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Chef Spotlight
Mike Engel - Chef and owner, Pastiche

Photos by Matt Haas

May 2015

For more than three decades, Mike Engel has cooked in some of metro Milwaukee’s swankiest kitchens. He’s done everything from opening Hotel Metro, to catering with Bartolotta’s, to cooking for guests on Harry Quadracci’s private train. But through it all, he’s maintained and refined his classical French sensibilities in the kitchen, and five years ago, he opened a little neighborhood restaurant in Bay View named Pastiche.

Today, the French bistro draws diners from as far away as Chicago and Green Bay, and less than two years ago, he opened up a wine shop above the charming restaurant. Engel sat down with M Magazine to talk about his passion for fine wine and great food.

M: How did you get started as a chef?

ME: "The early story is that I walked into the kitchen at The Anchorage Restaurant in 1977, and they hired me on the spot as a dishwasher. That was my first night, and I was hooked on the buzz of activity in the kitchen and the banter between the cooks. I’ve loved coming to work ever since."

M: Tell us about your philosophy as a chef.

ME: "The important thing is to do the simple things well. For someone like me, it’s a vehicle to let people know what my feelings are and that the simplest things are the best. My training was classical Escoffier, and over the years my cooking has been a process of refinement. I became more ingredient and technique driven.

Madame (Liane) Kuohny (late famed Milwaukee chef and restaurateur) used to come in when I was at the Wooden Eagle Bar and Grill, and she said she liked the way I roasted a chicken. She would bring me chickens and have me roast them and sometimes I had to pluck them."

M: Tell us about your passion for wine.

ME: "I think chefs should know a lot more about wine than many folks. A lot of younger chefs know a lot about beer, but not wine, and when you order a nice meal, you want a good wine to go with it. Opening the wine shop was another case of customers asking me, ‘Where can I get this wine?’ I buy a lot of boutique wines — wines that only have, say, three cases available to the whole state. Big stores won’t take it, but I will.

I like to put surprises on my wine list — wines that, if you know wine, are an incredible bargain. There are always a couple of hidden bottles on our list that cost way below what they are worth. And our regular mark-up is only 2.5 percent.

When we opened (the wine shop), I actually took all my living room furniture from home and set it upstairs. We have four to six wines you can sample (while you’re waiting for your table), and on weekends, we put out a cheeseboard. We’ve got a much deeper selection up there of low-end wines that people can pick up after work to drink at home."

M: What are your favorite tools in the kitchen?

ME: "Everybody says a sharp knife, so I won’t go there. I use a mandolin a lot, and I like a good sauté pan with a nice even bottom. I love cast iron."

M: What are your must-have-on-hand ingredients?

ME: "Wine for all the right reasons. Wine, butter and cream. We go through obscene amounts of butter and cream here. If I have wine and butter and cream, whatever you bring me, I can cook for you."

M: Where do you see yourself and Pastiche going?

ME: "At its heart, a bistro is a humble, neighborhood restaurant and every decision we make comes back to this, but you have to have the passion to do it right. If there’s a secret to our success, it’s not forgetting who we are. My lease is up in September 2016, and my intent is to stay here, but you never know. My heart is here. I feel very strongly this is a very special place. I would like to stay here for 10 more years and then retire. At the end of the day, my enjoyment of what I do is that it makes people happy. You’re really blessed when what you do can make someone happy."


This story ran in the May 2015 issue of: