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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, April 24, 2014

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In Dining

The truth about INdustri Cafe's Chef Dan Morales past is unraveling.

Digging for truth: Chef Dan Morales


Sometimes you've got to read a resume twice. And more often than not, it's good to verify the contents.

We received word on Tuesday evening that Chef Dan Morales is no longer working at INdustri Cafe. Interestingly, there's probably very good reason for that.

Chef Dan Morales sailed into Milwaukee with a big smile and a glossy resume claiming extensive experience including a position as chef de cuisine at Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill, sous chef at New York's prestigious Le Cirque, and a smattering of experiences at other high profile restaurants in New York.

But, soon after OnMilwaukee released the story of his arrival, the word on the street revealed that Morales was actually not a newcomer to Milwaukee at all, but the previous owner of Waukesha's D Mo's Italian Pasta and Chop House, who went by the name Ramon Antonio Mitre "Tony" Hernandez.

When D Mo's went under in 2011, Hernandez's relationships with partners, investors and the Waukesha community soured like month-old milk. In addition to questionable business practices, Hernandez had also earned a pretty ugly rap sheet, including misdemeanor fourth-degree sexual assault and domestic abuse charges. In fact, Hernandez is currently on probation for his most recent violation.

Yet, in an email statement, INdustri owner, Robert Klemm said that, despite his new executive chef's past, he was giving him a second chance.

"From the very beginning of our relationship," Klemm wrote, "Chef Dan was honest and forthright with us. In the interviews and press release we did not disclose he had a failed business in the past, as it was not pertinent to his credentials. INdustri is an equal opportunity employer and it is illegal to discriminate when hiring an individual because of their background. We did our due diligence prior to hiring him, and it is obvious to all that his food speaks for itself. We are excited to have someone of his cooking caliber working for us, and we look forward to the bright future ahead."

Personally, I was glad to see this positive spin on what was otherwise a very unfortunate situation. But, that wasn't the end of the story.

Curiosity prevailed regarding Morales' mystifying past.

Morales' alleged early experience at the Harley-Davidson Café and The Mayfair Hotel could not be verified due to restaurant closures. According to information received from human resources personnel at The River Cafe in New York, Morales was apparently employed there for a time.

However, an email to Jennifer Lee Fell at Bobby Flay's Bold Food, LLC, received response indicating that there are no records of a "Dan Morales" or "Ramon Antonio Mitre Hernandez" among the employment records for Mesa Grill in New York. The human resources department at Le Cirque also responded to a faxed query, stating that they have no record of his employment with their restaurant in New York.

Now, Morales certainly isn't the first chef to pad his resume.

In 2008, British chef Robert Irving was fired from his own show on the Food Network's "Dinner Impossible" when it was uncovered that he didn't actually design the royal couple's wedding cake, but that he only attended the school where it was made and contributed by picking fruit for the cake.

However, what is most perplexing about Morales' high profile claims is that they've persisted for the past few years without raising much question. One early blurb describing D Mo's steakhouse reads:

"D Mo's is a little piece of style in the heart of historical downtown Waukesha. Chef Tony has brought his expertise all the way from New York City where he studied under some of the most well-known chefs including Iron Chef Bobby Flay."

An unknown chef, working in a relatively small suburb, made big claims about his past and no one even blinked. In fact, he developed quite a reputation before things headed south with his business.

After participating in a free holiday dinner for the needy put on by D Mo's in 2010, George Wang of Waukesha Tattoo Company wrote the following on his blog: "Tony Hernandez might be the newest member of the downtown Waukesha business community, he is making his impact right away. It is great to see D Mo's @ Clarke showing such goodwill for Waukesha community, and I hope the greater community will embrace them with open arms and let go of all the negative past regarding the hotel and give them a well-deserved fresh start and respect."

According to Wang, things turned when he lost $20,000 of investments in Morales' Pita and Pan venture, when Morales and his girlfriend (whose name was on the paperwork for the business) filed for bankruptcy.

Chef Justin Johnson, who spent an evening with Morales in the kitchen at INdustri, says that he entered into the experience hoping to get material for his popular chef series, "The Engine Room," which showcases the expertise of great chefs around the city of Milwaukee.

"There was a presumption going in that he was a well-seasoned rock-star caliber of a chef," Johnson says.

Of Morales' skill, Johnson says he didn't observe anything questionable.

"It wasn't a particularly busy night, so it may not have been the best test of his skill. But, the INdustri kitchen is somewhat of a cumbersome place to work, so anyone putting out great food from the kitchen is doing a good job," Johnson says. "He made some food for me, including a City Island Fish Fry, a scallop dish with mushroom risotto and a balsamic glaze. Technique-wise, it was what you would expect to see from a purportedly seasoned chef."

Johnson also didn't necessarily suspect anything suspicious about what Morales revealed during their interview. "He was unassuming and fairly sweet guy. Honestly, it was an Oscar-worthy performance."


Talkbacks

mainfr4me | March 20, 2014 at 10:11 p.m. (report)

FYI, follow up on the chef: http://www.waukeshanow.com/news/Man-accused-of-swapping-identity-racking-up-debt-and-criminal-record-251214871.html

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