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Setting The Table

By Jen Kent, with additional reporting by Jeanette Hurt

March 2017

A spread of Mader's signature dishes, from an oversized Bavarian pretzel to saurkraut and red cabbage.
Photo by Matt Haas

Understanding Milwaukee’s food culture — both past and present — requires a brief look back at the city’s history and the heritage of its people.

The city of Milwaukee was formally incorporated on Jan. 31, 1846, and its population rose steadily in the decades that followed. German immigrants represented the largest bevy of settlers, and many fled their native country before, during or after the Revolution of 1848. They were highly influential in shaping Milwaukee’s food and restaurant culture, and traditional Bavarian dishes like sausages and sauerkraut became mainstay menu items.

Now, more than 170 years later, Milwaukee’s culinary community is one that honors its past and looks forward. From an authentic-as-it-gets German restaurant to the man credited with bringing the farm-to-table movement to Cream City, here, in no particular order, we celebrate the 10 people, places and plates that set our city’s so-called “table.”

Milwaukee's first-ever James Beard award winner

In the culinary world, the James Beard Awards are synonymous with excellence. The James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit based in New York City, named its first award nominees in 1990, and one of Milwaukee’s own — Sandy D’Amato, the founder and former chef and owner of Sanford Restaurant — made the cut.

“I got a telegram, and I had never gotten a telegram before. It said: ‘You have been nominated as Best Chef: Midwest,’ and (to) please call a New York phone number. So I called, and (the telegram) said to ask for Dawn, so I asked what I had to buy. I thought it was some sort of promotional thing,” D’Amato recalls. “She said, ‘You have been nominated with Charlie Trotter and Rick Bayless as Best Chef: Midwest.’”

Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki

And although D’Amato lost, he was nominated again the next year. And again in each of the four years that followed. In 1996, D’Amato won the title, becoming the first-ever Milwaukeean to earn a James Beard Award.

Now, more than two decades later, D’Amato and his wife, Angie, own and operate Good Stock, a farm and cooking school in rural Massachusetts. They sold Sanford to longtime Chef de Cuisine Justin Aprahamian in 2012, but frequent Milwaukee often to visit family and friends. Here the Cream City native talks cooking for Julia Child, seasonal produce and the art of “manufacturing food.”

What sparked your interest in cooking?

It started early on. Both my mother and (my) grandfather on my dad’s side were pretty extraordinary cooks. I used to just enjoy watching both of them cook. When I worked at my father’s grocery store, which became Sanford Restaurant, my grandfather lived right next door. We’d eat over there maybe two or three times a week. It was never really that busy at the store while he was cooking, from 3 to 5 p.m. or so. I’d hang out after school and watch him cook.


How did you make the jump from taking classes at UW-Milwaukee to attending culinary school full time?

There was a local apprenticeship program run by the Jewish Vocational Services in Milwaukee, held in the Plankinton Building after it closed (for the day). … The good part was that I didn’t have any money, and (the program) was free. I went for two or three months. There wasn’t a lot of camaraderie (among the students). None of them seemed overly interested in what was going on. I was, by far, the youngest person in the group.

The instructor, who was a local chef, asked me after one of the classes, “Can you stay after class?” I didn’t know if it was a good or bad thing. He said, “You’re really interested in cooking, aren’t you?” Which I thought was a pretty odd question — isn’t everyone here really interested in being here? He said, “Everyone else here is on work-release from prison. You’re the only one who doesn’t have to be here.” It kind of explained why there was disinterest. He then recommended I go to a good culinary school.*

Many people credit you with bringing the farm-to-table movement to Milwaukee.

The last five or six months (while I was living) in New York I was working in Long Island, in the Hamptons. There was a huge farming community out there. Long Island is all the farmland and where everything is grown for the city. That reminded me a lot of being in Milwaukee, and having access to product like that. As soon as I moved back to Milwaukee, I’d go at least two times (per week) to the West Allis Farmers Market.

I was always kind of surprised that I’d never see other chefs there or people picking up food for restaurants. When you’re in season, you’re getting the best product, but also it’s the most inexpensive product. That was kind of the seed of starting to work with specific farms. …

(The West Allis Farmers Market) was large enough that you really had a choice. There were 14 people selling tomatoes. What I did in the beginning, I’d go around and get tomatoes from anyone, try them, and see what was my taste. I had the same tomato person for almost 25 years that I’d go to — that perfect balance of tart and sweetness that you’d want in a tomato. That’s pretty much how it started developing at (Sanford).


So sourcing locally became the norm at Sanford?

By 1990, there were more farmers that were coming to us with product. Not just farmers, but meat purveyors too, like whole lambs from Pinn-Oak Ridge Farm.

(Sourcing local) is advantageous for two reasons: the freshness of working with the product, but (also) you can’t afford to just buy lamb racks and put them on the menu because of the cost they have to be. So you have to learn how to utilize the whole animal.

I call it “manufacturing food.” You have to use every part of your vegetable, your meat, your cheese, down to the rind. You have to use everything — not just for the sake of using it, but for the sake of elevating it into something really delicious.


You’ve been a chef for more than 30 years. What has been the most pivotal moment of your career?

Cooking for Julia Child. She asked 10 chefs from around the country to cook for her for her 80th birthday. She was very instrumental for what she did for French cooking in the ’70s and ’80s, and what she did for American cooking in the ’90s. She realized there was this group of young American chefs who were changing the cuisine.

She understood her celebrity and picked out certain chefs to profile. She was really instrumental in a lot of chefs’ careers. That was in 1992. To be singled out to do that was a really big deal.


I’m sure you’re asked this often, but inquiring minds want to know: What’s your favorite thing to cook?

Anything seasonal. I get excited every year by the first asparagus that comes out, the first strawberries, the first tomato. … For me, the philosophy has always been to gorge yourself as something is around, and by the time it gets to the end of the season, you’re so sick of eating it that you don’t want it anymore and you go onto the next thing that is there. Then you just can’t wait for the first corn to come, or the first tomatoes.


When you’re back in Milwaukee, where is your favorite place to dine?

Justin’s place, Sanford, of course!

*Editor’s note: D’Amato attended The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and spent six years working in New York City and Long Island before returning to Milwaukee in 1980. He worked as the chef of the former John Byron’s until 1989, when he and wife Angie opened Sanford Restaurant.


2.) Mader’s
The resilient German eatery that could

Not many restaurants become a city or cultural icon, but that’s exactly what Mader’s is. Charles Mader started the namesake establishment 115 years ago, and both natives and tourists continue to frequent the unapologetically German eatery and bar.

Charles’ son, Gus (Gustave), eventually took over the restaurant, and today, Gus’ son, Victor, runs the Old World Third Street destination. “Some of Victor’s children help out with the marketing and things like that,” says Dan Hazard, general manager, who has worked alongside Victor for years. “Victor is still actively involved, and it’s still his baby.”

Through the generations, Mader’s has stayed true to its German roots, but it’s continually evolved too. Perhaps its biggest change was a side effect of Prohibition. “Before the Volstead Act, Mader’s relied more heavily on the bar,” Hazard says. “The Volstead Act forced the family to bring out some of those old recipes and get to work.” The restaurant also boasts a thriving catering division and the world’s largest Hummel store.

“How many restaurants can say they survived World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, even 9/11?” adds Hazard. “We’re in good shape.”
— Jeanette Hurt

3.) BEER
Brew City's three founding fathers

In a town where beer flows like water, it’s no surprise that Milwaukee’s most beloved drink makes our list. And although the city’s craft beer scene continues to grow (and grow), credit must be paid to Brew City’s three “founding fathers”: Pabst, Schlitz and Miller. Here we explore each company’s history and legacy. 


How It All Started:

German-born Jacob Best founded Empire Brewery in 1844. Multiple name and ownership changes later, the brewery was renamed Pabst Brewing Company in 1889, for Captain Frederick Pabst.

Naming/Bragging Rights:

The Pabst Theater Group and the Pabst Mansion; a cheese-making subsidiary sold to Kraft in 1933; a 1979 commercial starring Patrick Swayze.

The Company Today:

Pabst is headquartered in Los Angeles and owned by Blue Ribbon Intermediate Holdings, LLC. Its Milwaukee presence has resurfaced in recent years, though. (See “M in the Neighborhood,” page 30).  


How It All Started:

August Krug started the company in 1849, but it was acquired by Joseph Schlitz just seven years later, in 1856.

Naming/Bragging Rights:

 “The beer that made Milwaukee famous” campaign; the largest producer of beer in the U.S. in 1902 and at multiple other points throughout the early 20th century .

The Company Today:

Formerly under the Pabst Brewing Company umbrella, Schlitz was part of the 2014 sale of Pabst to Blue Ribbon Intermediate Holdings, LLC.  


How It All Started:

Frederick Miller, a native of present-day Germany, immigrated to Milwaukee in 1854. He brewed his first barrels of American beer that same year. The rest, they say, is history.

Naming/Bragging Rights:

 Miller Park; the launch of Miller Lite, the country’s first nationally distributed low-calorie beer; the “Miller Time” campaign.

The Company Today:

SABMiller and Molson Coors entered a joint venture in 2008, becoming MillerCoors. But, just last year, Anheuser-Busch InBev purchased SABMiller, and SABMiller sold its portion of MillerCoors to Molson Coors. Lucky for us, production of MillerCoors brands will stay in Milwaukee.

A local wurst-maker on history and integrity

The year was 1880. Frederick Usinger, an apprentice sausage-maker, had recently immigrated to Milwaukee from Germany, where the wurst was — and still is — a known delicacy and diet staple.

“He worked for a family business here (in Milwaukee) and ended up marrying the niece of the owner,” says Fritz Usinger, Fred’s great-grandson and the president of Usinger’s Famous Sausage, a title he’s held since 1988. “Then together they put the Usinger’s name on the business.

“We have purposely tried not to remodel the store. It’s kind of a little piece of history,” says
Fritz Usinger of maintaining the retail location’s character. “We feel that it’s really a touchstone to our origins.”

Photo by David Szymanski

“In the apprenticing world, you work for different bosses and for different companies,” Fritz continues. “You gain your knowledge of your craft by working for different people. Along the way, he collected recipes from places he worked at, much like chefs do, and he brought over his knowledge and recipes.”

The retail shop in 1935.
Photo courtesy of Usinger's

These recipes, Fritz says, are still used to produce items today. “We try and stay very true (to the recipes) — both in the processes we use and the ingredients for those items,” he adds. “We use fresh onions, fresh garlic. They didn’t have garlic powder and onion powder back then. ... (There are) no extenders or binders in the products because they didn’t exist then.” Natural casings envelope the sausage and its “campfire flavor.”

Usinger’s loyalty to the integrity of its products is perhaps a testament to the company’s continued success. “Overall, we average probably about 175,000 pounds per week of product,” says Fritz. “We here in Milwaukee have a rich heritage of enjoying our European foods, and the sausage kind of fits into that.”

5.) Kopp's Frozen Custard
From jumbo burgers to the flavor of the day


Flavor of the day Grasshopper Fudge fills a sugary waffle cone.
Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki

“My mother, Elsa, started the first Kopp’s Frozen Custard stand in 1951 with jumbo hamburgers and only one custard flavor: pure, creamy vanilla,” says Karl Kopp of his mother, who immigrated to the U.S. from Germany, and the history of their eponymous business. “After that, we made the giant leap to dark Swiss chocolate custard, followed by many other flavors over the years, which you can treat yourself to today.”

Some even credit Kopp’s with creating the “flavor of the day” concept. Kopp taste tests each flavor — many of which are developed by the employees — before it hits the floor, but his favorite, he says, is still the vanilla.

Few things have changed since Kopp’s opened 66 years ago (after all, why mess with success?), but Kopp is playfully coy when asked what’s next for the Milwaukee institution. “Well, the day isn’t over yet,” he says. “Something could strike my fancy or my taste buds!”

6.) Colectivo Coffee
The not-so-precious, community-minded coffee

"We were always really passionate about coffee, but when we decided to make an effort in that direction, it wasn’t just coffee for coffee’s sake,” says Lincoln Fowler, who founded Alterra Coffee (now Colectivo Coffee) with his brother, Ward Fowler, and their friend, Paul Miller, in 1993. “It was a bigger vision for creating an environment — a place for community building and good stewardship as a company for what we do for the community.”

Colectivo Coffee’s roasting facility on Humboldt Boulevard.
Photo by David Szymanski

Realizing the generally unpretentious nature of their target consumer, Lincoln says Colectivo’s approach to coffee is less precious than some of its competitors. “Everybody deserves awesome coffee, and everyone should be welcomed into our environments by our staff,” he adds. “I think Milwaukee is, generally speaking, attuned to that. And (people) aren’t terribly interested in creating places that are not inviting. That helped to inform how we approached coffee from the very beginning.”

The approach worked. Today the brand includes more than 15 cafés, bakery and wholesale divisions, and plans to expand to Chicago this spring. And despite the brief shake-up that came with transitioning its name from Alterra Coffee to Colectivo Coffee in 2013, what transpired was a “beautiful thing,” says Lincoln. “We came to realize that although Alterra was certainly a loved brand name, the real thing that had connected the name to us was the culture. The culture never changed; the brand name changed. What really mattered to (our customers) was the culture of what we had built, and that was still the same. … Although it was traumatic to see the brand change, it created an enormous amount of opportunity inside the company, and that’s something that doesn’t really get talked about.” He notes the establishment of Troubadour Bakery, the Wells Street café opening and internal growth as examples.

The culture Lincoln refers to often — one rooted in consciously engaging Colectivo’s customers, employees and community partners — remains strong and top of mind. Most recently, the company partnered with the Pabst Theater Group to launch “Backstage Barista,” in which baristas serve coffee to visiting artists prior to their performances. “Oftentimes, community support is about writing a check,” says Lincoln. “We’ve tried to create a model where there is an exchange of value amongst many parties. … When (customers) know we’re supporting the things they value, it makes it very easy for them to come patronize us.

“We’ve had a lot of fun doing what we did,” Lincoln continues. “It’s not just about doing business. It’s about creating an environment — a culture and company that people like to be at. It’s about doing something really well, and that really underpins the whole effort here.”

7.) Will Allen
Founder Of The Good Food Revolution

I had the privilege of interviewing Will Allen, founder and CEO of Milwaukee-based Growing Power, for this magazine two years ago. Allen was about to travel to Haiti, where he would ensure the country’s newly implemented aquaponics system was functioning properly. Months earlier, two Haitians had flown to Milwaukee to tour Growing Power’s Silver Spring Drive facility and learn firsthand, from Allen, how to build and operate the system. The goal, as with many of Growing Power’s initiatives, was to introduce the country to a sustainable food system, and therefore provide its residents — many who had not yet fully recovered from the tragic earthquake years earlier — with fresh, healthy foods. 

During our interview, Allen spoke purposefully and deliberately. We weren’t seated in an office or coffee shop, but instead on the move at Growing Power’s headquarters. I followed closely behind Allen, feverishly typing notes on my laptop as he casually scooped perch out of the facility’s aquaponics tanks. He was in his element.

“(Will) has the unique ability to bring diverse groups of people to the table to be excited about sustainable food systems,” says Nick DeMarsh, a former Growing Power employee who now works at Groundwork Milwaukee. “This has been so important because, as he often points out, agriculture is so often a solitary effort — whether it’s on a large combine or in a backyard garden. … Change won’t happen if we work in our own silos.”

Since our interview, Allen has spoken alongside former first lady Michelle Obama and was named “Food Revolutionary” on the first-ever Rodale 100, a list of 100 people, products, companies and organizations positively impacting the world. Growing Power continues to expand its reach, producing thousands of pounds of food each year, developing new community partnerships, and hosting training workshops nationwide.

8.) The Bartolotta Brothers
Joe Bartolotta on building a brand for their employees

Joe Bartolotta credits his brother, Paul Bartolotta, with initially spurring his interest in the restaurant industry. “The story goes back to my brother, Paul, who at a very young age knew exactly what he wanted to do,” says Joe, adding that the Wauwatosa native worked in the kitchens of The Chancery and Balistreri’s. “I looked at Paul, somewhat envious, because in high school I really had no ambition, no direction. I just decided I’d get into the restaurant business because that’s where Paul was going to end up.”

So as Paul built his culinary career in Chicago, Joe moved to New York City, where he worked at eight restaurants in eight years to learn the industry. “My famous quote is, ‘I made most of my mistakes with other people’s money,’” he quips. “I think that’s how you learn any business. Go to work for somebody for a while, learn what you can, and then do your own thing.”

Joe Bartolotta at Lake Park Bistro.
Photo by David Szymanski

Joe and Paul eventually found themselves back in Milwaukee, and in 1993, the pair opened their first restaurant together, Ristorante Bartolotta, in the village of Wauwatosa. “We were able to talk the landlord into leasing to us. He didn’t want to,” remembers Joe. “He didn’t want the smell of garlic in his office, so I had to promise there would be no garlic smell.”

