Tribute to a living Milwaukee legend: Chef Knut Apitz
Great chefs provide diners with sensory experiences that aren't soon forgotten. They provide not only nourishment, but a feast for both the eyes and the palate. The best of them also have an uncanny ability to build a legacy through their dedication to not only great food, but also to the patrons they serve.
Those chefs include Milwaukee's own Knut Apitz.
In 1978, Fran Zell of the Chicago Tribune wrote, "With all its fine dining rooms, Chicago has nothing, except perhaps for its exclusive private clubs, quite like Milwaukee's Grenadier's."
And Zell wasn't kidding. During its heyday in the 1980s, the restaurant, which was located at 747 N. Broadway, set the standard for fine dining in Milwaukee. It was a special-occasion destination for those who appreciated fine food and impeccable service.
Apitz, the German-born chef who opened the restaurant with Robert Jordan in 1975, was known for his ability to produce delicious dishes on the fly. Under his tutelage, many chefs went on to make a name for themselves in kitchens around the city and elsewhere. Grenadier's represented a style of dining found only in Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe. That meant white tablecloths, dark-suited waiters and menu items like sweetbreads, wild boar, venison and Tournedos Rossini.
Apitz's efforts won him the affection of many, including a variety of professional associations to which he belonged. In 1993, Apitz was honored with Wisconsin Restaurant Association's Chef of the Year, followed by honors as Chef of the Year by the American Culinary Federation. As of 1996, Grenadier's was the only restaurant in Milwaukee to have received a four-star rating from the Mobil Travel Guide, a national guide to restaurants and hotels.
But, one of the things that truly set Apitz apart is that he excelled not only through his skill in the kitchen, but also through service to the community as host and donor for countless charitable events, most notably those benefiting the Ronald McDonald House.
I had the extraordinary honor of attending a dinner at Buckley's Kiskeam Inn this past week that paid tribute to Chef Apitz. The dinner, which focused on lesser-eaten offal from a variety of animals, featured courses prepared by five notable Milwaukee chefs: Paul Zerkel of Butcher, Baker; Gil Petrovic, formerly of Le Reve; Thi Cao of Buckley's; Justin Aprahamian of Sanford; and Nell Benton of The National Café.
Wine and cocktail pairings were provided by Jaclyn Stuart of Vintage, a specialty wine retailer and tasting bar located in Elkhart Lake. Chefs and staff donated their time, and all proceeds from the dinner were donated to the Wisconsin Parkinson Association.
"I've been dreaming of this idea for quite some time, and was very honored and humbled by the quick and enthusiastic responses from the chefs I asked to participate," Chef Cao remarked when I asked him about his plans for the dinner.
"The event was for the chefs – to learn from each other, to cook something that we would not normally cook and also to have fun. Honoring Chef Knut Apitz was the icing on the cake. He has been a longtime friend of the Buckley's family and a champion for the Milwaukee culinary scene."
The dinner was worthy of its purpose, featuring expert preparations of organ meats and entrails, paired with a wide variety of ethnic-inspired flavors.
Highlights included Chef Cao's melt-in-your-mouth house-made coppa, made from heritage pork cured with sage, fennel, garlic and crushed red chiles. The triad of veal brains presented by Chef Zerkel was a textural pleasure, showcasing brain sausage, a creamy brain croquette and a scramble of deliciously crisp brains and wild mushrooms.
A lamb tongue meatball with red sauce and parmesan cream from Chef Petrovic was both flavorful and tender with a nod to both eastern Europe and Italy. Chef Cao's monkfish miso liver pate topped with anchovy kimchi was delightfully sweet and light, and stood up to a spicy-sweet apple-jalapeno gelee, beautifully presented with fresh lychee and urchin roe-topped foie gras.
I'm still dreaming of the duck neck consommé prepared by Chef Aprahamian, which was served alongside tender duck tongue, heart and sumptuous duck stuffed with smoked duck liver. The delicate balance of the dish, which featured pickled Asian pears, was unsurpassed.
The biggest surprise of the evening, at least for me, was Chef Benton's delicious candied tripe that accompanied toasted sesame panna cotta served atop a cardamom crepe. The tripe was sweet and creamy, with a decidedly meaty, yet toasty flavor – certainly not your run-of-the-mill application for the traditionally rubbery stomach lining most often found in Hispanic and Asian cuisine.
But, despite its glorious execution, nothing about the evening was quite as exceptional as the moment following dinner when Chef Apitz rose from his seat at the corner table to thank his fellow chefs.
"It's good to have you here," he said, "dining on items not normally eaten, plated well and done in a way that isn't necessarily expected. I am deeply honored by your thoughtfulness and understanding. Thank you to all of you for coming."
As Apitz presented each chef with a ceramic Grenadier's collectible – a ceramic visage of the iconic French soldier filled with whiskey – eyes gleamed, and hearts overflowed. It was history in the making for everyone present – a fitting tribute to an honored soldier whose service to the culinary world will live on for years to come.
This story took me right back to 1978 when, as a high school senior, I had the privilege of working in Chef Apitz's kitchen as a salad girl. I still think of Chef Apitz with so much fondness, and was delighted to learn that he was being honored with this dinner. When, in typical 16 year-old fashion, I decided I must move on to something more "interesting" like answering the telephone (sigh), Chef Apitz took the time to try talking me out of my decision to move on - he was so kind to me, just a kid. To this day, I know little about how a restaurant kitchen should be run, but his kitchen seemed spot-on to me. All the best to the Buckley's folks (especially chef Thi) and to Chef Apitz!
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