Crop of the Cream (City)
Who are Milwaukee’s top up-and-coming chefs?
Things move quickly in the culinary world. Trends come and go. Restaurants open and close. New chefs hit the scene and, sometimes, have such an impact where they can add influence to help change a city’s dining landscape. While Milwaukee has a number of wonderful chefs, here are four currently making major waves in the Cream City.
Chef: Gregory León
Neighborhood: Downtown/East Town
Why he’s on this list: León, with his husband, Orry, have beautifully forged a connection between Spanish and Portuguese flavors with the agricultural bounty from Wisconsin. After doing a series of pop-up events for a few years, the pair opened this permanent downtown location in 2015, adding warm personal touches like a collection of photos of friends and family alongside exposed brick and an open kitchen. León, who spent years cooking in San Francisco at places like Zuni Café and Universal Café, has delighted diners with weekly-changing menus. His dishes feature local ingredients from farms like Alice’s Garden and Kinnikinnick Farms with flavors from the Iberian Peninsula, including squid escabeche salad; spicy piri piri chicken with sweet potato puree; and carcamusa, a delicate braised pork shoulder with cippolini onions and tomato soffrito—dishes uncommon to the area.
Chef: Karen Bell
Restaurant: Bavette La Boucherie
Neighborhood: Third Ward
Why she’s on this list: Locals have fallen for Bavette with its combination whole-animal butcher shop with chef-curated local retail items and restaurant with a full bar. Bell, a 2018 finalist for the James Beard Foundation Awards for Best Chef: Midwest, sources pasture-raised animals from local farms and breaks them down in house. She creates simple yet nuanced food—composed plates like house-made rye and black pepper fettuccine with duck ragu and pecorino; sandwiches like pork belly banh mi with miso sriracha aioli; and lovely salads like roasted carrots with garbanzo beans, baba ghanoush, feta and pistachio dukkah—using high-quality techniques while keeping prices affordable.
Chef: Miles Borghgraef
Restaurant: Birch + Butcher Butcher
Neighborhood: Lower East Side
Why he’s on this list: As owner of 2018’s best new restaurant as named by both OnMilwaukee magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Borghgraef made waves by introducing open-hearth cooking to Milwaukee. Here, he creates rustic, technique-driven food, taking a minimalist approach to cooking. Whether it’s local grilled chicken with barbecued carrots; coal-roasted dry-aged New York strip with pork-fat fried smoked potatoes; or poached eggs with spicy ‘nduja chorizo spread, roasted broccoli and naan at brunch, Borghgraef aims to let ingredients speak for themselves. Then there’s the bread program: bagels, breads, pastries and crackers—even cultured butter—all made daily in house and many available for take-away counter service.
Chef: Zak Baker
Restaurant: Ca’Lucchenzo Pastificio & Enoteca
Why he’s on this list: A veteran of Bartolotta Restaurants (like Borghgraef), Baker and his wife, Sarah, who has run numerous restaurants in Milwaukee, are set to change the way locals eat and, literally, view pasta. Ca’Lucchenzo will be part pastificio (a.k.a. “pasta factory”) and part Italian restaurant where its centerpiece will be the glass-enclosed room where chefs will make fresh pasta daily. The restaurant, aiming to open spring 2019, will produce simple dishes with recognizable ingredients prepared with proper execution. “Everybody knows pasta already,” Baker says, “but there is so much more out there and we are excited to further the conversation.”