Nearly 25 years later, Joe and Paul have grown The Bartolotta Restaurants into a company that includes 19 businesses and 1,000 employees. “At one point in a business, you have to make a decision: What are you going to be, and who are you going to be?” explains Joe. “Hindsight is always 20/20. I could look back and say, ‘I should’ve stopped after five or six restaurants.’ My life would be immeasurably easier, and I’d probably be wealthier. But I wouldn’t know somebody like Kelly (the restaurant group’s marketing manager). So the reality is, and as hokey as this may seem, I sort of built the business for our employees. Because I realized that to hold onto really good employees, they need to see an opportunity. People want to be part of a movement, part of a company that is moving forward and trying to grow. … By growing, you hold onto people longer because they have opportunities. They don’t get bored; they don’t move on as quickly. The strategy has worked for us.”

And yet Joe is entirely supportive of those employees who choose to leave the company to start a restaurant of their own. “I’m actually very honored and proud that so many of our people who have left started their own businesses and their own restaurants,” he says. “I think that, in many ways, our company has contributed (to that movement) and made the restaurant scene better in Milwaukee because we’re sort of like boot camp for a lot of these kids. We give them a really good foundation. We teach them how to run restaurants, and they go out and do it.”

He adds that two young chefs who recently left the company are opening their own restaurants this year. “Now they compete against me, so there’s a bittersweet affair with it, but I wish them the best,” Joe continues. “I know I gave them the tools to be successful. I hope they do well. I really do.”

The ever-growing vitality of Milwaukee’s culinary scene — a tangible shift that has gradually evolved over the last decade — is not lost on Joe, and even he questions if it’s sustainable. “I do think the community is near saturation when it comes to restaurants. There are just so many of them. I can’t even get to all of them. I’m part of the problem too because I keep opening restaurants, so I can’t be critical of that,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s a great, vibrant community for restaurants right now. We’re lucky to be here.”

9.) Milwaukee Public Market
A local, regional and national culinary destination

When it opened its doors more than a decade ago, the Milwaukee Public Market was the first of its kind in the area — a concept entirely new to Milwaukee and many of its residents.

The Milwaukee Public Market draws more than 1.5 million visitors annually.
Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Market

“The initial intention for the market was as an economic development tool to attract urbanites, suburbanites, tourists and people of all backgrounds to a public gathering place,” says Paul Schwartz, the market’s operation and communication manager. “Over 11 years later, the public market has surpassed those initial goals and projections, building off another record-breaking year.” In 2016, Schwartz adds, vendor sales increased 10 percent, and customer visits saw an 11 percent increase. Impressive year-to-year growth, to say the least.

“We’ve watched the market become both an economic multiplier and a culinary destination, attracting regional residents and national travelers alike,” Schwartz continues. “Now public markets that have been around over 100 years, (including) Pike Place in Seattle and Reading Terminal in Philadelphia, have consulted with us on different aspects of our operation that have made the market such a success.”

10.) Jake's Deli
Corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, the old-fashioned way

A Jake’s Deli Reuben sandwich.
Photo by David Szymanski

The history of Jake’s Deli dates back to 1903, when it debuted as a butcher shop in a largely Jewish neighborhood on the city’s north side. Jake Levin purchased the shop in 1955, changed its name to Jake’s Deli, and operated the business until his retirement in 1969. Former Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig and partners then bought the deli, which they managed until 2016, and Milwaukee-based hospitality group Stand Eat Drink assumed ownership of Jake’s Deli from Selig last year. Despite these transitions, very little has changed. The corned beef and pastrami sandwiches remain best-sellers, and the same look and feel Levin established more than 60 years ago are still present.

“The product speaks for itself. The community was already here and around it,” says Sean Wille, director of marketing and public relations at Stand Eat Drink. “With its roots always being very communal, the Jewish deli feel is not a Milwaukee staple. It’s a community thing. We wanted to keep in touch with that — have the product the same, and add that community relationship.” Many of the deli’s employees, he adds, live nearby. That community feel and Jake’s signature, no-frills approach have allowed the deli to thrive, cementing its status as a local culinary landmark. Wille says Jake’s even draws comparisons to famous delis like Katz’s Delicatessen and Carnegie Deli. “We sell between 200 and 400 sandwiches in a day,” he adds.


This story ran in the March 2017 issue of: