The Bells Are Ringing
Karen and Jessica Bell make their mark on Milwaukee’s food and wine scene on a daily basis. Karen — who was named a 2018 James Beard award finalist in March — owns Bavette La Boucherie restaurant and butcher shop and Jessica, former owner of My Wine School, currently runs Halo Vino, a company that manufactures portable wine glasses.
Karen and Jessica, aka the Dinner Bells of “Wisconsin Foodie” TV fame, have fond memories of family restaurant outings with their parents and two other sisters.
“I think I fell in love with restaurants before I fell in love with cooking. We didn’t go to the fanciest places, but we loved Rudy’s Mexican on 5th Street. I loved getting dressed up to go to Karl Ratzsch’s,” Karen recalled. Food played an equally important role in the family’s Whitefish Bay home.
“We had a working mom who made time to regularly cook meals,” Jessica explained. “My dad had a rule: every Sunday night we all had to be at the table for dinner. Food was a time and place to connect with one another.”
Mom Nancy Bell shared her food traditions with her husband and daughters.
“My mom comes from an Italian Catholic family … social events revolve around food,” Karen added. “My dad wasn’t Catholic or Italian but he loved to eat so he was accepted by my mom’s family.” Jessica said.
Out of Nancy’s repertoire of recipes, each daughter had her favorites. “I loved baby back ribs, so we’d have them on my birthday,” Karen said. “We all loved my mom’s fried eggplant,” Jessica added. “They called me the human garbage disposal…I love trying new things and they called me Messy Jessie. I eat and I eat a lot.”
Growing up in a food-focused family led the teenage Karen to a culinary career.
“I started waitressing at 15 and food is the only thing I’ve ever done. I went to UW-Madison for two and a half years and worked as a waitress,” Karen said. She left Madison and considered culinary school with the idea of working in the back of the house — aka the kitchen and food prep area. “I always did really well in school and the hands-on format of MATC’s (Milwaukee Area Technical College) culinary program appealed to me right away,” Karen added.
Academic style played a role in Jessica’s career, also, though a career in wine was not initially on Jessica’s radar - even while wine itself was. “I loved school, I’m a total book nerd, I enjoy sitting down and studying … that’s one of the reasons I went into wine: you can never know everything,” she said. While she was studying economics, Spanish and women’s studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C., Jessica’s passion for wine was born.
“I drank a little wine before I was 21, but as soon as I turned 21, I signed up for wine tastings with my friends. A good friend’s family owns a winery in California and he taught me a lot.”
Jessica’s passion led her to start a career in the Big Apple.
“I really love eating out, so my next step was to move to New York City and work as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs. My plan was to work for Goldman Sachs in Spain but the company cancelled the trip. I was working in downtown Manhattan on 9/11 so I said, ‘Screw it, I’m still going to Spain.’" She arrived not knowing anyone but found a Madrid apartment with two roommates.
“I found a part-time job teaching English which left me plenty of time to go to restaurants and enjoy the Spanish lifestyle. I wanted to get really good at wine,” Jessica said. But while Jessica was loving the expat life in Madrid, Karen was not loving the chef life in San Francisco.
“I was working 16-hour days as a sous chef and had moved in with a boyfriend. I started to feel burned out at work and things weren’t working out in the relationship. I decided to sell my car, take whatever money I had and go live with my sister in Spain,” Karen said. “One of my roommates got homesick and moved out so the timing was perfect,” Jessica added.
In Spain, life revolves around food. Karen and Jessica adored the laid-back lifestyle.
“There’s no time limit on meals. You let the day happen and there’s a lot of eating and drinking involved,” Karen said. “We’d go to a restaurant and talk about the ambience, the food and all the details. That’s just how we enjoyed our time,” Jessica added. But Karen wasn’t interested in getting back into a kitchen at that point. “We started to meet people who would say, ‘there’s an American guy who opened a bistro style restaurant, you should talk to him.’ I thought I didn’t want to cook anymore,” Karen said.
But life as a foodie in Spain doesn’t come cheap.
“A month or so went by — we were going out having fun drinking and eating but my money was depleting. Either I had to go back to working in a kitchen or go back to the states and I didn’t want to go back to the states,” Karen said. She took the job and in the kitchen of the American-owned bistro and Karen happily discovered that, in Spain, a chef can have an actual life.
“The bistro had seven tables, we opened for dinner at nine but no one came in till 10. I had my whole day to explore and it renewed my passion for cooking,” Karen said. And while Karen found renewed happiness as a chef, Jessica was making her own plans … around wine. “What I really wanted to do was export Spanish wine to the United States. Spanish wine had a niche but it hadn’t come to the U.S. yet. I started working at a winery outside Madrid, doing everything and going all over Spain for wine fairs. My idea was to go back to New York and become a wine broker,” Jessica said.
A job at a New York restaurant led to a position as a sommelier that allowed Jessica to continue her on-the-job wine education. After following her passion for wine to Spain, then back to New York, Jessica followed her heart back to Milwaukee.
“I had reconnected with a high school flame and moved back home to be with him,” she said. Marriage and children soon followed, as did a new business — My Wine School — which Jessica ran for 10 years.
“I love making wine fun, approachable and accessible,” she said. So far, Jessica had gained three impressive titles: investment banker, sommelier and entrepreneur, and in 2014 she added “inventor” to that list, creating HaloVino, a shatter proof, stackable wine glass that maintains wine’s flavor. “I wanted to preserve what we love about wine and bring it to places where you can’t have glass,” Jessica said.
HaloVino is a mainstay at local venues including The Milwaukee Repertory Theater and Miller Park. But Jessica doesn’t plan to stop there,
“We’re looking at the national expansion and talking to a lot of big chains,” she said.
Meanwhile, back in Madrid, Karen decided in 2006 she wanted to open her own restaurant after running the bistro.
“There wasn’t a lot of international food in Madrid and I felt like there could be an opportunity for the food I like to cook. I don’t do Italian, I don’t do Mexican, I don’t do French. I like taking creative liberties with Spanish ingredients and using them in an unusual manner,” Karen said. For her, that meant highlighting the veggies she had become accustomed to using in San Francisco.
“In San Francisco, I’d go to the farmers market a few times a week. In Spain, they eat a lot of vegetables at home, but not in restaurants. So having a salad with a lot of vegetables was new to them,” she said. Karen ran her restaurant in Madrid for three years before a very strong influence beckoned her home.
“My mom can be very persistent and she focused her energy on getting me home. Everyone was home except me, so that was her endgame,” Karen said. “It was time. I had been in Spain over six years. The restaurant was successful, but I was in the kitchen all the time and I was getting a little tired of all that.” Karen spent nine months in Venezuela, then moved back to Milwaukee and worked as a consultant for another restaurant while she contemplated opening her own.
“In my mind, it was going to be more butcher shop with a small café. Now Bavette is a full-service restaurant with a small butcher shop,” she said. The shift helped her achieve her goal of using the whole animal. “My original vision was to use up the whole animal in a way that works and is financially viable. My background is in cooking and if we didn’t do the cooking part, we wouldn’t be able to use the whole animal.”
From Whitefish Bay to Madrid to Milwaukee, with stops in San Francisco, New York and Venezuela, the Bell sisters’ travels definitely inspired both of their businesses. Milwaukee foodies are lucky to have these sisters running two thriving businesses in their hometown. And Mom wouldn’t have it any other way.