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