Enjoying a delicious meal in a restaurant is one of life’s great pleasures, allowing us to try new cuisines, catch up with friends and simply unwind. But while we dine, it’s serious business behind the scenes.
The competition for restaurant dollars is fierce, and diners are affected by everything from the latest trend to whether a restaurant will accommodate their dietary restrictions. Keeping customers happy is vital, and rarely do we hear what chefs really think about the challenges they face every day.
We convened eight accomplished Milwaukee chefs for a no-holds-barred convo about the pleasures and difficulties of the industry they love. And, because we couldn’t resist the opportunity to get some insider recommendations, each shared where they go and what they order when they want a casual bite to eat.
Meet the Chefs
After bringing barbecue to the menu at the recently shuttered SURG restaurant Mikey’s, Alston ventured off on his own, eventually moving his smoked meat business into Crossroads Collective food hall.
The James Beard Award winner has spent his career helping define the city’s fine dining scene and making it resonate nationally.
With a background rooted in Italian cuisine (Ristorante Bartolotta and Pizza Man, among previous gigs), Baker co-owns Tosa’s Ca’Lucchenzo, which is devoted to handmade pasta.
An expat of Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro, he opened the city’s first hearth-based restaurant in 2017.
This Chicago native helped open Lake Park Bistro back in 1995, worked for Paul Bartolotta at Chicago’s acclaimed Spiaggia, ran a restaurant in Michigan and returned to MKE in 2018 to take the head kitchen position at Harbor House.
A vegetarian for 25 years and a chef for 17, LeTendre operates the buzzy plant-based Strange Town with her cousins, Andy and Tom Noble.
A native of Mexico City, the self-taught chef took over the kitchen of Tess after training in other local kitchens. In 2018, he opened Frida sandwich/soup shop at Crossroads Collective.
After stints at Harbor House and Joey Gerard’s, Schreiter took over the dual roles of creating the bright, inventive Mediterranean menu at Mistral and overseeing the casual cinema menu at the adjacent Avalon Theater.
The Dining Scene
How would you characterize it, what drives it and how does it resonate for you as it relates to your own restaurant?
Jason Alston: I still remember telling somebody, “Dude, Milwaukee is kind of untapped territory.” We are like 10 years behind everybody else, right? You go to these bigger cities, and they got people serving you food in an astronaut outfit or something. But we are still getting ourselves there, and it’s OK because it leaves opportunity for everybody. You have to understand that the customer is spending their hard-earned money on your product, so you always want to give them your best. The difficulty can be translating that same care and compassion to the other employees. I think that’s probably one of the most challenging parts.
Zak Baker: I think one of the things you hear about Milwaukee diners when you come up working in the industry is that they’re cheap. I think some of that is maybe misconstrued. They just want to know that what they are spending their money on is worth it. It’s not really how much money they spend. They just want to make sure that they’re somewhere where the people care about them and are doing a good job and trying their best. I think that [then] you can do some of the fun stuff you want to do as a chef and kind of work outside the box, as long as you are consistently there to take care of them and make sure they have a great experience every single time.
Justin Aprahamian: I think value plays a big part. We are an expensive restaurant. I don’t think [Sanford] is the most expensive anymore, but we still have that stigma. We always want to make sure we’re providing value. And that’s the greeting, the service, the food. That’s doing what you’re good at. Customers can see through crap.
Zak: They totally can. The bullshit meter is really good in Milwaukee. I think that’s why you see some places come and go. Because something opens up, and you’re like, this is just a bunch of money spent on marketing, and nobody passionately driving the restaurant or the food.
Justin: That consistency, too. It’s one thing to knock it out of the park once, but it’s something else to do it day in and day out.
Zak: Every single plate has to be good.
Justin: From having been at Sanford 17 years ago, and being at Sanford now, [it’s] what the diners know coming in and [their] expectation and knowledge. We are selling more tasting menus than we used to before. You have people going outside of their comfort zone or wanting an experience. They are not afraid to spend the money if it’s good. I think it’s a value game and an experience game, a results kind of a situation.
Mia LeTendre: I agree with that. I don’t think they are cheap at all. They’re looking for value, and they’re also way more adventurous than I expected. In the beginning, I was a bit more timid like, “Oh, that’s a little too weird for people,” but surprisingly enough, it’s almost like, the weirder, the better, especially if it’s a good experience. It’s opening their eyes to something. I think social media helps too, because people are aware of things that don’t exist [here] yet, and if you bring that to them they’re like, “Cool, I have seen something like this on Instagram or on a blog.”
John Korycki: Coming back to Milwaukee [and] seeing the scene, there was a hardware store across the street from Ristorante Bartolotta, and now there are 30 little restaurants. It is amazing seeing how [the area] has grown. When I see what I charge on the menu, Milwaukee gets it. But still, they are looking for the value. They are looking for good, classic, comfort level of food. That is what the Midwest is in a big way. It is such an exciting time to be in this growing city.
MM: Martin, your restaurants are part of a different trend.
Martin Magaña: I try to fuse a lot of stuff – Mexican with Asian and Indian. At first, I was thinking that people were going to get really weird about it, but [they] like it and keep coming back. People are making the same reservations every week and [asking], “What’s going to be next?” At Frida, we tried to create funky sandwiches, put [in] that little touch of fine dining. People are coming back and taking pictures with the sandwich. [It] makes you feel good about what you’re doing.
MM: And Jason, Heaven’s Table is also in the Crossroads Collective food hall. How did you tailor your approach to barbecue to Milwaukee diners?
Jason: My goal was to try to bring something that people are not really used to. So our whole thing is going to be sauce on the side. I am not putting it on [the meat] at all, because we put a lot of hard work into preparing [the meat].
The Bartolotta Effect
Several of you have spent time training in Bartolotta restaurants. What does that mean to the dining community here in Milwaukee?
Zak: I think Bartolotta [helped] put fine dining in Milwaukee, at least the fine dining that was more what you would see in other cities of a similar size. I think Milwaukee has a really diehard culture – our food, our drinks, our cheese kind of thing – which is great, but Bartolotta opened it up to there being other things than that, like an Italian restaurant more like you would see in Italy.
Miles Borghgraef: For me, it was integral in my training. I still try to practice things that I learned there, not nearly as successfully as those guys. But for me that is the most important piece, whether it trained me to chop a vegetable or read a P&L [profit & loss] statement.
John: It’s that family feel of taking care of guests and taking care of this community. It’s helped build Milwaukee to what it is and helped us step out of the “beer-and-brat shop” outsiders still think Milwaukee is.
Joe Schreiter: Not only the exposure to different food techniques. I got to meet Thomas Keller twice, Jacques Pepin, Daniel Boulud. [Bartolotta] brought in a lot of big names. That was a cool experience for me personally.
Service: Nailing It
How do you train staff and maintain a consistent level of service?
Jason: It starts with me. As long as I’m being consistent and pointing out where they may be inconsistent, I think that is the most important thing. I think doing something that I was passionate about and people seeing it in the quality of your food is key, too. They can tell.
Mia: I think you’re really right. Having passion will trickle down. I hand-pick my staff, and I treat them really well to keep them. I also love what I do. I love my purveyors, and I educate my staff about them every single day. Strange Town is not the kind of place where you just come in and order something. People are very unfamiliar with most of our ingredients. It’s a lot of commitment for staff to become specialists in this field. You can have an amazing meal, but if somebody gets bad service, that’s what they remember.
Martin: We keep working. We keep doing everything that we can to provide [good] service to know that people will keep coming back. [We] bring new food, new ideas, keep it fresh, and people will be happy about that. Whatever we can do, it is really important.
Zak: I think that there is a conundrum. The people who are really good in the front of house are servers, right? And if you are good at it, you probably make pretty good money, and then those are the people who you think should be managers, right? I have something to propose: “How about you work three times as many hours for about half of the money?” I think that when you see these places that can’t hit the consistency mark, sometimes there is just not that counterpart. It is really hard to find people who are in the front of house [who] can be passionate but also meticulous and consistent. I think that is what Milwaukee is really missing, and only a handful of people in [this city] can do that.
MM: Are tips shared with the host, maître d’, etc.?
Martin: At Frida, it’s a little different. Everybody shares tips from the tip jar. The same tips – nobody is getting more.
Mia: At Strange Town, the front of the house pools tips. That way, every table belongs to everyone, and you have to treat everyone the same, and that seems to work out best. Does anyone tip the back of the house?
Some chime in with, “No.”
Jason: The dishwasher.
Zak: That’s smart.
Mia: I would love if the back of the house had tips.
