lake Park Bistro because he wanted to make “some of the best food in the world,” he says. His hands-on education came in the towering form of Mark Weber, then executive chef of Lake Park Bistro, which was relatively new and crazy-busy. Seven years later, when Weber opened his own place (Watermark, whose elegant seafood menu and open kitchen were trademarks), he chose Schultz as one of his two point men in the kitchen.

Schultz is at Holiday House most days from about 11 a.m. until 11 p.m., 1 a.m. or later. He estimates his weekly hours at anywhere from 70 to 80. Assisting Schultz in the kitchen on an average night are his sous, line cook, pastry chef and dishwasher.

“It’s very intimate and family-oriented,” he says. “You know who’s dating whom, you know whose grandmother is in the hospital. People talk to you like you’re best friends.” Even the people you don’t particularly like. “Over time, you usually gain respect for [them],” he says.

The Passion of the Crust
Food may have been almost too close to Jan Kelly, the 50-year-old head chef at Barossa, back when she was growing up in California. While her parents ran a restaurant in Orange County, Kelly dreamed of being a veterinarian. That changed when she was about 20 years old and, through connections, got a job at a place serving Continental-style cuisine.

One day, she watched the chef prepare a dish called pommes de terre soufflé. It’s a simple creation, but the technique is key. You fry very thinly sliced potatoes two ways. The first, on low heat, softens the potatoes. The second, on high heat, puffs them up. Kelly was mesmerized as she watched the potatoes being prepared.

“It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen,” she says.

The chef who prepared the soufflé, a Frenchman, surprised the young apprentice by “taking me under his wing and treating me like the greatest chef,” she says. The brief stint changed her life. Kelly gave up her thought of being a vet and dove completely into food. She went on to work at various restaurants in her home state, moving to Wisconsin when her husband found work here in the 1990s. Now she’s at Barossa, Second Street’s shelter for stylish, substantive, organic-leaning fare.

As with many other chefs, cooking is not a choice for Kelly. It largely defines who she is. She responds to heirloom tomatoes the way a painter reacts to tubes of oils. “To me, it’s all art,” she says.

She has a passion that makes good chefs sacrifice so much of themselves – personal time, relationships, income, even health.

“I really like being a working chef – working the line every night.” But some days, she adds, “you’d give everything not to have to do this tomorrow…[you think,] my back hurts, we were short-staffed or I’m much too old for this. You find yourself thinking you didn’t eat all day…”

But then you get Kelly started on scarlet turnips, sour cherries or her recipe for sweet and sour sauce and there’s the sound of reverence, a happiness in her voice, the pure pleasure of being able to create good food.

Endorphin Rush
It’s a quiet Thursday night at Holiday House, which, with its playful-looking logo and strands of warm white lights around the windows, brightens the Third Ward corner of Menomonee and Jackson.

The waitstaff is sparse on this night, and chef de cuisine Tom Schultz has sent his sous chef home. With him in the kitchen are his line cook, pastry chef and dishwasher. At around 8:00, while Schultz is on the line putting up 25 entrées, the restaurant suddenly has another 45 diners. The servers get flustered. They’re sending their orders to the kitchen all at the same time.

Meanwhile, Schultz is doing appetizers and sauté, while his line cook is handling the grill. In restaurants with a window looking into the kitchen, there’s usually a ticket spindle sitting on the counter. The orders are stabbed through the spindle. On this particular night, the ticket spindle is in a different spot than usual.

The line cook reaches for the spindle. “Tom?” he says.

When Schultz turns, he sees the line cook cradling his hand, which has been impaled by the ticket spindle.

The next half-hour is intense. The restaurant manager drives the cook to the hospital. Schultz, who’s tracked down his sous and asked him to come in, has to work another station besides sauté; he flies over to the grill to figure out what the line cook was working on before the spindle stabbing.

Meanwhile, servers are warning diners their orders are going to be a little delayed. Fifteen long minutes later, when the sous arrives, it takes some time to get him in synch, but then he and Schultz are grooving, completely focused and overcoming a disaster that could happen at any time in any restaurant. It’s nights like this, most any chef will say, that make the beer at the end of the night taste that much better.

This powerful zeal for the craft is what the Pfister’s Brian Frakes calls “the dance.” Marathon runners would say it’s being “in the zone.”

What makes a great chef? The almost universal answer is passion, a love of cooking. “I can teach someone how to cook an onion, but I can’t teach passion,” says Jason Tofte, executive chef at Eddie Martini’s.

When Frakes is interviewing for positions in the kitchen, he cuts to the chase. “I ask them, ‘Say, tonight, if you could cook for the president of the United States and you could have anything you want [to work with], give me an app and entrée. Most often they’ll say calamari and shrimp cocktail. They’re caught off-guard. What I’m looking for is quail with Guinness syrup, anything creative or off the beaten path. You can spot someone who can cook [from] across the hall.”

Personal Life? What Personal Life?
In 1994, when the white-tablecloth Eddie Martini’s opened, ushering in the era of ’40s-style steakhouses, among the staff helping to open it was Jerry Garcia (no relation to the late Deadhead). Garcia had just come from the family-style Chancery Restaurant, a job he describes as “mechanical, meticulous and robotic.”

The timing was right for Garcia, who studied commercial art and advertising at UWM. He was starting to hone his aesthetic about food. He learned how to match flavors and create intricate combinations. Along with gaining a heightened sense of beauty, Garcia was working his tail off. He manned the line alongside then-head chef Joe Muench, who soon moved Garcia up to sous chef.

Garcia enrolled in the two-year culinary arts program at Milwaukee Area Technical College. Then came spells at Heaven City (the old Al Capone hideout in Mukwonago) and Café Vecchio Mondo, the quiet Third Street wine bar.

Garcia married, became a father and took the second-in-command job when Coast opened in O’Donnell Park Pavilion three years ago. Cooking classes morphed into a gig on local Fox Sports Net, which the articulate Garcia hopes to parlay into a cooking show, with him as a local Lagasse. Now the top banana in Coast’s kitchen, Garcia works 60- to 70-hour weeks.

Given his schedule, something had to give, and it turned out to be his marriage. Reflecting on his divorce, Garcia says: “It definitely puts a barrier in the family thing. I’ve never had a 9-to-5 job. I’ve dreamed of it.”

Chefs have a term for the partner left at home: restaurant widow. As for the physical tolls (like heel spurs and numbing of the wrists), you basically have to suck it up. Says the 34-year-old Garcia: “You will succeed [as a chef] if you realize the job isn’t what you dreamed it would be.”

Milwaukeean Patrick Schultz left the helter-skelter schedule of cooking at places like the legendary Mike & Anna’s to sell stock – sauces, that is, used by professional chefs – for a Green Bay company called Culinarte. He misses cooking sometimes.

“To be perfectly honest, there are moments I could rule the world again,” he laughs. “I miss the camaraderie.” But the flip side is a powerful deterrent. “Generally, they don’t like to give you two days off in a row. You miss every relative’s wedding. You have to fight like hell to get a Saturday night off. And on your day off, you’re a vegetable.”

A Bit More Progesterone, Perhaps?
Karla Fisher started working at River Lane Inn when she was 18. That was 1981. She stayed for the next 21 years.

Midway through her career, Fisher had the first of two daughters. Her four days at the restaurant, she worked nights, which she says wasn’t a difficult position to maintain, especially when her kids were little. Sharing childcare with her husband, the couple made it work. She left the high-profile restaurant business in 2002 but resurfaced two years later, sharing the head chef duties at Johnny V-owned seafood restaurant Moceans. She stayed less than a year, deciding “overall it wasn’t a good fit,” she says. She recently took a job in catering for a private company.

Despite the historically domestic role of women in the home, females were for years relegated to restaurant positions such as pantry, hot and cold appetizers and salads, and plating desserts. In European-run restaurants, the kitchens were like old-boy clubs.

When Barossa head chef Jan Kelly nabbed the first job that made her realize how integral cooking would be in her life, she expected the old French chef who took her under his wing to treat her condescendingly, she says. He did just the opposite.

“At that time [the 1980s], it was a really big deal to be a [woman] chef. Women just had to work harder,” says Kelly, who considers herself lucky not to have hit roadblocks on her path upward through the kitchen.

But with only a handful of local women in top restaurant positions in town (Crazy Water’s Peggy Magister, River Lane Inn’s JoLinda Klopp, Usha and Ami Bedi of Dancing Ganesha and Barossa’s Kelly), it’s still a male-dominated world. Though gender hasn’t been an issue for her – and some in the local restaurant industry argue that it’s getting easier for women to ascend the ladder – Kelly observes, “Women, as a rule, don’t come in feeling strong and confident.”

A Transient Line of Work
Tony Mandella was in the pages of this magazine often in the late 1990s, when he owned Vinifera on Brady Street, and afterward, when he left and bought Maniaci’s Café Siciliano in Fox Point.

Once he took over that North Shore Italian place, things didn’t go quite as he had hoped. Mandella, who’d come up the ranks at venues ranging from the Old Court House Inn in West Bend to Grille 720, moved Café Siciliano from a quiet strip mall to a new location – the northern corner of Mequon’s Chalet Motel. It wasn’t an ideal spot, but Mandella made it look as appealing as he could, and it was helped by his hearty, richly flavored Italian food.

Business, though, could have been better. The strapping, dark-haired chef/owner made plans to spruce up the restaurant’s interior. He added some casual, lower-priced fare to the menu. Mandella also wanted to make the place completely his, so he changed the name of it to Anthony’s. But the financial situation didn’t improve, and within six months – by summer 2004 – his investor had pulled his support and Anthony’s was gone.

Chefs have a term for the partner left at home: restaurant widow. As for the physical tolls, you basically have to suck it up. “You will succeed [as a chef] if you realize the job isn’t what you dreamed it would be.” says Coast’s Jerry Garcia.

So Mandella dropped out of the limelight but soon landed on his feet. Living in Cedarburg, the 43-year-old took the exec chef gig at West Bend Country Club soon after Anthony’s closed. It was a “difficult transition” for the entrepreneur in him, Mandella says. He thinks about having his own place again but says it wouldn’t be a restaurant. “That requires capital I’ll never have,” he says. And if he did it again, it would have to be on his own, without relying on investors to keep him afloat.

Mandella’s story is by no means unusual. Chefs hop from job to job all the time, looking for better pay, balanced hours, more challenging work or creative freedom with the menu. Sometimes it’s tension with the owner or someone else on staff. Patrick Schultz, who’s had perhaps more restaurant jobs than any chef in the city (25, by his estimate, including West Bank Café, Riversite and opening What’s Fresh Deli on Juneau), dealt with all of those quandaries and more in the 28 years he was in the business. He travels frequently for the high-end stock-making company he works for now, but he’s got time to pick up his 7-year-old daughter at school – not something he’d have been able to do when he worked at an independently owned restaurant.

“Nothing against the restaurant industry, but a lot of promises made by restaurateurs are not fulfilled,” says Schultz. “They’d suck your brain and body dry and you’d get fired or quit. You’ve always got this idea in the back of your mind that the grass is greener somewhere else.”

Sometimes it is. The Pfister’s Brian Frakes took his first restaurant job when he learned he could make a quarter more an hour if he switched from construction to washing dishes. The pay scale for chefs in the top kitchen position varies – a lot depends on the type of restaurant in which they work. In country clubs and chain restaurants, for example, it could be $50K-$75K. Corporate jobs simply pay better. They also offer benefits (like health insurance) that independent places might not. The salary at an indie is a mixed bag, too – from perhaps as low as $30,000 up to $60 grand. It’s in cities like Chicago or New York where you’ll see six-figure salaries.

But most chefs aren’t in this for the money. “I could very easily get a job in a nursing home or a corporate cafeteria and probably make the same money. But it wouldn’t be rewarding to me as an artist,” says Coast’s Jerry Garcia.

A City of Change
When Hotel Metro opened eight years ago, Milwaukee Street was a dead zone. Now? Brian Zarletti curses the parking checkers who plague diners at his Italian restaurant across from the hotel and occasionally has misgivings abut the diminutive size of his cozy, cocoa-brown venue, but being a few storefronts away from Eve, Cubanitas and other hip spots on now-stylish Milwaukee Street isn’t a horrible burden to bear.

The city has seen an explosion of steakhouses Downtown just in the last few years: Yanni’s, a second Butch’s location, the Brazilian meat emporium Sabor, Carnevor and most recently, the high-stakes chain Capital Grille. But even as changes like this come to Milwaukee, most restaurateurs aren’t too concerned because, after all, this is a conservative town.

“There’s still an underlying value-oriented thing that drives the business,” says Mark Weber, former Lake Park Bistro head chef and Watermark owner who now is food and beverage manager for the Pfister Hotel. “The trendy places are hot for a year or two.” But most of them, he adds, don’t stay around long enough to build loyalty.

This fall, part of Weber’s focus has been on the Pfister’s new restaurant in development, Mason Street Grill, apparently not another steakhouse (although steaks are on the menu). With stiff competition in town, it’s smart for this place, set to open in late 2006, to target the “every diner” – from casual sandwich eaters to the expense-account execs.

A huge transformation is also happening at the Wyndham Hotel – a redesign that brought restaurateur Marc Bianchini on board. His consulting business, On the Marc Restaurant Group, created the menu for the new Wyndham restaurant kil@wat. A native New Yorker, Bianchini moved to Milwaukee to open Osteria del Mondo in the mid-1990s. Two children and another restaurant, Cubanitas (operated by his wife, Marta), followed.

“They don’t like giving you two days off in a row. You miss every wedding. You have to fight like hell to get a Saturday night off. And on your day off, you’re a vegetable.” – Patrick Schultz

“Are there things I don’t like about Milwaukee?” asks Bianchini. “Absolutely. That’s why I’m doing the Wyndham. I want this to be a cool boutique city. The symphony is fantastic, the lakefront is gorgeous. Why do we have to suffer food-wise?”

If we do, to an extent, suffer, is it because of that age-old stereotype of Milwaukee as a cheap town – that price and portion size trump quality? Look around at the restaurants whose parking lots are full on a Friday night and you may still see quantity surpassing quality.

As the competition increases, some chefs take a politically correct stance, as in “competition is good for everyone.” The implication is that it makes businesses work harder. Says Cameryne Roberts, co-owner of Café LuLu: “You feel the push. You always have a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality in the back of your mind.”

Joe Sorge came to Milwaukee from the East Coast when his consulting business was hired to help the ailing Luke’s SportsSpectacular in 2000. He and his wife, Angie, stayed, converting Luke’s into Swig and taking over the management of Sauce and Terrace Bar. Now they’re building a new restaurant in the Third Ward, Water Buffalo. His take: “I used to be a lot more focused on restaurant-to-restaurant competition.” But now he sees it as healthy, not worrisome: “The higher the tide, the higher the boat floats,” says Sorge.

The reality of the restaurant life is that it is a business, one that’s competitive and can be brutally intense. And yet there is room for artistry, for passion, for love of the craft. Thinking about his early years in the business, Brian Frakes puts it this way: “The one thing you came away with was the sense of going through battle and the brotherhood of the team coming through.”

Ann Christenson is Milwaukee Magazine’s dining critic.