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

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.

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!

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.

Read the rest of this story in the March, 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. Find a copy on newsstands beginning Monday, Feb. 27, buy a copy online at, or read it now using Member Pass.



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.