Miles: We do it on catering. You know what, my dishwasher is my highest-paid employee. One of my dishwashers, I will pay him whatever he has to get paid. It doesn’t even matter.
Transferring the Passion to Plates
How passion begets a fruitful career.
MM: Mia, you have a vegan restaurant. How did that come to be?
Mia: I have been cooking professionally for about 17 years, always in restaurants, a lot of meat and eggs. It has been great. I love cooking. I love cooking even things that I don’t eat. A lot of times vegetarian food, or vegan food in particular, is an afterthought. It is a token. It is on the menu, but it is not inspired. It is half the time garbage, especially for someone who is, “I don’t have to eat that, I could cook my own food.” To be able to create a menu where everything on it is an actual complete item, is a real entrée, is balanced, has got all the textures and flavors I want in it, is not just something minus the meat – that was what I always wanted to do. I worked in a few vegan places over the years, and they were also uninspired and boring or just not chef-driven. Traveling around on the coasts, I have had really great vegan meals. Aside from that, it has always been meals I cooked. I feel like the Midwest is definitely lacking. To me, the only time you can get a really good vegan meal is at an ethnic restaurant, which is great, because I love eating Indian and Ethiopian.
MM: Were you surprised [Strange Town] has been so well-received?
Mia: Yeah, actually. I was really surprised, too, that the majority of my customer base is omnivore, which is really eye-opening. I feel that Milwaukee is more adventurous and more open-minded than I thought.
Miles: I think that circles back to that same point earlier. I don’t think it matters what you guys are cooking, but, to the point we are all making here, if you’re passionate about BBQ, and you’re passionate about vegan, [diners] will eat [it], as long as you’re excited and it’s good. I cook the same way. It has to be delicious to me, and hopefully, you like what I think is good.
Mia: I need to feel really proud of what I make. You can please people, but ultimately, it’s about yourself.
MM: Would you say the plant-based lifestyle has affected how you cook or made you all think differently about what you offer on your menus?
John: I’ll support anyone’s lifestyle at the restaurant. But how to, with value in mind, put the right amount of protein on the plate and give a healthier version of the same plate than we did before, where it’s not always just a side of potatoes in one corner of the plate and a side of whatever vegetable we do?
Miles: I pull the opposite from that lifestyle. I don’t think about vegetarian or vegan eating in terms of healthy at all either. I want to lay it on thick and I want to use the flavors that I’ve learned through opening my world to that cuisine.
Mia: I want people to have the same decadent, rich experience they would have anywhere. I’ve gotten some complaints from people like, “You use oil?” Like, I’m sorry, I’m never not using oil.
Miles: That’s the myth though! That vegan food tastes like cardboard and rice cakes….
Justin: It still has to be special, right? You’re still providing an experience, and you still want to stand behind it – you’re excited about it.
Mia: You’re not going to eat this way every day. This is, you’re going out and treating yourself, so live a little.
Jason: The first brisket I ever smoked, I used every wood possible. Sweet hickory, and I never wrapped it. The whole 12 hours, it’s getting wood, and it was red. Crimson. So I taste it – it’s going to be awesome – and it tastes like I was eating bark off a tree. So, man, it takes time to develop that craft. And to your point, doing something that you’re passionate about is awesome. I’ve opened my mind to trying to do some type of plant-based stuff, but I feel like customers are going to be like, “Wait, did you cut meat with that?” Because it’s like, I’m 75% meat. “Do you have a different cutting board you could use?”
MM: Justin, do you get many customers asking for plant-based at Sanford?
Justin: We do. We have a calendar that’s hanging in our kitchen that anytime somebody makes a reservation and we take any, whether it’s dietary restrictions or allergies or anything, we try to get that information from them up front. And [founder] Sandy [D’Amato] was in town recently, and he looked at this calendar in the kitchen, and he was just like, “What the hell? This never used to be like this.” Every night has got multiple things, whether it’s gluten intolerances or nut allergies. We basically have found ourselves in an ultra-careful kitchen, always trying to be prepared to handle anything thrown at us.
MM: Do you ever feel like saying, “No, I just don’t want to do that”?
Miles: I totally do.
Justin: I mean, I want people to be happy. I think if my attitude is, no, I don’t want to do it, I’m in the wrong restaurant. We’ve had people come in and request a Julia Child dish and we’ve done it. If you give us some notice, we’ll do everything we can to make it. But yeah, it’s still a guest, they’re still coming. To tie into that stigma of being the most expensive place, we’re a place where people come to celebrate. And if this is their one time that they’re going to come in this year, let’s do it. Let’s make them happy.
