Milwaukee bowls over San Francisco chef
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Gregory León didn't really think much about Milwaukee until he came to the Cream City for the first time over Labor Day weekend and fell in love.
"In all honesty, I didn't really have any idea what Milwaukee was like," León explains. "For me it was one of those cities I would lump together with Minneapolis-St Paul, Detroit, Chicago, Kansas City ... a meat-and-potatoes kind of community."
It wasn't necessarily the sort of place to which León was accustomed. Although he was born in Tulsa, Okla., León grew up in Venezuela, where he lived until the age of 19. After three years of failed business school, he got on a bus to California with the hope of going to cooking school out in San Francisco.
"I was very lucky to work with some great chefs," he recalls. "So, I ended up skipping school and learning on the job."
He spent 18 years cooking and consulting in San Francisco restaurants like Poesia, Mirtille and Horatius, with a few stints in Madrid, Spain.
"My cooking is mostly inspired by the flavors of Spain and areas south of the U.S.," León explains. "Seasonal, local and honest food ... cooking with a soul and meaning. I'm not a big fan of molecular gastronomy and very weary of dishes at restaurants that come with 'bells and whistles.'"
Last spring, León left his post as executive chef at Oakland's Hibiscus, and made the decision to spend the summer traveling. Along the way, he fell in love with Portland, Ore., and thought he'd attempt to make a go of it there. But, then a friend urged him to visit Milwaukee.
During his weekend in the city, he made trips to Lakefront Brewery, Roots, Rumpus Room and Mader's. He also had the good fortune of meeting Chef Ross Bachhuber of Odd Duck. The experience transformed his sensibilities.
"I was really taken aback by the sense of community among chefs who are doing 'farm to table' and 'head to tail' food here," León says. "The city was quite different than I had imagined – vibrant and cosmopolitan – a city with a good sense of who it is and where it comes from. And the food scene, which I had assumed was non-existent, blew my mind."
León was so blown away that he decided to make a big move. He packed up his bags, his dog Guy (pronounced, French-style, "Ghee") and grabbed up an apartment Downtown.
He figured he'd get his bearings, form relationships with local urban farmers, butchers and purveyors, teach a few cooking classes and throw a few pop-up dinners until he was able to open his own place.
But, before he could think twice, he was hired as the executive chef for Kasana, 241 N. Broadway. He'll be managing the culinary aspects of the café, heading up pop-up dinners and helping collaborative director Genya Erling with the day-to-day of the collaborative.
"The local food movement is here, but it seems to be very young," he said of the opportunity. "I love that. It's actually a perfect fit. Being able to connect with the local purveyors and get to know people and chefs ... I'm excited about that. I'm also excited to bring to Milwaukee everything that I have learned in San Francisco over the past 18 years."
León says that the collaborative, approachable environment in the city, and at Kasana, was one of the things that drew him most. He credits a conversation he had early on with Melissa Buchholz at Odd Duck about local farmers and collaborating with fellow chefs in helping him to decide that Milwaukee was the place he wanted to be.
"I am a true believer that if, as chefs and farmers, we work together instead of trying to 'one up' each other, we can achieve our goal of bringing amazing food, unpretentious and accessible, to our customers," he explains.
"Our goal as chefs should not be to be on the cover of that food magazine or have more Twitter followers than someone else, it should be to take what the farmers and growers give us and work to bring out the true value of those ingredients – without too many bells and whistles and certainly without the use of tweezers or chemical compounds. Say no to foam!"
León has already started connecting with area businesses, including folks at Rocket Baby Bakery and Purple Door Ice Cream, and Krinke's Farm Market in Reeseville, from which he hopes to source duck and rabbit for his first pop-up dinner at Kasana on Nov. 17.
He's also scoping out all the great food available in the city, including Friday fish fry and the pizza at Brick3. When I asked him what his favorite aspect of Milwaukee was so far, he didn't hesitate.
"Without sounding like a giant cheese-ball, I would say the people. Everyone has been very friendly and open and more than happy to offer any kind of assistance they can in helping me acclimate to the city ... well, that and the butter burgers ..."
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