If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t take our restaurants for granted. We can’t assume they’ll always be there. This year, as our Chefs Roundtable was taking shape, our plans to bring our nine rock star local chefs physically together to talk shop had to shift to a virtual gathering because, well, the pandemic. But rolling with the punches is what chefs know how to do. And they didn’t shy away from answering some of the tougher questions facing their industry. What ensued was a spirited conversation that ranged from staffing shortages and equity and inclusion, to dining trends (chefs hate that term!) and their hopes for the future. This is also the roundtable where I geek out about having a group of chefs in a Zoom room and need to make sure my camera is off. (I’m Ann-cognito, after all.) Without further ado, then, let’s get right to the juicy parts.
MEET THE CHEFS
Justin Aprahamian: Sanford Restaurant
Hometown: New Berlin
Notable prior restaurant work: Steven Wade’s Cafe
Go-to kitchen tool: A Sawzall, which he calls a “game changer” for butchering
Favorite dish: Armenian keuftah (meatballs)
Karen Bell: Bavette la Boucherie
Hometown: Whitefish Bay
Notable prior restaurant work: Owned and operated Memento in Madrid
Go-to kitchen tool: Tongs – the length (she prefers 9 inches) is crucial “because they really are an extension of your hand.”
Favorite dish: Cider-braised pork cheeks (below)
Dan Jacobs: Dandan, Fool’s Errand, EsterEv
Notable prior restaurant work: Roots Restaurant & Cellar, Odd Duck
Go-to kitchen tool: A bowl scraper, “good for cleanup and working with dough”
Favorite dish: Chicken dumplings (DanDan), mac and cheese and fried chicken (Fool’s Errand)
Dan Van Rite: DanDan, Fool’s Errand, EsterEv
Hometown: Green Bay
Notable prior restaurant work: Hinterland (Milwaukee and Green Bay)
Go-to kitchen tool: A petty knife, aka a paring knife, “good for [prepping] our cauliflower and chicken dishes”
Favorite dish: Filet o’ Fools sandwich (Fool’s Errand), happy chicken (DanDan)
Dane Baldwin: The Diplomat
Notable prior restaurant work: Harbor House, Mr. B’s: A Bartolotta Steakhouse
Go-to kitchen tool: An off-set spatula, for plating. “One of my favorite ways to move food,” he says.
Favorite dish: “Anchovy” small plate – deviled egg filling served with butter crackers (below)
Kyle Knall: Birch
Hometown: Birmingham, Alabama
Notable prior restaurant work: Gramercy Tavern (New York City)
Go-to kitchen tool: A microplane, for his perpetual use of lemon zest on dishes
Favorite dish: Wood-roasted walleye (right)
Zak Baker: Ca’Lucchenzo
Hometown: Sturgeon Bay
Notable prior restaurant work: Ristorante Bartolotta, Pizza Man
Go-to kitchen tool: A timer, to monitor the four or five items (sauces, braised meats, focaccia) Baker has going at one time
Favorite dish: Radicchio tart
Aaron Bickham: The Bartolotta Restaurants
Hometown: Rochester, New York
Notable prior restaurant work: Umami Moto (Milwaukee), Nougatine at Jean-Georges (NYC)
Go-to kitchen tool: A microplane, for grapefruit and lime zest, as well as black truffles
Favorite dish: Australian wagyu beef short rib at Bacchus (below)
Joe Muench: Black Shoe Hospitality
Notable prior restaurant work: Grenadier’s, Eddie Martini’s
Go-to kitchen tool: A simple, large tablespoon, because of “all the things you can do with it – eat from it, cook with it, stir something with it.”
Favorite dish: Chilled seafood at Buttermint
ANN CHRISTENSON: Hi everyone. I’d like to dive right into this, touching on some of the harder issues you’ve all been faced with. Let’s start with staffing. It’s been a huge problem. What are you all doing to combat this, strengthen your workforce and give people the incentive to work? Also, a lot of people are asking me if shorter restaurant hours and fewer days open are something we have to get used to.
AARON BICKHAM: I want to jump in. At Bartolotta, we’re seeing a changing world. There’s a stigma in the industry, and we’re trying to become the employer of choice by looking at work-life balance, listening to the employees, and giving them opportunities for growth and development. And that’s the way we’re going to take this challenge on is to get better at what we’re doing. We had many years of very long hours and [were] underpaid, and it’s time for that to change and that’s how our approach is going to be.
DAN JACOBS: I think this is a multi-faceted [situation]. It’s not just as simple as people not wanting to come to work. I think we’re doing the best we can to make it an attractive job and to make it something that’s sustainable and, like Aaron was saying, [offer some] work-life balance. We moved to a 20% service charge … at all the restaurants. It’s allowed us to [offer competitive pay], health insurance, paid vacation and 401k for [full-time staff], but this still really isn’t enough. I think part of it is, we let some of these people down, or are perceived to have let them down at the beginning of the pandemic. And for some people, they just decided this was a good time to get out.
AC: Joe, what’s your take on this at the Black Shoe Hospitality restaurants?
JOE MUENCH: Before the pandemic started, we started changing our culture internally. We wanted this thing called Culture of Excellence and we created different steps. So when we hired people, we made sure that the onboarding process was much better and easier and smoother. We’ve increased benefits [and] other things to give the staff a better-rounded experience for their financials. I think that a year of people getting [unemployment benefits], for some of the young people in the hospitality world, they probably made more money from the government in one year than they did any year leading into that. So either they were smart and saved their money, or when that money started running out, people started feeling [they] could get back to work. We’re starting to see an uptick in people coming back to work. I don’t know if anyone else is experiencing that, and it’s not like they’re coming in droves, but back in 2017, 2018 we started seeing a decrease in the amount of applications. I don’t know if people are getting out of the hospitality industry or just jobs in general. I’m not sure why there was such a dramatic decrease two years before the pandemic. And now, getting out of this pandemic, it’ll be interesting to see the next year or two, if all that free money everyone got is going to change the way people are thinking about their employment.
KAREN BELL: I agree with Joe that the trend started years before the pandemic, which could be a bit of foretelling of what everyone’s trying to deal with now. At Bavette, I’ve been offering supplemented health insurance to full-time employees and a matching SIMPLE IRA to any employee that has been with me for two years, for years prior to the pandemic. I decided to offer these incentives in addition to a fair pay because I started to see they were important issues for people as I was going through the hiring process for different positions. And honestly, they are important things for me, [too]. Charging a service charge is one way to [increase pay], but being a smaller business with fewer employees, I feel fortunate that I have been able to do it without that. We hear a lot of the subpar working conditions in restaurants, and although I think that does ring true to a certain degree, in a lot of cases, it is not the only story, and I think that is important to know as well.
ZAK BAKER: I basically have the same staff that we ended March 2020 with in my kitchen. I think the restaurant industry, it’s gotten a little big. What we have going for us at Ca’Lucchenzo is, because it’s so small, I don’t need a lot of people. … You know, referencing the two days closing, we started off with that. It wasn’t like, oh, we can’t find staff. It just seemed a logical way to do it because then we would have a static schedule. I wanted to have the same people every day. We’re very lucky we have almost all of our staff but again, [co-owner and wife] Sarah and I are here every day. There’s never any confusion about who’s responsible for making sure this place runs well, and who the staff need to go to if they need anything at all.
KYLE KNALL: I agree with Zak. I went from running a restaurant and hotel [New York City’s Equinox Hotel] that was open seven days a week, three meal periods and a huge staff. I think being open for four dinners and two brunches [at Birch], makes it obviously easier for the business to staff, but it makes it so that we can nurture the staff that we have and make sure that everyone’s on the same page all the time.
AC: During that period when you were only doing takeout, did that change the way you see your business; did your approach to food change or evolve? Justin, doing takeout was really different for Sanford. You couldn’t do what Sanford typically does for in-house dining as takeout.
JUSTIN APRAHAMIAN: It’s made us think about quantity food prep in a different way. I mean, to think about what we did on New Year’s Eve  for carryout [exclusively; the dining room was closed]. We did like 240 dinners for two, so we cooked for about 500 people. That’s an insane jump of just pure product moving out the door. So I think it’s opened our eyes up to some possibilities of things we could do. Simultaneously, it was a different animal, that’s for sure.
MUENCH: For us, takeout has dramatically decreased over the past months, certainly from its summertime  high. But before that, you know, we rebuilt all of our systems, we bought new POS [software] to handle online ordering, we changed our reservation [system], going from Yelp to OpenTable, and things like that, so we’ve kind of rebuilt our restaurants to handle all the new, diverse ways you have to feed people. But to-go, at its height, was 30% of sales on a Saturday or Sunday. Now it’s less than 6%.
BELL: Like others, we’ve done take-home holiday meals. I don’t know if we’ll keep doing that. We’ve gone back to normal as much as we can. I haven’t seen much of a decline in in-house dining.
AC: Dane, how did you handle requests for takeout? I know you were closed for a while during the pandemic.
DANE BALDWIN: Yeah, so we did exclusively takeout for about a year. [By] sticking with a takeout model, we got into a cadence with it. And the irony behind it is pre-pandemic we would not do any takeout whatsoever. I think what it’s taught me is that we can do it from time to time, depending on the volume we’re in the middle of, but it’s something to lean back on. That might be something that we will be looking at late winter or early spring.
AC: Do you think tipping is an antiquated system, and that we’ll get to a point when those fees are folded into the bill? Dan, you implemented an added service charge at your restaurants in summer 2021. How is that working?
JACOBS: You know, it’s the right thing to do. I’m more than happy to have a conversation about how we’ve been able to do it successfully and still make money. A friend of mine has a restaurant in New York City and has been doing it for a long time. She said that you’re going to lose [some] people. But you’re going to gain people that believe in what you’re doing. And I think that’s been the best piece of advice I’ve gotten along this road. And it also gives them a balance to go with that whole sexist thing, like this ends the weird dude being creepy on a server. If the gratuity is already there, they’re going to get paid for it. [The service charge] is used to pay both the front and back of house staff. I mean, historically the back of the house is definitely the underpaid version. We pick our battles – the back of the house guys, we do this because there’s a passion for it.
BICKHAM: [Tipping] helps the owners be able to pay [servers] beyond a living wage. The United States is one of the only countries that do it and it’s something we’re going to have to deal with. We currently have 14 restaurants [in the Bartolotta portfolio], and tipping is the way we operate as of now.
AC: Several years ago, we saw a reckoning – women, people of color, speaking out about working conditions in restaurants. Do you think restaurants are in a better position in terms of structural equity and opportunity as it pertains to staff?
MUENCH: I’m really happy about [where we are with] diversity and inclusion. We have such a broad mix of individuals on our staff. In 2016, we established this Culture of Excellence, and it’s given us a tool to survive. We are a community-based organization that focuses on community. I hire people based on personality, not skill. I can teach you [kitchen] skills. I can’t teach you how to be a good person.
BICKHAM: As an industry, it’s getting better but it has a long way to go. I represent diversity. I’m biracial. We talk about [equity and inclusion] often in leadership meetings.
AC: Karen, what are your thoughts on this issue from the standpoint of a woman-owned restaurant?
BELL: I’ve always had more women on staff and I don’t know if that’s because I am a woman. But it’s never been anything I’ve searched out. A lot of times, what I’m looking for is interest and passion.
AC: COVID exposed, among other things, how little our government knows about the food and beverage industry. But at the same time, I think there have been more independent restaurants speaking up, pushing for change and asking for help. What are your thoughts on this?
MUENCH: The Wisconsin Restaurant Association has been a big help these past couple years. If you’re not involved, you should be because they really stepped up and kept people informed and also went to bat for quite a number of issues. And I think the small, independent restaurants have a big voice through that organization.
APRAHAMIAN: Yeah, I think we’ve seen how restaurants are taken for granted, in a way, but we’re a huge industry and we’re an industry where 90-some percent of the money that comes into our restaurant leaves the restaurant and supports the local economy. And we didn’t get the love and support that we should have. So it’s frustrating, and then to also be the first people in a society tapped for fundraising events and things. It’s like we’re the last ones to get it in so many ways.
JACOBS: This isn’t really new. We’re the spoke or the hub of a giant economic engine. We touch so many other industries that don’t have anything to do with food – you have your obvious ones, like your butchers, your farmers, but also carpenters, plumbers, HVAC guys, truck drivers. There’s so much that restaurants do. For a lot of us, this was our first job and will be our last. Restaurants are important. We’re the gateway to communities and how people get to know different ethnic groups. You first learn about that group through that group’s food, and to lose those places – and I’m talking about the small guys like your taquerias, your Middle Eastern restaurants or Indian restaurants – to lose those guys is the biggest mistake we could make. I’m on the phone and writing emails every week to representatives, not just in our state but in other states, trying to get the Restaurant Revitalization Fund refilled [a national program created to give aid to businesses impacted by COVID-19]. It’s important. It’s the difference between a restaurant being open in April of this year and not being open at the end of this month. It sucks to think that way, but I believe that. This is our community, man. If we’re not looking out for us, who the hell is?
AC: So, I want to get into some lighter questions. Is there anything specifically that you’re excited or hopeful about moving forward?
BALDWIN: Summer. Outdoor dining just brings a different environment to everything and again, our whole mantra here is we control the things that we can. We have 60 feet of facade outside our building. We’re looking forward to having more of an outdoor vibe. And I think we’ve made enough adjustments to accommodate the unexpected and build on what wasn’t there [pre-pandemic] – a curbside to-go and bread program. I’ve also been able to have these relevant culinary pillars [such as former Mistral executive chef Joe Schreiter] working with me. That’s been instrumental to weathering this.
MUENCH: I think I’m just happy that we’re back. I’m happy this winter is not as dire as it was last year, and I think, just looking at the comparison, the key is to stay focused on what’s going on right now and take care of the guests even though the numbers are down. I think these incremental steps will lead into summer and things that are much more positive. In focusing on the past, it could be worse, you know. So I think that’s the mantra we’re trying to keep in our restaurants.
BAKER: I think I can probably speak for a lot of people when I say we all just feel like we’re in some sort of suspended state. You want to go forward but you can only go so far forward right now. I think we just try to take joy in the day-to-day – who’s on the reservation list, what are we going to make today? It’s the little things. If you just kind of focus on that right now, you can survive this.
JACOBS: I’m definitely with Zak on this. It’s definitely the little things like the Saturdays. Nobody can call me, nobody’s emailing me … and I just spend my day in the kitchen cooking food, and I think that’s when I’m my happiest. Deal with what you can deal with and, you know, try and find moments of happiness here and there.
AC: Karen, you’re gearing up for a new location for Bavette on Broadway, also in the Third Ward, which is exciting.
BAKER: Yeah, that’s cool.
BELL: Exciting, yes. It’s just a move, but it’s also like a new restaurant in a lot of instances, so it’s a lot [to juggle] right now. And we are understaffed, so we’re just taking it day by day, but I will be very excited once we’re moved and settled in – and I’m excited to get back in the kitchen and get creative. When you’re dealing with the day-to-day grind, you forget that. [At the new space] I want to continue to do what people are coming to the restaurant for and not reinvent the wheel. But I would also like to do new and different things. We’ll see.
AC: When I did the first chef roundtable back in 2017, I asked the chefs for their advice on how to be a better diner, and I feel like that’s worth revisiting. What would you say now?
BELL: Being respectful and nice! No one’s trying to do a bad job. I think people just don’t understand, going back to the understaffing [issue], maybe we’re down a server or we’re down a cook. We’re trying our best to do the best that we can. Of course we’re the service industry so we’re providing a service – you’re paying for it. I understand that, but some of the things that people bring up are just so mind-blowing ridiculous. Just thinking about that next time you’re about to blow up on someone, that this is another person. There’s no need to be disrespectful or hurtful.
AC: Yeah, it can be challenging for some people. Dan, I think you have something to say about this.
JACOBS: I just think everybody should work in a restaurant and [at] a host stand for one night and really feel what it’s like. … You know, it’s not the end of the world, man – your table will still be there, your food will still be served to you hot. Just breathe it out.
APRAHAMIAN: Yeah, I’m with Dan on that. For a long time, I’ve thought that everybody should work in a restaurant at some point in their life just to have some amount of courtesy as to the process. I haven’t worked front of house extensively but I can empathize and sympathize and be with those people and understand what’s going on. … [Also] I think the expectation of people being out right now – not everything’s available; not everything is cost effective to run in restaurants, the way that you remember it being run two years ago or five years ago. Things are different, and people need to grow and adapt and realize that my menu is not the same today as it was. And that’s not all my decision. There are some things that are dictated for us, some processes that have changed.
MUENCH: [It’s been] the power of our managers to be more assertive toward our guests, that they won’t tolerate any disrespect. And on the other front there with Justin is the supply chain. That certainly has changed our venues, and we’ve dealt with plenty of people saying, “Will it ever come back?” because it’s not on the menu anymore. I can’t say if it’ll come back or not, but we’re just gently explaining to them, “We don’t have crab cakes on [the menu] because the crab is $18 a pound.” But we’ve adapted and shifted it to create different dishes that we hope are appealing.
APRAHAMIAN: People need to understand that if they want that crab cake that bad, they need to shell out for it.
BAKER: I’ve realized people will pay more. I’m kind of going back to the whole tipping argument. I think the thing about tipping and service charges, ultimately, it shouldn’t even be a service charge. We should all just be charging 25% more than what we do for everything. Unfortunately, menu prices in this country kind of stagnated while everything else went up for the last 25 years. And it’s a lot of ground to make up overnight. I realized when we were closed down for months that it was a chance to incrementally get things more in line with where they probably need to be for the new future, accounting for benefits for staff and stuff like that. I think there are totally people who will pay more money for better food.
AC: I’m going to switch gears to a more food-oriented topic. People want to dine out. They want to know what the new thing is, and I see the cool things you put out on social media. Are there any culinary trends that you’re picking up on and incorporating into your menus?
JACOBS: You just used the word trend …
AC: I know. It’s such a terrible word. I’m sorry, Dan!
APRAHAMIAN: I don’t even know what’s on our social media.
JACOBS: You have a phone that does social media?
APRAHAMIAN: I don’t on mine.
BAKER: I feel like, what are the food trends right now? I guess I don’t even know, like suspended animation. What’s interesting, I don’t know.
BAKER: Well, like pasta…
AC: That is absolutely the case, Zak. I think people are really wanting comfort right now, and part of it is COVID. So, Karen, they want your burger, they want your sandwiches. Zak, your pastas.
MUENCH: I feel like people are wanting to go back to service. There are so many eating experiences out there. You can walk into a Kwik Trip and get a version of sushi. I think people are going to want to get back to dining experiences. Post-COVID, people are going to start mingling again, meeting up with old friends, lingering over, you know, a two-and-a-half-hour meal. I think it is going to be a big part of the near future, the next two to five years.
AC: Justin? I know trends aren’t typically your thing…
APRAHAMIAN: Yeah. And learning so much from [Sanford co-founder] Sandy [D’Amato] and talking about [how] everything’s a cycle anyway, so if we focus our energies on really good food and these ingredients available to us, it’s going to be good, whether it’s an in-vogue ingredient or not, if you’re treating it the right way.
AC: Aaron, I’d like your input on this, too. As diners, we’re craving that experience again, that socialization of being inside a restaurant.
BICKHAM: There is definitely a demand, and we’re seeing it – people wanting to come back out. We are about the environment and the experience. We want to take the guests on a journey. As far as culinary trends go, I’m a foodie, I’m a chef, and I’m always paying attention to what’s on Instagram. But at Bartolotta, we’re sticking to cooking from our soul. We’re trying to create from our journeys and our travels, and give that to the guests and teach our staff and stay true to our values.
AC: Kyle, what you are doing at Birch is a lot of really fresh, beautiful bright flavors. Tell me a little bit about that.
KNALL: My goal is that a guest can come in once a week or once every two weeks and have something different, see something different, and be excited about what they’re eating. As far as the freshness aspect, that’s how we like to eat. … We like to make sure we’re using produce from [local farmers]. We know it tastes better that way. And that’s kind of the root of it for all for us. [On the menu], we’ve got a walleye dish served on a warm ragout of cranberry beans. Beans are typically seen as cheap food or peasant food. It takes a lot of thought and care to cook them and make that dish vibrant. The coolest part is every ingredient is from the Midwest.
AC: Sounds great. There are so many things that I crave at all of your restaurants. Is there anything else you’d like to say to each other about cooking or the food and beverage industry here in Milwaukee?
BAKER: I miss going to all of your restaurants. Sarah and I, other than shortly after being vaccinated, I think we snuck out for one dinner and one lunch. That’s it. And again, carry-out foods are good, but I know it’s not what I would be getting if I was sitting at a table in your places. I miss that quite a bit.
AC: How many of you have been able to get out to other restaurants to eat?
JACOBS: Hell, yeah. I always feel like people come to our restaurants. I try to support as much as I can. [And] I will say one thing. Man, the food that Kyle’s doing at Birch is I think the most exciting food in Milwaukee right now, so if you guys pick one restaurant [to go to], I think that’s the place.
KNALL: Thanks, Dan.
JACOBS: I’ve only been here for 10 years, and it’s been a wild 10 years of growth. When I moved here, you had Roots, Bartolotta and Sanford and that was it. And now there’s so many great restaurants in the city and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for our sous chefs and line cooks and what places they will end up, where they go from here.
AC: Kyle, you keep your menu driven by the seasons. What’s your inspiration for creating dishes?
KNALL: Today we had to come up with a new pasta dish. So, we thought, what vegetables do we have available from farmers? We ended up coming up with a dish using three ingredients we had on hand. [A dish] might also be [inspired by] a technique. Like, we’re putting pickled jalapenos and cilantro on a ricotta-filled pasta. We’re always looking to those aspects to brighten it up. Here, it’s some Mexico-driven ingredients.
AC: Joe, how are you approaching the menu at your new place, Buttermint?
MUENCH: Influences are everyone from Angie Mar [a NYC chef known for her decadent style of cooking] to Gramercy Tavern, Danny Meyer’s restaurant [in NYC]. People really want to get back to dining. We were inspired by two things – the Roaring ’20s and the progression of modern-day dining in the 1950s and ’60s. The idea is not fine dining, but finer dining. Finer dining is fun, not stuffy. It gives you endless opportunities to be creative. We just want to be a place that’s accessible to everyone.
AC: That differentiation – fine and finer – is interesting. Dane, where do you think The Diplomat fits in there?
BALDWIN: I think we have some elements of fine dining – dishes elevated but not formal. I think back to the days I first started cooking. I started at Gil’s Cafe [in the space now occupied by Downer Avenue’s Cafe Hollander] in 2001 and I loved working there. Every job has prepared me for the next. Now, I think there’s this feel of genuine dining [in the city]. A sense of honesty in our expression of cooking.
AC: That’s better than fine dining!