Zak: I think that we do our best in the restaurant to be amenable and to take care of people. We have dishes that are vegetarian on the menu. I didn’t put them there because I have to have a vegetarian dish. There are just dishes that don’t have meat in them. Vegan is a little hard sometimes just because butter and cheese is a powerful thing. Coming up cooking continental, European cuisine, your brain just goes there. Initially, when we conceived the restaurant, I thought we could make a gluten-free pasta. And once we got there, I [realized] I don’t have anywhere to do this. We’re making focaccia every day, we have five or six different pasta doughs we’re making on any given day. I don’t have a little sealed room where I could conceivably make gluten-free pasta. So we have things like risotto or polenta. Then they’re like, “Do you have anything that’s not starch?” It’s like, did you look at the sign when you came in? It’s pasta! This is what we do here. Every time I see a menu online [that says], “We politely decline all substitutions,” I’m just like, oh, someday I’m going to do that! How liberating is that? But honestly, I think about your restaurant [Strange Town]. Do people come in and [say], “I want steak”?
Mia: Yes, they do.
Justin: It’s easier to say, “We don’t carry meat products at all. You’re in the wrong place.”
John: I was a different chef 30 years ago than what today’s restaurant world is. And it’s all giving the guest what they want. I’m in a New England seafood style of restaurant, and half of my guests have some sort of fish or seafood allergy. And so, I keep designing the menu as to how to be inclusive for all.
Martin: We have seasonal menus, and we change them every four months, and then people keep asking for certain things, and [we] say, OK, probably on the next menu. The menu at Tess is 85% gluten-free, so I didn’t have that problem [of diners with gluten sensitivities not having choices]. I’d be writing and studying things to help me. I didn’t go to culinary school or anything, but I keep reading. The first year when I took over at Tess, it was so hard because I still struggled with the language. I didn’t speak full English. So whenever anybody comes in, it’s like, I’m not going to not do that. Those things you keep learning, and then you keep growing, and the more you learn, the more you have to accommodate those things, because they give you one chance. And if you don’t change stuff for them, they’re going to go somewhere else.
MM: Joe, how does Mistral represent your passion for food?
Joe: I think that earlier in my career, if I was building a dish, I almost always would start with a big chunk of protein and work my way down. I don’t look at it that way [anymore]. I start with vegetable-based stuff, whether it’s a sauce or a spice, or just a vegetable I’m in the mood to work with. And work my way up. It’s all about the flavor. Not like, to your point, where back in the day a vegetarian dish would just be a thing minus the meat. I treat the vegetables as their own composed thing and give them the respect and flavor and care they deserve.
MM: How do you balance cooking for the movie crowd versus the intimate Mistral experience?
Joe: We have two different menus, so we have more of a bar food menu for the theater, pizzas and burgers, things like that. And Mistral is its own restaurant. It’s kind of interesting to see how our business fluctuates based on the movie that’s playing. So if it’s an action movie, it’s really heavy on the theater side. If it’s a documentary, Mistral is packed all night long.
MM: Justin, how do you keep the menu fresh at Sanford?
Justin: There’s never really a shortage of ideas. We read a lot, we try and engage everyone in the kitchen. New ideas, new concepts. You give people room to play. As a young cook, to have that freedom was one reason I loved being at Sanford. As hard as we wanted to work and push ourselves, we could do whatever we wanted to do. So I try to keep that atmosphere in play. And … we have a lot of long-game ideas. We put some in motion we might not revisit again for a year or two, depending. … There’s never enough time in the day to do it all.
Sexism and Inappropriate Behavior
Keeping the culture in check and showing respect in this, the age of #MeToo.
Justin: I’ll jump in. At Sanford, I’ve had the most tremendous role models of kind of a workplace equality standpoint with Sandy and Angie [D’Amato]. I mean, we’re in a kitchen that we all take really seriously, and there’s no time to mess around. So it’s all about respect and about treating everyone the right way. It starts at the top.
Zak: Yeah, I think it’s just a culture thing, too. I always joke about our kitchen being this very wholesome place, because everybody is talking about whatever music we’re listening to, or it’s the Packers. It’s not the kind of place where people would ever catcall somebody. Setting the tone every single day, it just filters down. I can teach you how to cook. I can’t teach you how to not be a creep.
