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Goodbye Windy City
Chefs from Chicago and beyond have discovered that Milwaukee is the perfect place to broaden their culinary skills

Photos by Matt Haas

December 2015

Jason Gorman

When Paul Bartolotta hired Chicago native Adam Siegel to work at Lake Park Bistro in 2000, Siegel saw Milwaukee as a temporary stay. "My wife is from New York," says Siegel. "I thought we would be here a year or two, blow in and blow out."

Instead, Siegel rose through the ranks of Bartolotta restaurants and fell in love with Milwaukee. He’s not alone. Many Chicago chefs have found Brew City not a stepping stone, but instead a destination for a rich culinary career.

Adam Siegel

Locavore executive chef Van Luu, who was working in Las Vegas at Restaurant Charlie for Charlie Trotter, wanted to move back to the Midwest, but he was torn between Milwaukee and Chicago. While he loved Chicago, he had family in Appleton. Today, many of his family members have moved out of state, but he stayed because of Milwaukee’s charm.

"Milwaukee’s a smaller Chicago," Luu says. "It’s got everything you need without the insane traffic. People here are unreal — they are so nice. There are a lot of great chefs who realize the potential of Milwaukee."

Anette Righi DeFendi

Chicago-born chef Jason Gorman has moved back and forth from the two cities. In 2012, he returned to his hometown to work for James Beard Award-winner Tony Mantuano as the director of Art Institute of Chicago’s culinary programs. Mantuano later asked Gorman to revitalize Kenosha’s Mangia Wine Bar, and Gorman also worked with him to assist in other restaurants in Miami and Chicago.

"Milwaukee diners have always been very good to me," says Gorman, who recently became the culinary director at the Milwaukee Art Museum. "When I think of the culinary perspective of Milwaukee, I have been and I continue to be impressed with the passion of my fellow chefs. They refuse to be defined by outside opinions or to allow themselves to be pigeonholed with labels. The amount of Milwaukee restaurants that support local farmers and purveyors has far outreached what might still be a passing fad in other cities. That commitment says innovation."

Steve Perlstein

Luu agrees. "There are so many different farmers markets, and all of them are always so full," he says.

Steve Perlstein of Simmer soup restaurants and food truck grew up in Milwaukee, and when he graduated from Nicolet High School in 1984, he couldn’t wait to get away. He moved to the Twin Cities for college, where he met his future wife, Jennifer Block, and they wound up in Chicago, where they raised their family. Eventually, they ended up living in the suburbs. "The problem in Chicago is that everything is so far away," Perlstein says. "We lived in the suburbs, and to go to a decent restaurant, it took 25 minutes to travel just two suburbs over. Commuting to the city was an hour plus."

Eventually, Perlstein got a job in Milwaukee at Buca di Beppo, and his commute to Milwaukee was only an hour. "The more time I spent here, I realized this was a different city from when I grew up," he says. "Milwaukee was just a much cooler place, and our kids were both out of the house and in college so it was time to move back to the city. We didn’t want to move to Chicago, so we found a great house on the upper East Side and moved here."

Van Luu

While Milwaukee’s quality of life may have lured Perlstein and his wife to move here, he’s been more than pleasantly surprised at what it has been like as a chef here in town. "The difference between Chicago and Milwaukee is night and day," says Perlstein. "Chefs in Chicago will eat you alive. It’s kill or be killed, and you’re in a huge pond with really few big fish so it’s easy to get lost. Everyone supports new chefs and new restaurants. In Chicago, a food truck chef would not be an accepted member of the culinary community, and in Milwaukee, I am."

Anette Righi DeFendi, head chocolatier for Kohler Original Recipe Chocolates, was living and working in the Windy City when she was bitten by the pastry bug. Working full time in financial services, she attended The French Pastry School in Chicago, graduating in 2010.

Though she did not see herself returning to Wisconsin — she grew up in Grafton — she says she ended up falling in love "with the first boy I ever kissed." "I was at a crossroads in my life — I had just turned 30 and was changing careers," DeFendi says. "I was sort of over the Chicago scene, and as much as I never wanted to come back, I wanted to be with Matt."

Her now husband owned a house in the town of Belgium, but DeFendi expected they would both end up in Milwaukee, as her first job in pastry was working in Julia’s Bakeshop in Brookfield. Instead, Kohler came calling, and the rest is history. "Milwaukee is so different from when I was growing up. It is a completely different city," she says.

A city DeFendi really loves — enough that she recommended one of her mentors at The French Pastry School, Josh Johnson, for an open position at The American Club. Johnson, who grew up in the Chicago area, is now the head pastry chef for all of the restaurants in The American Club umbrella. "The people here are really friendly," he says, adding that he’s still learning about Milwaukee and southeast Wisconsin. "When I worked in Chicago and lived in Crystal Lake, it would take me an hour and a half to get to work. Now, I leave 12 minutes before my shift starts."

One of the biggest changes since Siegel moved here in 2000 is that Milwaukee is attracting more transplants who have lived abroad or in bigger cities, and people like Perlstein and DeFendi, who grew up here, are returning. "That really didn’t happen as much before," Siegel says. "From a culinary standpoint, it’s unbelievable the amount the city has grown."

Luu says one of Milwaukee’s strengths is that the city has a true community of chefs. "It’s a much more tight-knit group, and we try to work on events together as much as possible," Luu says.

"Part of the reason that Milwaukee has such great restaurants — more great restaurants per capita than Chicago does — is that this is a supportive community, where good chefs and good restaurants are welcome," Perlstein says.

A case in point, Perlstein says, is that Milwaukee chefs help each other out. "As soon as I finish talking with you, I’m headed to Amilinda," Perlstein says, as his friend, chef Greg Leon was short-handed on the line this particular night. "In Milwaukee, everybody helps each other out."


This story ran in the December 2015 issue of: