A spread of Mader's
signature dishes, from an oversized Bavarian pretzel to
saurkraut and red cabbage.
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.
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
1.) SANDY D'AMATO
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.’”
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
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.*
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).
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
“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.
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
4.) THE SAUSAGE
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
“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
Fritz Usinger of maintaining the retail location’s
character. “We feel that it’s really a touchstone to our
“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.”
Kopp's Frozen Custard
From jumbo burgers to the flavor of the day
Flavor of the day
Grasshopper Fudge fills a sugary waffle cone.
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
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.”
roasting facility on Humboldt Boulevard.
Photo by David
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.”
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
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
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.”
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
Jake’s Deli Reuben sandwich.
Photo by David
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.