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Chef speak
Thi Cao, Chef, Cafe Calatrava in the Milwaukee Art Museum

By PAM PERCY

 

Chef Thi Cao, executive chef at the Milwaukee Art Museum’s trendy Café Calatrava, began his new job in April and hit the ground running. He immediately needed to give the menu his own personal touch, showcasing his love of French, Asian, Spanish and Mediterranean cuisine.

Cao’s vision for Café Calatrava is one where the food reflects the beauty of Milwaukee’s signature building. He says his goal was to create a menu with a "wow" factor, while at the same time being affordable and approachable. He has definitely succeeded.

Preferring to be called by his first name (pronounced "T") rather than "Chef," Cao was born in Vietnam, and moved to Madison as an infant. His mother, Bichyen Tran, inspired his love of cooking. Cao raves about her pho — the century-old-plus national Vietnamese soup — hinting that her secret ingredients include saffron, star anise and orange.

After receiving a business degree from UW-Milwaukee and working as a software quality engineer, Cao decided to follow his passion, and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles.

Since then, he has worked all over the world. His most recent job being a three-year stint as executive chef at Milwaukee’s multiple awarding-winner Osteria del Mundo. His mentors include Michelin-magician chef Marc Fosh from the Palma de Mallorca in Spain and Chef George at the Cordon Bleu, who taught him the art of serenity in the kitchen. Cao takes pride in the calm, Zen-like atmosphere of his kitchen. He is also interested in greening up the workplace by composting and working with Milwaukee’s urban fish and vegetable farmers, Sweet Water Organics.

Cao’s menu is a foodie’s delight. He uses locally produced ingredients as often as possible, developing exquisite and often exotic combinations. His Steak and Potatoes is a signature item, pulling together a tenderloin, potato butter, roasted red pepper, artichoke and chocolate fig sauce. The Prosciutto Crab Melt has copious amounts of jumbo lump crab, and the Mustard Seed Chicken Sliders have pickled mustard seeds, free-range chicken and avocado mayo. Even the sometimes lowly hot dog is elevated to a "haute" dog, made with never-tethered Strauss veal.

In addition to Café Calatrava, Cao is also responsible for the museum’s catered special events, opening exhibitions, weddings and private parties. He also plans to have theme-driven cuisine as he hits his kitchen stride. For the Warrington Colescott exhibit, he is incorporating Creole food to reflect the artist’s heritage.

Visitors can experience Cao’s talents at the museum’s Café Calatrava, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Outdoor dining is available on the patio through Labor Day. For reservations, call (414) 224-3821.

Scallops and Cucumber

4 jumbo sea scallops
1 large red radish (thinly sliced and soaked in orange juice)
1 fennel bulb (thinly sliced and soaked in orange juice)
1 English cucumber (seedless and thinly sliced)
2 oranges (clean segments without pith or skin)
1 Idaho potato (use a small melon baller and gently scoop pearl shape from an Idaho potato; allow to sit in water)
2 ounces fresh chives (dice chives and add extra virgin olive oil)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter (carefully heat butter and allow the fat to separate from the milk solids. Only keep the clear butter fat)
1 jalapeno pepper (very thinly sliced and with seeds removed)
12 baby arugula leaves

Once you have all the ingredients prepped and soaking in orange juice, cook the potatoes and scallops.

Boil a small, slightly salted pot of water with a capful of champagne vinegar. Drain the potato pearls sitting in water and add the potatoes to the boiling water. When you can cut into the potato pearls cleanly with a slight give, the potatoes are done cooking (roughly six to seven minutes).

Strain the potatoes and transfer them to a plate in a single layer. Drizzle some champagne vinegar onto the potatoes and place in the refrigerator to cool.

Heat a cast iron pan large enough to cook all four scallops without touching each other. If the scallops are crowded, they will not caramelize correctly.

Once the cast iron is hot, drizzle vegetable oil into the pan to coat the bottom. The pan is too hot if the oil smokes.

Season the scallops on both sides with salt and pepper (sea salt and milled pepper is preferred).

Carefully place the scallops into the hot pan. Once the scallops are in the pan, do not move them. When they start browning on the edge, carefully flip them and caramelize the other side.

Once the scallops are perfectly caramelized on both sides, remove them from the pan and allow them to rest on a napkin-lined plate.

During the scallop’s resting time, prepare your plates: In a straight line, shingle the sliced cucumbers down the middle of the plate. Season the cucumber slices. Carefully lay the marinated fennel on top of the cucumbers. Cut the scallops in half (horizontally, so you have two caramelized medallions). Place the two scallop halves on top of the fennel, in the middle of the plate. Place three potato pearls strategically around the scallop. Place three orange segments strategically around the scallop. Lay three marinated sliced radishes on top of the scallop. Lay a slice of jalape-o in the middle of the scallop. Drizzle a little brown butter on top of the scallop, just to glisten the surface. With a spoon, carefully drizzle chive oil on the outside perimeter of the scallop. Carefully lay fresh arugula leaves over the scallop and cucumber slices. Serves four.