Chef Scott Pampuch: In search of local food in Milwaukee
There's someone new on staff at Milwaukee's award-winning Iron Horse Hotel – and he's no small player.
Acclaimed Minnesota Chef Scott Pampuch has been hired to work with the hotel's culinary team and front-of-the-house staff to oversee all food and beverage operations for Smyth, Branded bar, the 450-seat outdoor venue known as The Yard and all hotel banquets and special events. Pampuch will also oversee operations for Stack'd Burger Bar as well as Dixon Development's new hotel and culinary concepts.
Founder of the acclaimed Corner Table restaurant in the Twin Cities, Pampuch (pronounced "pam-poo") plans to bring his passion for fresh seasonal ingredients and simple Midwest cuisine to the thousands of guests that frequent The Iron Horse Hotel annually. He was voted one of Minnesota's 25 top chefs by his peers and is the creator of Tour de Farm Minnesota, a dinner series that celebrates local farmers and food artisans who cultivate their harvest.
A locavore and food advocate at heart, Pampuch describes his cooking as simple, straightforward and seasonal, and a reflection of local agriculture.
To that end, Pampuch teaches cooking classes that range from pig butchery to seasonal vegetarian dishes, all with an emphasis on technique, rather than following recipes. He has also been sharing his musings on food and farms as the new host of Ovation's "In Search of Food."
Episodes have included preparing a raw, vegan and gluten-free meal for musician and avocado farmer Jason Mraz and lunch for 300 hungry middle-school students, using healthful ingredients, within a strict time limit and a school board-approved budget of $1.15 per child.
Since Pampuch is brand new to the Milwaukee scene, I wanted to take the opportunity to get to know him a bit better. So, we sat down for a chat at Branded, and he told me a bit about his food philosophies, his career as a chef and television personality, and his vision for food in Milwaukee.
OnMilwaukee.com: What's the biggest thing you've learned from teaching classes?
Scott Pampuch: That I still have a lot to learn. (laughs) I'm a social person. I love sitting with people and seeing moments happen. I love being able to teach people, help people. I'm in the hospitality industry ... that's what we do. The most popular class I've ever done is the whole hog butchering course. But, really, who is going to butcher their own hog in their home?
OMC: What's your favorite class to teach?
SP: A chicken class. No one wants to pay attention to chicken. Everyone thinks that it's ordinary. If you go into a restaurant and order chicken, and it's really good – everything on the menu is going to be really good. Because they're paying attention.
The fact is, chicken is brilliant. You can roast a chicken for $10. Roast two chickens on Sunday. You have dinner. You have sandwiches. You have pasta. You have cold snacks at midnight.
OMC: What would you say to someone who is completely intimidated in the kitchen?
SP: What do you do if you don't know how to drive? You learn. Teach yourself. Find a book. Start reading. Go on the Google box; you'll find lots of videos that teach you how to make things. Take a class.
If you have a fear of being creative, then it's a matter of trying to understand what a recipe is. If you learn how to cook by following a recipe, you may not be learning how to cook. You're learning how to follow a recipe. Go to a cooking class that teaches you techniques.
Where's the technique? What ingredients are interpreted? Pesto is a technique. Risotto is a technique. You can make risotto with potatoes, or with different types of rice. You like pasta? Go get a book that shows you how to make pasta ... that tells you why the flour affects the texture of your recipe. Learn all you can. Ask other people. No one becomes a ballroom dancer without dancing lessons.
OMC: Who did you learn from? Who have been your major influences in the kitchen?
SP: James Beard, Julia Child, Alice Waters, David Chang ... Also currently Jonathon Waxman, Joe Salatin, Michael Pollan ...
OMC: You've been very involved in the local food movement for the past 20 years or so. What's one of the most important things you've learned?
SP: There's a parallel between the economic situation in our country and food. The perception is that the "haves" can afford great food, and the "have nots" are forced to live with a mediocre product. But, I would say that everyone has a choice in how they eat and the foods they choose. If you make food a priority, you can ... Again, you can roast a chicken and get multiple meals for $10. But, we think nothing about spending $3-4 a day on cups of coffee.
People should know how to cook. Why are we wasting our money on food that doesn't make us feel good? Our industrial food system... we're better than anybody. We feed a lot of people. But, we should be using our knowledge and efficiencies to start providing higher quality food.
To do that, people need to realize that they, as individuals, can make a difference. For instance, I want to have one day and it's going to be 'buy butter day' – if you buy local butter on that one day, and make a commitment to buy only local butter ... if that happens, we would change the face of most dairies. If the demand was there, if people went to your grocery store and bought local butter, that changes the way that grocery store buys. Start draining the shelves of our grocery stores of local butter as soon as it comes in. That makes a change. I'm really excited about tapping into the local food community here in Milwaukee.
OMC: Speaking of Milwaukee, what challenges do you think await you here in Milwaukee?
SP: I know nothing about the city. Honestly, if there is a farm that sells to a restaurant, I want to connect with them. If there are chefs interested in sharing their sources, I want to meet them.
For me, it will be about figuring out what the diners want, and then do it even better. I'm a big fan of being the conduit for people to have "a moment.'" I love it when someone says, "I've never liked beets, but I would eat your beets every day of the week ..."
OMC: What will you bring to The Iron Horse?
SP: Taking a job like this is truly a privilege. And it's a pleasure to work with Tim Dixon. I love his business model – telling these amazing stories through his space. I feel like every plate of food I've made has a story – and so that's a place where I can contribute.
My challenge is to take the quintessential Milwaukee cuisine, that palate, and pull the stories from the hotel into the stories on the plate. It has to be done in unison with telling the story of our hotel, our location. I'm not coming here to change anything; I'm coming here to pull everything together and make it work better.
OMC: You also have a show on cable. Talk to me about your work with Ovation and "In Search of Food." What role do you feel you play as a TV chef and public personality?
SP: Well, I'm not a TV chef. I'm a guy who's been asked to host a television show. I honestly don't think about it. I didn't do anything on the TV show that I wouldn't do off camera. Talking to farmers, cooking, it's all stuff I do in my everyday life. Nothing was staged. We had a direction we wanted to take, but the conversations were real. We did real things.
What I do, I've always done on a really small scale. The idea of doing it on a larger scale is really interesting to me. I think I could help people.
I feel extremely lucky that I've been given a chance to use what I know and share that with others. If I keep getting a platform to speak out, great. If not, I'll keep cooking and working with people like Tim Dixon who spend the time to focus on telling the stories and sharing the experience of food.
OMC: Who is the most famous person you've served and what did you serve them?
SP: Globally, who is the most well known? Probably Jason Mraz. He's vegan and I served him a play on a BLT. I found smoked olive oil from Temecula olive oil. I made a cold lettuce soup with smoked olive oil and heirloom tomatoes. There was also a sampler plate of fermented cabbage with caraway, pickled kohlrabi and a quinoa and chanterelle mushroom cake, a swiss chard and pickled carrot roll, with a persimmon and chard stem dipping sauce. For dessert I made him vegan avocado gelato with a hint of orange and sea salt with chocolate ganache.
There was a great deal of spontaneity in that episode. Like the juggling of avocados. We were really just fooling around. It really gave me an appreciation for who he was. I was ridiculously lucky to have met him. He's a rock star, but his life ... it's so simple. He goes about things in a simple, calm way. That was cool to see that. It's very different from the hectic world I live in in the service industry. Very cool.
OMC: How do your local food values play into what you eat yourself?
SP: I'm a sucker for a grilled cheese sandwich, a burger, a hot dog. I just want to know where it came from. If all we had to buy was commodity meat, I'd be a vegetarian. I think it's a problem, and I don't support it. I bring those convictions to my food.
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