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Chef Speak/Thi Cao
Executive Chef, Buckley's

Photos by  Dan Bishop

September 2013

Buckley’s Chef Thi Cao’s culinary background is about as diverse as it comes. "I am a Vietnamese person who has grown up in America. I studied classical French cuisine, and I worked (as executive chef) in an Italian restaurant," says Cao. Cao also worked in the Michelin-starred Reads Hotel on the Spanish island of Majorca. Prior to Buckley’s, Cao served as executive chef at Osteria del Mundo and the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava Café.

How would you describe the cuisine you create for Buckley’s?

"It’s not a regional or ethnic restaurant — it’s a personality driven restaurant. It depends on the produce we get in, the seasonality, as well as what’s my mood and what looks good to me now. That’s why you’ll find kimche Brussels sprouts right next to gnocci and a port wine demiglace."

What ingredients or dishes can customers expect this fall?

"This fall, a lot of root vegetables will be in season, but it will depend on what the exact produce is. I can make a mock menu now, but when September comes, things will change."

What are your favorite comfort foods?

"I love the Vietnamese soup called pho. I can eat that morning, noon and night. I also love braised dishes like short ribs or braised oxtails, but my junk food fetish right now is fried chicken. I just love fried chicken right now. I have a customer who calls me a week in advance, saying when he’ll be there, so I can be sure to make fried chicken. When I do go and grab fried chicken, I go to Church’s."

What’s always in your pantry and what are the kitchen tools you can’t live without?

"Kimche — I always have that in my pantry. Sambal, a chili paste, too. I have really good Spanish olive oil, Vietnamese fish sauce and ketchup as well.

"A fish spatula, a very good chef knife and a very good Y (shaped) peeler. I tell all my customers to have a peeler with them — you never know when you will need to peel something. With your chef knife, just make sure you keep it sharp. I can peel with my chef knife, I use it as a paring knife, it has so many uses. The fish spatula is designed so that it is so thin and flexible you can get underneath and flip anything that’s delicate. There also are (grooves) on it so that you can actually use it to mix things. I use it to mix things, to flip things and to pick things up. And I always have my Y peeler on me somewhere."

As a chef, you do some excellent wine and food pairings. Are there any favorite pairings on your menu right now?

"Right now, I love Italian wines, and I love Spanish wines. For our wild boar ragu, which has a lot of cinnamon and cloves and some really strong, assertive flavors, the wine that goes really well with it is Les Jamelles Malbec. I think the wine highlights the spices and is strong enough to compete with the boar. It has a really good body. This is a great pairing right now."


This story ran in the September 2013 issue of: