MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee may be known for beer and brats, but a dozen local chefs and eateries have been honored for their skill and creativity with all kinds of ingredients, and they have helped turn the city into a foodie destination.
Since 2002, 12 Milwaukee restaurants or chefs have made it to the final rounds or won honors in the prestigious James Beard Awards — considered the Oscars of the culinary world. These chefs are helping to change the way residents and visitors look at the city and its dining scene.
JUSTIN CARLISLE'S ARDENT
Justin Carlisle made it to the final round of the Beard Awards this year with his 23-seat Ardent, in the basement of an east side Milwaukee building. He was also a semifinalist in the best new restaurant category in 2014 and made it to the finals in 2015.
"It gets a little surreal after a while you know," he said.
The nominations have been good for business, leading to an increase in reservations. And those making reservations are generally pretty adventurous. There's no sign on the door — just the letter "A'' — and no menus on the tables.
Instead, Carlisle or another chef asks what customers like or if they have allergies. Most diners opt for a tasting menu — small portions of several dishes of the chef's choosing — and the chefs create a meal for them. There is a regular menu available, but most diners opt for the tasting menu.
As if 23 seats in the restaurant wasn't intimate enough, Carlisle says he may remove another four seats to further personalize service.
"Happier customers are better business and happier employees are better business," he said.
SEASONAL MENUS, LOCAL INGREDIENTS
Restaurant owners and chefs Thomas Hauck of c. 1880 and Dave Swanson of Braise were also named Beard semifinalists this year.
Inside c. 1880, the decor includes old photos of Milwaukee and old-fashioned light bulbs, intended to evoke the years around 1880 when the building was built.
The menu is seasonal, but Hauck also likes to preserve fresh produce like pickling tomatoes, ramps and asparagus for use other times of year. "We want to show you the same thing in as many ways as possible, raw or dehydrated or fried or sauteed," said Hauck, who has cooked for President Barack Obama and the first lady.
The menu has an international flair with dishes like duck cassoulet, rabbit spaetzle and lamb baba ganoush. Earlier this year, Hauck bought one of the city's oldest restaurants, Karl Ratzsch, which is also one of the city's last German restaurants. Karl Ratzsch has been remodeled and is serving dishes like crackling pork shank, goose shank, schnitzel and sausage.
A block away from c. 1880 over at Braise, chef Dave Swanson also offers a seasonal menu, which this spring features ramps in dishes like roasted ramp soup and a ramp cracker with chorizo and chimichurri. Open since 2011, Braise also supports community agriculture through a program that offers weekly home delivery of seasonal vegetables, fruits, dairy, meats and dry goods. As part of the program, restaurants also collaborate to source food locally and have more buying power. For instance, Swanson buys whole animals from local farms, butchers them and sells the meat to other restaurants. Depending on what's left over, Braise's menu will be changed to use up cuts of meat. The restaurant also has a culinary school.
Swanson also made the Beard semifinals in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
OTHER AWARD WINNERS
According to the James Beard Foundation, there have been five chef or restaurant winners in Milwaukee since 1996. One of them is Justin Aprahamian, chef and owner at Sanford Restaurant. He won in 2014 for best chef in the Midwest and was either a semifinalist or finalist for various categories four years before that. He worked under former owner Sandy D'Amato, who was the first chef in Milwaukee to win the award in 1996. Aprahamian bought the restaurant when D'Amato retired in 2012.
He cooks modern ethnic dishes with local ingredients and plans to open a brewery and restaurant to include things like charcuterie, cheese and sandwiches in June. His Like Minds Brewing business is already producing beer in Chicago.
Other winners include Watts Tea Shop, which won the Beard Award's American classic category in 2011. The Serbian restaurant of Three Brothers, which has been around since the mid-1950s, won a James Beard Award in the American classic category in 2002.
The fifth winner is Adam Siegel, who won in 2008 in the best chef Midwest category while at Lake Park Bistro, where he's still executive chef. He was also nominated in 2007.
The buzz around Milwaukee's food scene is drawing visitors. Last year, food and beverage tourism here hit $1 billion, up from $985 million in 2014. Kristin Settle, spokeswoman for VISIT Milwaukee, the local tourism agency, says requests for restaurant information range from beer, brats and cheese to fine dining and farm-to-table meals.
"Fortunately for the greater Milwaukee area, our culinary scene is strong and continues to surprise," she said.