Chefs Find Home in Smallwaukee
Or, Dirty Dishes (the Mostly-Censored Version)
Is it rude to invite yourself over to a chef’s house for Sunday dinner? Even it means fresh-steamed tamales, grilled prawns, tacos and a glimpse into the raw interactions of off-duty area chefs? We did it anyway.
Odd Duck’s executive chef Daniel Jacobs and his wife Kate Riley, an artist and potter, never meant to call Milwaukee home. But when the young couple found themselves out of work in Chicago, they decided to escape the financial burden of the city. “We felt we both needed a change,” says Dan. “We talked about moving to Asheville,” adds Kate. “I have a good artist friend there.”
Dan nods in agreement. He’s slicing limes for tonight’s Mexican-inspired meal, dishes are piling up in the sink, the scent from the grill is working its way through the apartment. “I guess we always saw Milwaukee as a starting point,” he says. “In a year or so, we’d move someplace else. We didn’t know anyone here—maybe, like, three people from high school.”
Right on cue, one of Dan’s now-best friends joins us from the balcony of the couple’s upper duplex home in Bay View. “I’m Paul,” he introduces himself unnecessarily—we already know this guy (or of him), and his wife, too, who wasn’t able to join us. Paul Zerkel and Lisa Kirkpatrick are the chef-couple formerly employed at Roots, then Odd Duck, who are now chef/owners of Goodkind. On the couch, kicked back with a Sierra Nevada, is Dan Van Rite, James Beard nominee and executive chef at Hinterland.
The table is set for eight, with a collection of dinnerware Kate recently made in her home pottery studio. She pulls up another chair for Baxter, the Jack Russell. “He likes to sit with us,” she laughs.
In walk Sara Nardi and Russell Mueller, front of house manager and bartender at Hinterland, respectively. Suddenly, the place is full of footsteps, as helping hands bring platters of beef and pork to and from the grill. “Russell’s the guy I was telling you about,” says Kate. She was explaining how he and his wife Kirsten used Kate’s Etsy store, Craft Girl Studio, for their bridal registry. “I made a custom dinnerware collection for them.”
“It’s way better than anything you’d find at Crate and Barrel,” adds Dan from across the room. Kate smiles and begins to tell us about another business she’s working on: home painting parties. She disappears into the kitchen and returns with a handpainted mug, a kittenish Milwaukee skyline she designed for a bachelorette party. It’s quirky and tasteful, playful yet practical— in other words, if Kate were a mug, this would be her.
And then there’s The Plate Collective, a series of dinners where Dan and Kate bring together chefs from local restaurants to host elaborate dinners served on Kate’s dishes. Each chef works individually with Kate to design a serving vessel specifically for his or her course. Look for the next one happening on November 22 at Ardent.
“The Plate Collective is all Kate’s idea. It’s taken off in ways I never imagined,” says Dan. “I love doing it and seeing what the chefs come up with.”
They’ve been in Milwaukee four years now, and Kate’s excitement for artistic ventures is a reminder of why they went searching for a new home. Chicago life left little time and money for her to pursue these kinds of creative outlets. In Milwaukee, more affordable neighborhoods and the availability of an apartment with space for her kiln allow her to put her imagination to work.
“Would you like a tour?” asks Kate. She leads us out the back door, across the yard to the detached garage and up the stairs to a lofted studio. This is where she spends 10 to 12 hours a day when she’s working on a project. Dan joins us for a quick photo opp, but it’s hard to get him to stop making faces at the camera. He has a mischievous energy about him, and he’s clearly smitten with seeing Kate talk about her passion.
Dan slips out to attend to the grill. “Oh, there’s one more thing I want to show you,” Kate smirks. She reaches into a box and lifts out a large platter. Unwrapping it, she reveals the calligraphy work of another talented partner in crime, Sarah Linkus from Filthy Freehand. It says, “grill the f**k out.” She starts pulling out shot glasses with phrases like “one,” “two,” “three,” “floor.” Mugs that say “good morning beer,” and flasks that read “let’s get weird.”
The two artists started the concept called Dirty Dishes MKE last year and nearly sold out of their product line at a recent craft market. “We get some dirty looks at times,” admits Kate, “but most people get a laugh out of it.”
Back inside, Russell is delivering a platter of grilled prawns to the table. “We eat a lot of Mexican at home,” says Dan. “I love cooking family-style food for everyone.”
The crew launches into stories of kitchen battle wounds, explicits fly; they bitch about the realities of reliable labor, and daydream about what it would be like to do a stuntman shot—snorting salt before a shot of tequila, then squirting lime juice in your eye.
There’s nothing competitive or egotistical about their conversations. It’s candid, genuine camaraderie. “You don’t see this very often in other cities…. chefs hanging out like this,” notes Russell. “There’s no head butting here.”
“One of the big reasons I love living here is the support the chefs in town have fostered,” says Dan. “We all want everyone to succeed. If I don’t know what to do with an ingredient, I can send out a group text and chefs from all over town respond with ideas.”
Dan describes the smallness of Milwaukee as being two degrees or less of separation from everyone. “I wouldn’t say we’re like a clique, though.”
“We’re a family,” says Kate.