Under the Toque: Adam Siegel rises to top of Milwaukee’s competitive scene

Under the Toque: Adam Siegel rises to top of Milwaukee’s competitive scene

Adam Siegel knew early on that he wanted to be a chef. With extensive experience working with French and Italian cuisine, he has become instrumental in keeping Lake Park Bistro [3] and Bacchus [4], part of Milwaukee’s Bartolotta Restaurants [5], at the top of their game.

Following graduation from Kendall College culinary school in Chicago, Siegel hooked up with award-winning chef and Milwaukee native Paul Bartolotta, who was then executive chef at Chicago’s Spiaggia [6], the flagship of Levy Restaurants [7].

He later trained with Julian Serrano at Masa’s [8] in San Francisco, Valentino [9] Marcattilii at Ristorante San Domenico [10] di Imola near Bologna, Italy, and Todd English at Olives [11] in Washington, D.C. He also took stages at two major restaurants in France while chef de cuisine at Lake Park Bistro.

Siegel now has primary responsibility for menu development at Lake Park Bistro and Bacchus and also is involved in the company’s catering facility at Boerner Botanical Gardens.

He was one of five nominees for a 2007 James Beard Award for Best Chef for the Midwest region.

What are your earliest and fondest food memories?

My mother, sister and aunt would cook for the big Jewish holidays and make the traditional foods like brisket, matzo ball soup, mandelbrot and lemon squares. When my grandmother came to visit, she would bring a box of snickerdoodles, lemon poppy seed cookies and other baked goods. My mom made me try new foods—broccoli, asparagus, beans, fish—once a week. I learned to love that stuff.

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

BIOGRAPHY

Title: executive chef, Lake Park Bistro and Bacchus, MilwaukeeBirth date: June 17, 1972Hometown: ChicagoEducation: Kendall College, Chicago, culinary degreeCareer highlights: working with three past James Beard Award-winning chefs; getting to know Jacques Pépin

When I was 9 or 10, I got into watching cooking shows—Julia Child or Jacques Pépin or “Yan Can Cook”—and found them fascinating. In high school, at 14, I started working in restaurants as a prep and line cook and never stopped.

I was also into painting and photography but decided most artists don’t make money till they’re doing it for 20 years or they’re dead. Being a chef is a form of art.

Do you have a mentor?

Paul Bartolotta is my biggest mentor. Fourteen years ago, he gave me an apprenticeship at Spiaggia in Chicago, where I worked for three years. He opened doors for me and got me a stage at Masa’s, where I stayed for three years, and then to Italy for a year at San Domenico di Imola, where he had worked for eight years, outside of Bologna.

How have your responsibilities at Bartolotta Restaurants changed over the years?

I started as executive sous chef almost seven years ago. Now I’m executive chef of two restaurants and a corporate chef.

I’m learning a lot about the business end. It’s very important to learn that. I’m working for some great people between Paul and his brother, Joe.

What is the Milwaukee dining scene like?

Milwaukee is getting a lot more competitive. There are three times as many restaurants here now as there were seven years ago when I came here, and they are getting better. Consumers are becoming more educated and more worldly.

It’s a lot more than the fish fry and the big slabs of meat on the plate that Milwaukee is known for.

Who are some of your biggest competitors?

We saw a huge opening of big chains this past year, including Capital Grille [12], Fleming’s, Cameron’s Steakhouse, Devon Seafood Grill and even The Cheesecake Factory [13].

Milwaukee is only so big, and the pie is only so big. It’s not good because they are corporate businesses. If they don’t do well, they have no loyalty to the area, and they will just pick up and walk away. They are near all of our locations.

Does the new chain competition affect your business in the long run?

I think they have taken a little away from us, but not too much. People know about us and our consistent quality levels. We have that going for us.

Do you have much contact with customers?

I have an open kitchen at the bistro, so I come out and see customers and talk to them. Over time, I’ve slightly upgraded their tastes and educated them so they are eating more authentic and avant-garde things.

CHEF’S TIPS

Cook morels long enough over medium heat to eliminate the chewy texture.

Store oils in small containers away from heat to prevent “cooking” them prematurely.

Finish and “perfume” meats with butter and fresh herbs just before serving.

What are some of the ingredients you most like to work with while you’re cooking?

I love working with foie gras, which is one of the most important ingredients used in French cuisine. Now, I’m really excited because spring is here, and we get a lot [of products] locally.

It’s morel season in Wisconsin, and I have people coming to my back door all the time with bags full of morels.

What is the company’s focus at the moment?

We’re fine-tuning our restaurants for the next year or two before opening another one. This is the year of hospitality for us and making sure we are taking care of our customers.

It’s not about me here. It’s about serving the guest great food and making sure they are having a good time.

What foods do you eat at home?

My wife, who has Italian heritage, does most of the cooking. We have a lot of pasta and plain, simple things like whole-roasted chicken and other roasts.

I have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich here and there. It can be the best sandwich in the world if it’s done right.

What do you do in your limited spare time?

I feel if I can’t do something 100 percent, I don’t do it. I don’t really have any hobbies. I spend my spare time being a dad. My son is 6 and a half, and my daughter is 3 and a half. I get them off to school.