There’s a dining establishment in Milwaukee at which you probably have never eaten.
It has a kitchen which regularly serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The chef happily accommodates special requests, dietary needs and a variety of budgets. And he and his staff regularly serve fare that wouldn’t be out of place in many of the city’s best restaurants.
In fact, this chef recently served his 500th meal. Possibly to Justin Vernon. Or maybe it was Jeff Tweedy. In the end, who ate the food isn’t really all that important. What’s more important is exactly how well-orchestrated everything was.
You see, not every city has a Chef Kevin Sloan. And – more importantly – very few cities have the equivalent of a Pabst Theater. A Riverside. Or a Turner Hall. In fact, there may be no other city which caters to performers quite like Milwaukee does.
And the effort doesn’t go unnoticed.
If you’ve been to a show at the Pabst or Riverside, you’ve probably heard at least one or two bands rave about Milwaukee. You may have read how Justin Vernon of Bon Iver raved publicly in Rolling Stone Magazine a few years back about the "human kindness" he experienced in Milwaukee. Or maybe you’ve seen the YouTube video in which My Morning Jacket's frontman, Jim James, raves about Milwaukee.
Well, the way the theater treats its clientele is a big part of that.
But, I wanted to see things for myself. So, at the invitation of Sloan, I spent some time behind the scenes, observing and taking it all in.
My first experience as a "fly on the wall" took place on the evening of Nov. 30, 2014. I’d arrived at Turner Hall around 6 p.m. Justin Vernon was slated to perform with Volcano Choir, along with openers Amelia Randall Meath and Nicholas Sanborn from Sylvan Esso.
But, you wouldn’t have guessed there was celebrity in the house. In fact, the vibe in the hall was fairly low key. Most of the crew, including Vernon, was sitting around a television in the back dining area watching the Packers game.
Meanwhile, Dixieland tunes pumped through the sound system into the empty hall as stage hands adjusted lighting and set up.
Around 6 p.m. carts filled with cambros, trays and buckets began streaming and out of the elevator as the night’s meal was delivered and prepped.
Sous Chef Loulou Guolee was on site, along with Kevin Sloan and and catering manager, Cassie Bauman, who acts as main contact for tours playing Turner Hall, overseeing the venue’s day-to-day hospitality operations
Guolee collaborates with Sloan to create menus, as well as orchestrating many of the meals served at Turner Hall, affairs generally comprised of dinners for 20-25, including the band and crew.
"It’s gotten pretty insane," she says. "In October, we cooked for almost every show. It will slow down in January, but it’s getting to the point where people actually bypass playing in Chicago so they can experience the hospitality they get here."
Hospitality at Turner typically includes customized menus created for each band, along with Colectivo Coffee service.
The evening’s menu included
- Butternut squash soup with roasted pecans, amaretto and togarashi honey
- Crispy Brussels sprouts salad with roasted garlic-citrus vinaigrette, spicy greens and Carr Valley blue cheese
- Miso and brown sugar glazed pork belly skewers with Napa cabbage slaw
- Grilled sea scallops with roasted corn risotto, garlic seared rapini and lobster sauce
- Collard green Sukiyaki
- Maple and brandy rubbed beef tenderloin with creamed kale, fried shallots and root vegetable puree
"To give people who come to the theater a good experience, there’s so many moving pieces," says Sloan. "There are very few theaters who have their own kitchens and their own chefs. And our business model is really designed to go above and beyond. It’s not strictly about the bottom line. It’s more about creating an overall experience."
Hanging out at the Riverside
I got an even better picture of things on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014, when I hung out for a good part of the day with the crew at the Riverside Theater.
Walking into the lobby of the theater on a busy night, you’d never suspect what lies above and beyond the confines of the theater space. But, the building houses six floors of dressing rooms, along with a full service laundry and plenty of entertainment for the performers and their crews.
The Green Room, which sits on the eighth floor of the building, is accessed by means of an elevator backstage, which is manned by members of the theater’s street crew, typically high school or college students hired to assist with publicity.
Stepping off the elevator is a bit like entering a new dimension. The first thing I noticed was the smell of freshly brewed espresso, wafting over from the full-service coffee bar, which overlooks a cozy space that looks and feels like a cross between an uber-cool hipster hang-out and someone’s living room.
Couches in the corner of the room offer spaces to sprawl to watch television, and a variety of old-school arcade games line a portion of the wall. Meanwhile, tunes crank from a record player, sitting alongside an enormous collection of vinyl. The space is created expressly to provide an oasis for performers – a place for them to escape and wind down.
"We are charged with work that actually changes our city," says Gary Witt, executive director of The Pabst Theater Group. "When the band is happy, and the audience is happy, walls disappear and something magical happens. We’re the heart and soul of what sells this city. And it’s our job to send out a love letter every single day to promote this town."
The love letter, he says, is comprised of people who care about their jobs and provide superior service. It’s also about environment.
That’s why so much has changed about the theater spaces at the Pabst, Riverside, and Turner Hall since Witt took over in 2002.
The Green Room is a great example. Back in 2000, the dining area was a stark room with white walls, white drop ceilings and white "hospital tables." The kitchen was comprised of a tiny stove and basic equipment.
Today, the space is completely transformed. The kitchen has a full range with a ventilation system, storage, sinks and refrigeration. Meanwhile, the dining area is done up with a welcoming hodge-podge of well-curated items that comprise a comforting, homey feel. Hardwood floors are made from the same Kentucky farm board that Rumpus Room uses; Edison lights hang from the ceiling along with a chandelier of spoons and forks which dangle playfully above the barista station.
Wolfgang Schaefer has been a barista for three years now. He spends most days at the Colectivo on Humboldt Avenue. But, he also takes his turn working at the Riverside, serving up coffee drinks to performers and crew members.
"It’s the best job in America, clearly," he says with a grin. "Honestly – they’re so appreciative that I’m here. So excited that they have their own private barista."
While Schaefer preps coffee, Katrina Crenshaw, a member of the hospitality crew who has worked with the Riverside since 2005, helps Bauman to set up dinner service.
"I started here popping popcorn and making cookies," she says. "I’ve also run the elevator and ushered."
These days, her role is to cater to the needs of the talent, as well as assist the hospitality crew with anything that needs to be done. "It’s great," she adds, smiling as she lights candles on the dining tables.
Meanwhile, Paul Smaxwill, the theater’s artist relations and hospitality director, sits with his laptop on one of the couches in the Green Room. He’s been with the Pabst Group for almost seven years, and he says he’s proud to work with such a dedicated group of people.
"We’re all music fans first," he says. "Our expectation is that we will do everything in our power to keep people coming back time and time again."
Behind the Scenes
Simon Bundy is part of the crew most theater-goers will never encounter. As technical director, he stays behind the scenes where he attends to the loading, set-up and execution of sound for every show.
"We’re not known for anything good back here," he says, as he gives me the low-down of his typical 12-plus-hour day. "In fact, I’m empowered by fear – fear that I’ll forget to plug something in, fear that I’ll plug it in wrong. Because it’s only when something goes wrong that people notice me."
But, while fear might drive Bundy’s actions, expertise is what powers his work. Take for instance the Avett Brothers show when – not 15 minutes into the first set – the sound board went down.
"That’s DEFCON 5," he says. "My radios were going like mad. And we had just minutes to repatch the system so that our secondary board routed back to the stage."
Bundy, who has worked with the theatre for over seven years, says it’s the constant drive to "create that magic with technology" that keeps him going show after show. Beyond that, he credits his coworkers with showing up and getting their jobs done.
"I think everybody in our organization is amazing," Bundy notes. "Gary’s put together super caring people who are meticulous in what they do."
The Pabst Theater Group hosts over 400 shows a year, so keeping things moving is no small chore.
"But, even on the worst days," Smaxwill says, "We’re accountable for the experience. So, we try to foster as much positivity as possible, knowing how hard it is for performers on the road."
During the afternoon of the Wilco show, I watched as the kitchen team – comprised of Sloan, pastry chef Julie Thorsen and Tom Oele began preparing dishes for dinner. Activity began as a hum, escalated to a buzz, and then calmed again into a gentle rhythm as each course neared completion.
Sloan prepped foie gras with caramelized apples and port and tweaked a fingerling potato soup with duck fat and fresh horseradish while Oele prepped and sautéed vegetables and Thorsen hand-grated black peppercorn spaetzle to go along with lambic-braised red cabbage and Sloan’s grilled bison steaks.
The dishes on the menu were all inventive and inviting. Options like seared 5-spice shrimp with Chinese broccoli, fermented black bean sauce and Basmati rice showcased the world-inspired flavors for which Sloan has a particular knack. Meanwhile, comfort food dishes like pumpkin ravioli with wild mushrooms, spinach, Marsala cream and sage oil offered respite for the hungry vegetarians on staff.
I watched as each dish was prepared, arranged in catering trays and methodically presented on the buffet – first salad and soups, and then each course, ending with Thorsen’s masterfully created desserts.
Thorsen, who maintains a day job with Spice House, works on contract with the Pabst Group, assisting Sloan in the kitchen and coming up with desserts to accompany each of his menus. On this particular evening, her creations included a raspberry white chocolate cheesecake, Neopolitan mousse cakes, individual pumpkin spice cakes with mascarpone cream and mini pomegranate tarts.
The evening commenced in an unexpectedly relaxed way. Not everyone ate at once. In fact, band members and staff rolled in one after another, some in groups, beginning at about 5 p.m. and persisting until after 6 p.m.
Some band members sat at tables. Others relaxed with laptops and plates of food on the couch in the corner of the room. All the while, Lou Reed crooned on the record player over and under the din of friendly conversation.
At one point, Sloan emerged from the kitchen, introducing himself to the band and crew.
"It’s an honor cooking for you," he says. And the band responds with friendly high fives and ebullient thank you’s.
When Sloan returned to the kitchen, he ritualistically turned the lights down, dissipating the heat that’s developed from the range and oven. The gesture offered the space a far more intimate, ambient feel that doesn’t go unnoticed by the staff.
"He calls it sexy time; I call it ‘I can’t see a damn thing time,’" says Thorsen, leaning over to me with a smile as she worked.
On the night of the Wilco concert, Sloan was also hosting a dinner for a group of Brewers VIPs. So, as the Wilco staff departed the dining area, the kitchen crew began prepping for the next round of food service. This time, the process took place a bit more slowly and deliberately.
The lights stayed down, and Sloan and the crew worked in relative silence, moving across the space as if participating in a well-orchestrated dance. In many ways, it felt as if a cook in a home kitchen was preparing for a dinner party; only, I reminded myself, this cook has twenty-some odd years of professional kitchen experience under his belt.
When Sloan finished service, he led me downstairs into the theater where he grabbed two cans of Dale’s Pale Ale from the bar and led me to the back right of the theater. The opening band, Disappears, was playing its first set as we sank into our seats and took our first sips of beer.
"500 meals down, and I still love what I do," he says to me. And I believe him.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.