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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014

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In Dining Commentary

Chef Jan Kelly surveys the line at Meritage.

In Dining Commentary

Meritage on Vliet Street in Milwaukee.

In Dining Commentary

A modest line turns out incredible food.

In Dining Commentary

Banana Napoleon.

In Dining Commentary

Saucing.

In Dining Commentary

Sous Chef Clayton.

In Dining Commentary

Marie delivering plates.

The Engine Room: An evening at Meritage


For some reason, the world of the culinary arts has always been a boys' club. Puzzling as it may be, refined and thoughtful dishes are created in professional kitchens by louts that are categorically unrefined and crass. In fact, we in the business wear this irony like a badge of honor.

Depravity, in both words and actions, comes so naturally in this trade that to enter a kitchen where people are polite and proper might seem strange and even creepy.

Female chefs in recent decades have carved out a more than sizable stake for themselves in this hairy-chested industry; but, they have not done so by tendering a soft feminine approach. They've had to step loudly in order to be heard and wield sharp knives along with even sharper skills in order to be respected, making sure to "give" as good as they got and adopt a decidedly male ego.

I've always maintained throughout my cooking career that I would rather lead a staff of women for two reasons. First: they work harder than men because men often carry an entitlement to promotion, and second: their jokes and barbs are more crass, vile and disgusting than any man's I've ever worked with.

For this, my third and final stop in the James Beard edition of The Engine Room series, I found myself far outside the posh and pricey metro Milwaukee Downtown on Vliet Street, a mere bean bag toss from Wauwatosa.

The restaurant I entered on one recent Saturday evening was none other than Chef Jan Kelly's Meritage, one of three 2012 James Beard-nominated chefs in the Milwaukee area. Chef Jan was surprised to see me when I arrived because the internet failed to facilitate my emails confirming a visit. It was an awkward start to the evening but we quickly dispensed with the lapse in communication and settled in at the bar for a chit chat.

Chef Jan is about as subtle as a bee sting and as reserved as a cattle-caller. She must be this way because beyond being the well-known and respected executive chef of Meritage, she is also its owner. She is one part of a husband-and-wife team, but she readily admits that her share in the business lofts over her husband's given that he is a silent and mostly uninvolved partner as it pertains to the operation's day-to-day.

Chef Jan grew up in Orange County, Calif. ("before the O.C. was cool," she joked). She never went to culinary school because she didn't need to. She grew up in the family restaurant learning the rudiments of cooking from an early age and absorbing classic French techniques from her parents, who she says were fabulous cooks. The family restaurant was The Hobbit, still family-owned and operated.

Years ago, she began making occasional trips to the Midwest with her husband, who was training to be a speed skater. She developed a fast friendship with Wisconsin and soon decided to pull up stakes and make Milwaukee her home.

Her name was quickly thrust into the local foodie lexicon as the well-reviewed chef of The Knick and, most notably, the now defunct Barossa. Chef Jan spent over a decade working in Milwaukee restaurants, mostly finding contentment working for someone else. But, like any chef with a vision, the dream of autonomy became a desire too tempting to ignore.

She found a vacated building on Vliet Street in Milwaukee that had formerly housed The Highlander and Indigo when she began toying with the notion of opening her own place. Her early pursuit was plagued by hurdles and delays including a new roof, electrical work and equipment issues. As the process lagged, Chef Jan told herself, "This will be the thing that makes it not happen."

Her diligence paid-off though, as she eventually found herself in a comfortable enough position to open. Five years later, plaques line the wall upon entry into Meritage commemorating Chef Jan's many accolades, including being noted three times among Carol Deptolla's coveted Top 30 restaurants.

Her concept was simple and direly needed in the Washington Heights neighborhood: "Fine dining at a reasonable price." Her goal – an aspiration she remains committed to – was to have nothing on the menu over $20. The menu would highlight local ingredients and wholesome renderings of unblemished produce in its most recognizable forms.

Tomatoes that look and taste like tomatoes and uber-seasonal "pomme de terre"-like ramps and watermelon radish make up the spine of a menu that is regionally diverse, from Japanese pancakes to a Chinese sausage scone to pork katsudon and Indian lamb kabobs. But Chef Jan recoils at the notion that hers is a "fusion" restaurant.

The inspiration of the Meritage menu is born out of Chef Jan's eclectic encounters with food. She absorbs everything she sees and tastes. The genesis of a menu item is often Chef Jan saying to herself "I like this. How hard can it be to make?" Consequently, her next thought is "How can we do this in a different way?"

She has also sought to bring what she acutely describes as an "anticipation" to the menu. She is not diverted by calls for certain staple items being available all the time. If it's not in season, it's not on the menu. She speaks passionately about the romance of having to wait for something, enjoying it when it arrives and bidding it adieu until the next season ushers it back again.

With a busy Saturday night service looming, Chef Jan was dispatched to the kitchen after server Marie asked, "What are the lamb spare ribs braised in?" She paged through her memory bank, recalling "beef stock, pomegranate, molasses, ginger." In the kitchen, I was briefly introduced to a small brigade of two. Sous Chef Clayton, who Chef Jan describes as a "great teammate" goes back with her a long way when they first started working together at Barossa.

Clayton was sporting a Milwaukee Brewers throwback hat and a gray t-shirt that read, in an ironically plain type face, "sous chef." Clayton is somewhat displaced in this profession as a one-time graphic design major at UW-Milwaukee and MATC. Despite an inclination to a career that was, in many ways, the opposite to cooking, Clayton has happily slung hash alongside Chef Jan for the last seven years.

Rounding out the trio was Kelly, a recent graduate of the MATC culinary program, who is responsible for salads and desserts. Her previous job was at the airport, cooking not exactly James Beard-caliber food, she admits. She is attentive and humble; well aware of what a privilege it is to work in this environment.

Chef Jan squired me about the kitchen, periodically stopping to show Kelly how to plate the banana Napoleon using a pliable bit of pressed banana that crisps when baked, and also dropping some lamb belly into the fryer. The hunk of belly gets hung up on the basket and Chef Jan reaches into the fryer, bare-fingered, to free it.

Everyone was talking loudly, because the radio overhead was blaring the play-by-play of only the second game of the Brewer's young season. Then, the iconic sound of Bob Uecker pulls everyone's focus, "Get UP! Get OUTTA here! GONE!!" followed by a rousing cheer. Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)

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Zannaree | May 16, 2012 at 11:29 a.m. (report)

Wonderful environment which can dress up or dress down, and always delicious. The patio is lovely, Nearly weekly hubby says, "How about Meritage?"

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Spiderladyj | May 14, 2012 at 4:14 p.m. (report)

This is my favorite restaurant!!! The waitstaff makes you feel so special and is attentive and courteous. I love the fine dining experience in a quaint, cozy atmosphere. Jan and Clayton are both great personalities and aim to please. This is a must go to destination!!!!

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