John: It’s all about the standard you set. We hire good people. If they [can] use a sauté pan or a grill, that’s a bonus, but I can teach anyone to shuck an oyster or grill a steak. It’s coming into work, knowing that you’re working alongside others. You are expected to play with a team, as a team.
As chefs, chef-owners and business people trying to keep customers happy.
Justin: I think it’s the juggling act of what we do as chefs. When you’re running a business, you wear a lot of hats. Maintenance and upkeep – I own the building that the restaurant is in, and I’m a landlord. So one of the hard parts is making numbers work and juggling repairs and replacing old equipment with labor costs and taking care of your staff and food costs going up and purveyors adding and continuing to add more.
Zak: Honestly, I worry about things like the economy. Is 2008 going to happen again? I don’t get to quit my job. I can’t go somewhere else. And when you’re just a chef, it’s like whatever, man. Everybody is always hiring chefs. Now I wake up and I’m happier than I’ve maybe ever been in a job before, but then you look into the future and you [think], “How long am I going to do this?”
Jason: All right, chapter one. Coming into a business, you don’t even know what’s going to happen. Especially leaving a salaried job. Now you’re walking into the unknown. Are people going to embrace it? [But] probably the worst thing you could ever do is not even see if it’s going to work. Being a Crossroads person can be a little bit challenging because there’s so many other businesses. So people can walk past and look at your restaurant and walk away. I remember the first day there were so many arms reaching for food, it was like, man, this is what it’s all about. At that moment I knew I had made the right decision. [But] the rent isn’t cheap. And you learn how to count every penny, count every dime so you can make money. Every job that I’ve had has led me up to this point, too. So you learn something from each job you go to, you know? You learn how to do a lot of stuff that gets you to the point where, hey, maybe I can do this on my own. And then you get there, and you’re like, what did I get myself into? Because you own a restaurant, and I’m a husband and a father, and you think everything is going smooth, and the wife calls like, “Um, we need this, we need that.”
What’s tripping their triggers in 2020.
Jason: For me personally, the sky is the limit here. You can start to see people are more embracing of anything now. Who would have thought ramen would be served here to people who are used to meat and potatoes, sausage, beer, things like that? Because people are willing to try new things.
Mia: I’m excited just for more variety. I’d like to see more ethnic restaurants, more new places, more things opening up for everyone. But for my own personal goals, I am excited about eventually having a truck. I would love to do plant-based pizza, wood-fire pizza.
Joe: I think there’s a lot of chefs doing really cool things, pushing the boundaries. And the more someone pushes those boundaries, the more those things trickle down, and what was odd for customers in the past is becoming more mainstream. It gives us all more versatility and more tools to pick from and play with.
Miles: I’m excited to cook food and [get] to things I didn’t get to last year. Just continue doing that on a daily basis. I don’t think we talked about it, but I think remembering what things taste like is the most important thing in my skillset right now.
What They Eat
“El Señorial. A longtime mainstay for us, we’ve been going there since the early days of our relationship. [Co-owner] Sarah [Baker] digs the nachos and steak tortas; I usually get some chilaquiles, or if I’m feeling celebratory, I’ll get the parrillada.” – Zak Baker
“San Giorgio Pizzeria Napoletana is one of the most authentic Neapolitan pizzas I’ve tasted in the States. I like the margherita topped with prosciutto and arugula.” – John Korycki
“My favorite place is Island Jam in South Milwaukee. I always order the curry goat and oxtails with double cabbage.” – Jason Alston
“I frequent El Rey on 16th Street. It brings back ‘home’ to me. I love the people and authenticity of the meals. I normally get the Milanesa (chicken) platter with rice and beans.” – Martin Magaña
“Holy Land Middle Eastern grocery store makes an awesome falafel sandwich. I get it with everything on it.” – Justin Aprahamian
“The cold shaved tendon salad at Sze Chuan is my current No. 1 anything to eat in Milwaukee.” – Miles Borghgraef
“Pizza Pete’s in Cudahy makes good solid pies with a nice crust to sauce to toppings ratio. I get the classic sausage, mushroom onion pizza.” – Joe Schreiter
“I’ve been going to Alem Ethiopian Village since my son was a baby 15 years ago. The lunch buffet is all plant based, which is perfect because a buffet is all about variety, not seeing how many plates you can eat. Everything on it is stellar.” – Mia LeTendre