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?
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
or dishes can customers expect 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."
in your pantry and what are the kitchen tools you can’t live
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
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
As a chef, you
do some excellent wine and food pairings. Are there any favorite
pairings on your menu 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."