Table Talk: 8 of Milwaukee’s Best Chefs Answer Our Burning Questions About Restaurant Life

For our first roundtable conversation, we sat eight of the city’s best chefs down and fired off the restaurant-related questions we’ve always wanted to ask. Here is their unscripted, no-holds-barred powwow.

Meet the Chefs

Photos by Adam Ryan Morris

Justin Aprahamian
Sanford Restaurant
“I had an uncle [with] a catering business. He had a party and needed extra hands. I was like 12, 13. I made fruit platters for 10 hours and thought, ‘This is fun.’ Not what I thought of as the professional world – cubicles, punch a clock and it’s 9-to-5.”

Karen Bell
Bavette La Boucherie
“I always worked in restaurants as a waitress since I was 15. When I was in college, I was at a loss for what to do. I’d been cooking for roommates, so I thought I would give culinary school a go. The first day, I just fell in love with it.”

Justin Carlisle
Ardent/Red Light Ramen
“We grew up on a farm, so cooking was a necessity. I went into the military, got out, turned around and fell into restaurants. Like the military, a restaurant has a structure and a work ethic. I pretty much fell in love with that, and fell in love with cooking and food. It went on from there.”

Thi Cao
Buckley’s Restaurant & Bar
“A segment of TV’s “The Reading Rainbow” was early inspiration: “Levar Burton was on and there was a Chinese chef cooking tempura fried bananas, and I thought, that’s cool. That stuck with me. After four years in IT, I wanted to do something creative. So I followed my path to culinary school.”

Jarvis Williams
SURG Restaurant Group
“I started with dishwashing and the opportunity presented itself to get a few days on the line. I realized I had a passion for eating more than cooking, so the reward for cooking was I could make my own meal. Once I started doing those things, it introduced me to all different flavors.”

Peggy Magister
Crazy Water
“I always liked cooking, but I didn’t think that anybody became a chef. When I was younger, that wasn’t a career. So I went into nursing first. [Eventually] I said, ‘I’m gonna go to cooking school.’ I went to school in California, and then I came back here.”

Juan Urbieta
Ristorante Bartolotta/Pizzeria Piccola
“I wanted to become a commercial pilot, [but] was turned down by the Air Force because I had appendicitis surgery when I was 3. Second to aviation, I liked cooking. I decided to move to America and worked my way up from dishwasher and all the ranks in the kitchen and the restaurant.”

Thomas Hauck
c. 1880/Karl Ratzsch
“I turned 15; my dad sat me down, looked at me and said, ‘You need to understand some things. I have money, you don’t have any money, so you’re gonna need to get some money.’ We went to the local restaurant, and they hired me as a dishwasher. The need for a job made me start cooking.”

Innovation Versus Interpretation

With the Milwaukee food scene going strong, do you see it as a place that originates new trends and ideas? Or is it a place that reinterprets national trends?

Karen: I think both.
Thomas: Some of it is truly original. I mean, it’s all out there. It depends on how deeply you dive into the internet. It’s about trying to put your own voice for what you want to do.
Thi: I think a lot of the great restaurants here are more personality driven. If we all put a dish on the table, I would kind of know who made what, because your personality is there.
Justin C.: It’s kind of gone off the label of what cuisine that restaurant is to that’s “his” restaurant or “her” restaurant. This person’s restaurant. Instead of, I’m going for French food or Italian food, it’s now more, I’m going for this individual person or team.
Peggy: When you talk nationally, I think Milwaukee is always about two or three years behind. I’ll go to other restaurants in other cities and I’ll see things and then, I come back and try to do some of that stuff and it doesn’t seem to work. But then again, different restaurants can get away with it depending on their clientele.
Justin A.: Trends are fickle. I worked for Sandy [D’Amato] for a long time, and I owe much of what I know to Sandy. But Sandy always said, “Food goes in cycles. Just concentrate on making really good food. Shut the blinders off to everything else.” In his lifetime in kitchens, he’s seen the same ingredient come and go several times: Figs are hot; nobody cares about figs. If you really just focus on doing what you believe in and doing what satisfies your soul, that’s the important part. At the end of the day, what are you serving that makes you happy, where it isn’t about a trend?

The Midwestern ‘Way’

Are there particular things about this region that figure into your cooking?

Justin A.: There’s something about values in the Midwest, and the way we all do things. We’re more drawn to good food, as opposed to seeking out the next best thing. I don’t want to say comfort and familiarity. But there’s certainly styles and things you gravitate toward. There are certain flavor profiles from the Midwestern melting pot that we want to pick up on and see. It’s part of who we are and what our food is. And no trend is ever going to get in the way of that.
Karen: Our way is more defined than southern California, where you can get a lot of produce all year long.
Justin A.: We clearly have four seasons. And all of us here, we try and base our menus on that. We don’t have fresh tomatoes now… that’s just the reality of the situation.
Justin C.: We were storing and canning tomatoes before that all became the cool thing to do, because it was necessity.

The Farm-to-Table Movement

Is using local ingredients that are in season a trend, or the standard, of a good kitchen?

Thomas: It’s the way to cook.
Justin C.: I think it became a sales gimmick.
Jarvis: I don’t think chefs said, I got to get this farm on the menu. It’s just doing it. It’s delicious at the time, and it sparked your emotions and you did something different with it, and it was drawing more people to the table.
Justin A.: It comes down to necessity for a lot of us. You’re getting the best ingredients you can get. They’re picked at the peak of their freshness, they’re not traveling a thousand miles. You’re getting it right away, and you’re getting it from those people who grew it, and you have that relationship with them.
Thomas: Help people in your community. That’s the big thing.
Justin A.: You’re keeping those resources close to home and close to you. It makes more sense because you’re paying for something in-season as opposed to [creating] the carbon footprint. It’s just the way it should be done.
Karen: Not every restaurant in the country can be farm-to-table. We’re lucky that we have all these resources.
Justin A.: But it’s also decisions we’ve made. As a small-business owner, this is the decision I’ve made, this is the way I want to support people around me. There are a lot of facets to that.

Game Changers

Was there a seminal restaurant or chef that pushed the whole food scene forward at a particular moment?

Thomas: Sandy [D’Amato, of Sanford Restaurant]. [Others concur.] I mean, [German chef Knut Apitz’s] Grenadier’s was the spot. When that opened, it all changed. The old school, how you looked at dining, Ratzsch’s and Mader’s, Grenadier’s. Then, Sandy came along and turned everything on its head. That’s the path food has gone. Sandy was way ahead of his time.
Peggy: Styles and different types of going out to dinner… have changed. Not having all the pomp and circumstance: I loved that when that started.
Justin A.: Yeah it was great to be able to go to a bar and get a piece of foie gras.
Peggy: I know! I really liked that! But I feel like it’s turning back now the other way.

Fine Dining’s Fine Comeback

Is the trend going back to fine dining, as in, old-fashioned fine dining?

Thomas: I feel like if you opened Frenchy’s [Bulldog Bar & Grill on East North Avenue, which was known for grilled ham steaks and NY strips] right now, it would be popular. Where people had to wear a dinner jacket, when we got dressed up, and the candlelight, tablecloths. There’s no way it could be on a massive scale, but in a small version, it could succeed.
Peggy: I feel like people’s expectations are very high now. You can go to a bar and get the food, but now people go to these places and they want the service of a 4-star restaurant.
Thomas: Buying an $8 cheeseburger, my expectations are [in line with that], but if I’m buying a $23 cheeseburger, my expectations have gone up a lot. It better be a really good cheeseburger. Everything about it better be good. The ambiance.
Justin C.: I think there’s a battle on. How much of your money is service and ambiance and the white tablecloth to make you feel that way? If I go to a fine dining [restaurant], it has to have white tablecloths, it has to have certain glassware, it has to have certain silverware. That makes me feel better about spending money. And we haven’t even talked about food yet.

Dare to Experiment

Has the heightened awareness of food made the public more accepting of innovation and experimentation?

Illustration by Jade Schulz

Thi: I think so.
Thomas: Innovation for the sake of innovation is pointless. If the food’s good, you can do whatever you want and people will support it. If you’re just trying to be awesome and creative, people will see right through that.
Karen: And I think customers come to trust certain restaurants and chefs, you know. If they’ve eaten there and enjoyed it, they’re more likely to eat something else [at the same restaurant] that they’re not so familiar with.
Juan: I find that as long as you explain and present it in a positive way, and train the staff the right way, they trust. The table will try anything. Our policy is that if they don’t love it within the first couple of bites, we’ll take it back. We’ll make you anything you want. No charge, obviously. But give it a try. Check it out. People in Milwaukee are willing to give it a try, if you present it in a way that you are explaining and educating the public.
Thi: From my experience, it’s building trust. If there’s no trust for the kitchen and the chef, there’s hesitation. “I go back to my standby, the veal Parmesan or the chicken.” But when you start to get a little more adventurous, you really have to establish that relationship first.
Justin A.: Now you see cooking TV shows where the ingredients are kind of explained a little bit better so tripe now maybe has the exposure that it didn’t have 10 years ago. You don’t have to explain it as thoroughly. You certainly have to build that trust with diners, but with education I think it’s easier to push people a little in that direction.
Peggy: And I think the younger clientele is more apt to try these things.

Knowledge Has Its Drawbacks

How has the increased interest in food affected what you all do?

Thomas Hauck of c.1880 and Karl Ratzsch. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

Justin C.: A lot of people forget that we provide a service. That’s what we do. You are coming in for the service I provide. If you can do the service better, then why are you coming to get my service?
Jarvis: People come in and try to match wits. I don’t want to pass a 20-question test before we start the meal.
Peggy: You want them to enjoy what you’re making. But you don’t want them to dissect everything and talk about what they’re eating. Aren’t you here to be with your friends?
Thi: Yeah, people have to critique every single element – the temperature, the music you’re playing. The fact that they’re being so hyper-critical now, they’re not really enjoying the experience there.
Karen: I think people are more knowledgeable and more traveled, which is a good thing. I think also especially here in Milwaukee, people are hesitant to pay the actual cost of food. And what goes into it. So I think that people are getting used to paying a little more in other places, so they are appreciating what goes into it a little bit more.

Every Diner’s a Critic

Are reviews helpful or hurtful?

Jarvis: I don’t read them.
Thomas: I have a Yelp [account] set up for Circa [1880] just so I can see it. Then I just chuckle with it.
Jarvis: I used to read ’em to just to try to get some…
Juan: … just to make your life miserable?
Jarvis: It just started to go downhill. This is not… I don’t make food for that. I interact with the guests and I need to feel good about what I offer.
Karen: But it’s hard to not read them. I’m not talking about the professional reviews because that’s different, but what people don’t understand is that on Yelp, they make it too personal.
Justin C.: I think about what they say, and I choose whether to say well, that does affect or maybe we did something wrong that night, or maybe you know, the food is wrong, service is wrong. If there’s something that happened that night, then we need to acknowledge that.
Justin A.: There’s something crazy about restaurants that makes people want to hold them that accountable.
Justin C.: You open at 8 a.m.? Can I show up at 7?
Justin A.: What, my car’s not done? You should be paying me now. You should fix my car for free the next time I come. Somehow other businesses aren’t held to the same level as the restaurant is.
Thi: I, too, do read reviews myself. I find I read only the bad reviews. Good reviews, pass, pass, pass.
Peggy: I’d rather they tell us [at the time]. Then I can fix it!
Juan: It’s like, you came to our restaurant to have a good time, to celebrate. Whatever it is you were celebrating, and you left mad. Give us a chance to make it better.
Peggy: I want you to have a good time. I’m not out to get you!

Justin Carlisle of Ardent and Karen Bell of Bavette La Boucherie. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

Being a Better Diner

What would you like to tell the public about how to behave?

Crazy Water’s Peggy Magister. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

Thomas: Put your phone down.
Peggy: I appreciate having the time, when somebody does have a dietary issue, I like it if they let you know ahead of time. So then, I can really make it something better for them. Our kitchen is so small. We don’t have everything at the drop of a hat. When you’re really busy, too. So I like that.
Juan: Be open to dining at a different time. I mean on a weeknight, I can understand it. But if it’s a weekend, and you won’t take any other time but 7 o’clock – you have off tomorrow! There’s a misconception that they have a 7:30 reservation, and they’re going to walk in and their table is going to be waiting for them. They sometimes forget that there are other guests before them, and a lot of times you can’t get the table. They’re talking. You know, they pay out their bill, but they’re enjoying their coffee or…
Justin A.: We’ve had people who think that we are lying to them. We are very strict in that we only seat a certain number of tables at a time, because if we said, OK, load ’em up, get all those tables filled right now, then how good is service? How good is the detail?
Karen: Or, walk-ins. People see an empty table and they’re like, well there’s my table. 
Thomas: We had a lady go ballistic because she wanted to go from a four-top to a six-top. We said, the tables are square, you can’t fit anyone else in there.
Peggy: Can’t you just shove two more chairs in there?
Thomas: It’s a square, what do you want to do?
Peggy: We don’t mind, we don’t mind!
Thomas: If you don’t mind, that’s fantastic! That table, shove it over here. We don’t need that table.

Operating a Small Business

What are the biggest obstacles in running a restaurant?

Thomas: Here we go! Every aspect of running a restaurant. The problem that we have is that in the last 10 years, [the city of] Milwaukee hasn’t really grown, in terms of population. It’s gone from like 598 to 602 [thousand]. If you look back 10 years ago to how many small independent restaurants there were to right now, it’s gone up like 400 percent. So we’re all dividing that pie a bit more. Where can you cut? Well, you can’t cut the food that you buy. You can’t cut your rent. You just take less money, make less all all the time?
Justin C.: What kind of restaurant are you going to open? If you’re going to go open a 100-seat restaurant, let’s think about this. 100 seats have to come from somewhere. You’re obviously taking diners from somewhere else. For me, the thing I have is tiny. I don’t want to take diners away from other restaurants.
Thi: Let’s talk employees and rates now. First, your personnel in the culinary world. What’s their expected rate? When we came out, it was like 8 bucks. What they expect now, coming out of culinary school, is $12, $14, $15 and never having set foot in a kitchen before. You know, these are double digits on your hourly rate. So that went up. Obviously the rents have increased somewhat. Food has skyrocketed. Something has to give. So that’s the dilemma of a lot of restaurants.
Justin C.: It’s a lot harder to open a restaurant. It takes a lot more thought. We used to be able to open up and have service staff and back waiters and dishwashers and multiple cooks and larger stations and you know, good luck having that many employees! And then being able to run it.
Peggy: Everything’s gone up! It used to be Downtown was the hip place. Now, everybody stays in the suburbs. So that takes away a part of the pie. People on a Friday night are staying close to their home instead of coming Downtown. They don’t want to drink and drive.

Misconceptions About Being a Chef

And some hesitancy to use a certain title.

Thomas: Twenty years ago, our parents are like… what? This is what you’re gonna do? Yes, this is what I’m gonna do. Now, you’re a chef!
Peggy: You’re a celebrity!
Karen: That’s tough, too, for the young cooks. Everyone thinks if they go to culinary school and they pay for it, they are automatically going to be a chef. You don’t start at the bottom and work your way up anymore. [But] I still don’t call myself a chef!
Peggy: Isn’t being a chef, don’t you have to have this accreditation? I thought there was a whole process.
Justin A.: Friends or just acquaintances have the perception that we just make a ton of money. My dad gave me really great advice as I was going through the process at Sanford: How do you make a small fortune in a restaurant? By starting with a large fortune. He was very supportive in the whole process. But he reminded me of that every step of the way.
Justin C.: We have two extremely different restaurants. Everybody sees
the line outside Red Light Ramen. They think, well, you’re making a killing. You’re making so much more money than you are through Ardent. I’m like, I have to do 150 people at Red Light to make the same amount as I do with 15 people at Ardent. Which would you rather do? I’d rather do 15 people.
Justin A.: Yeah, the conception that the money is just flowing and it’s a glamorous lifestyle.
Karen: Yeah, that too. Glamorous lifestyle? It’s 60 hours a week. Burning your mind out, let alone your body out.
Thomas: The toilet is backed up! OK, I’m on it.
Justin C.: Ask our significant others. My wife looks forward to Sundays or Mondays. Other than that, she sees me sleep when she gets up. Because she’s asleep when I get home. It’s hard on them. I don’t know how they do it.

The Lull Before the Weekend

Do we have a weeknight crowd in Milwaukee?

Justin C.: It depends on the restaurant.
Karen: For me, we get a little of a pre-theater crowd. But we stop seating at 9, because after 8, it’s dead.
Justin C.: At Red Light, we get 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. somewhat steady during the week. But it’s pretty much for all of us, you’re not going to get your 8 p.m. seating during the week. Everyone wants 6 o’clock.
Juan: We started a special 15 years ago we thought would only last a couple of months: half-off wine bottles on Mondays and Tuesdays. [Now] it’s permanent. Every year during our planning meetings, they ask me, “So are we going to continue with that half-off promotion?” You betcha, it’s what’s keeping us busy those days. Then the rest of the week we’re surviving. The weekend hits, we’re up and running again.

Illustration by Jade Schulz
The Fun Factor

So is working at a restaurant still fun? Does any debauchery go on these days?

Jarvis: That has to go on!
Justin C.: Not always. Our bodies just don’t handle it as well. We think more about when is our next day off, than when to have lots of fun.
Thomas: There’s always fun and blowing off steam at the end of a long night. Saturday night. That’s part of restaurant culture.
Jarvis: I remember when I first started cooking, I burned myself, and I swore. And I was like, Ohhh. But it was fine. It’s always got to be a lot of fun; it has to be interesting. Um, it can’t just be serious and that way all the time.
Juan: What’s fun about this job, the restaurant industry, is the drama. There’s always some drama going on. There’s always something different. 
Peggy: And there’s no such thing as sexual harassment in our industry. We all just say whatever we want to say. For some reason. That’s one of the best things about the restaurant. You don’t have to worry about stuff like that.
Justin C.: Except when you get out in the normal world! And all of a sudden, somebody asks you something and complete honesty comes flowing out of your mouth. And they just stare at you, and you’re like, “Oh, shit.” ◆

From left to right: Photo courtesy of The Culinary Institute of America; Child photo by Paul Child, courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University; Lagasse photo by Sara Essex Bradley

The Virtuoso

Catching up with the chef who put Milwaukee on the culinary map

Four years may have passed since restaurateur Sandy D’Amato and his wife, Angie, left Milwaukee and the culinary showpiece they’d founded 23 years earlier, but his influence here remains very much intact. While European-led kitchens dominated fine dining restaurants and country clubs in the 1970s, this driven, young, classically trained chef returned to his hometown from NYC, not expecting he would help usher in New American cuisine to the still very traditional (some would say stodgy) dining scene here. Or that he’d become a symbol of something much larger than 50-seat Sanford Restaurant.

Now settled in bucolic Hatfield, Mass., the couple are grounded in post-restaurant life, operating the cooking school Good Stock Farm. During the decades Sandy D’Amato spent powering that vessel located inside his family’s old Italian grocery store, the James Beard Award-winner mentored legions of cooks who’ve either left town or gone on to lead kitchens here. The owners of Coquette Cafe and Braise are veterans of Sanford, as is Kevin Sloan, who now cooks for the big-name acts who come through the Pabst and Riverside theaters. And Justin Aprahamian, Sanford’s current co-owner, started working there at age 18.

D’Amato offers some insights on chefdom and his stature in the local dining scene:

What It Means to Be a Chef:
That moniker – that’s about running a kitchen. It’s [partially] a respect thing so people will listen to you. All chefs are cooks, and cooking is the craft. With knowledge comes the caveat of knowing what you do not know. You can YouTube a video of a grandma making Italian pasta to know how to make it… that gives you a cursory knowledge. But does that give you the tactile sensation of “knowing” it? No.

The Cyclical Nature of Food Trends:
Food is like fashion. You look at a designer like Chanel, and think, “That’s Chanel.” It helps to understand the history of food. You should be able to look at the food and recognize the chef. But [chefs] are more interested in what they think they should be doing than what they really should be doing. If you cook like you want to, you’re going to make your own trend.

Legacy in the Milwaukee Food Scene:
We hope we were part of propelling [the city] into the national dining scene and more importantly were… an example that you can run a restaurant that you yourself would love to work at. Making decisions that were not always influenced by the bottom line but still be a successful, vibrant restaurant for 20-plus years.

Angie and Sandy D’Amato. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki/PLATE

Tune in to WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” March 15 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.

‘Table Talk’ appears in the March, 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.