Milwaukee is filled with amazing people. And some of those people are wild about food. "8 questions" is a series that focuses on the food lovers in our midst. They aren’t chefs. They don’t work in the food industry. But, they know a thing or two about eating. And that’s part of what makes them awesome.
If you dine out fairly often, you may have run into Shary Tran at one of the fine eateries around town. Or maybe you just noticed that she was nominated this year for one of the Business Journal’s "40 Under 40" awards.
By day she’s the director of diversity and inclusion at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin. But, in her spare time, she’s fueled entirely by her passion for food. That’s why I sat her down to find out more about her latest obsessions and adventures in cuisine.
But first, a little background:
Tran is the youngest of 10 children, and the first in her family to be born in the U.S. In fact, her mother was pregnant with her when her family emigrated to the U.S. from Saigon, Vietnam, in April 1975.
"My father was the police escort to the U.S. ambassador," says Tran. "So, we were one of the first families to leave the country. My family floated out at sea for days before they got picked up by the Coast Guard. From there, we remained in refugee camps and were among the last to find a sponsor due to one reason only – my father REFUSED to separate the family and was adamant about keeping us together."
Tran grew up in New Berlin before attending UW-Whitewater where she majored in international business. Thanks to an internship in human resources, during which she was asked to create an affirmative action plan, her expertise branched out to include knowledge of the legalities of diversity and inclusion, ultimately creating the for her career. Tran’s resume has included work for Johnson Controls, Briggs & Stratton and now Froedtert, where she focuses on staff experience, engagement and satisfaction. She also conducts diversity and communications training focused on providing the best patient care possible.
When she’s not working, Tran loves to take time for travel and exercise (including barre training, Bikram yoga and salsa dancing). And food, of course.
OnMilwaukee: What inspired your love of food?
Shary Tran: I can pinpoint it, actually. Back when I was about 12, there was a show called "Great Chefs Great Cities," and my mom and I would watch it together all the time. I saw Sandy D’Amato on the "Great Chefs of the Midwest" episode, and it blew my mind. I’d seen Charlie Trotter and other people from Chicago on the show; but, I never knew there were people like that in Wisconsin. So, I made a goal to go to Sanford and eat there.
I finally made it to the restaurant sometime in my 20s. I took my boyfriend there for Valentine’s Day. We had the Valentine’s Day tasting menu. It was the first time I’d experienced a tasting menu… and there was so much food. It was exhausting.
Honestly, when I talk to my chef friends, they always talk about seeing shows on television and thinking "I want to make that food." My thought was "I want to eat that."
OMC: Do you cook? If so, what are some of your favorite things to make?
ST: I do. I didn’t cook much when I was younger, mostly because my mom cooked for us every day. Sometimes I’d help with prep. But, I learned most of what I know through watching her. Of course, I was also rebellious and and so when I cooked for myself, I made American food.
My girlfriends and I used to do a monthly girls’ night where we rotated homes and cooked for one another. My friends are all of various ethnicities, so we’d have all sorts of different things. I really like to cook and I like to entertain people.
My friends always request this Caribbean spiced pork tenderloin that I make. There’s also a mushroom and leek risotto they love. And of course I make my mom’s egg rolls.
OMC: What’s your favorite food city?
ST: It’s tough. My top picks would be New York, Chicago, San Francisco…
But, New York just has such a variety and diversity. I probably get out to New York once every few months, since I have friends who live there.
Most of them are people who are into food, but not really foodies – so they take me to some places that are off the radar, and sometimes I take them places they’ve never been. For a while I was stuck on Tertulia – great Spanish place – but, I try to try new places every time I go back.
One of my favorite spots right now is Del Posto. They have amazing gluten-free pasta. And for a long time, every time I went I stopped at Katz’s for pastrami to bring back. Now I do that with bakery; I always go to Dominique Ansel Bakery; he’s always doing something new. And while I’m there, I’m always loading up on gifts for people.
OMC: You avoid gluten. Is that challenging for a food-lover like you?
ST: I’m not Celiac, but I do have an intolerance. I don’t generally request accommodations because I can eat it, technically. But, there are times when I think it’s worth it, and then other times when it’s not. I do a lot of detoxing, especially after I travel.
One of the things that’s really hard for me to resist is really good bread. I’m not a sweets person; I’m more of a salty person, so bread is definitely on my list. There are so many spots that make really great bread...
OMC: Do you have a favorite restaurant in Milwaukee?
ST: I know it’s an institution, so it feels almost cliche to say it. But, since Justin (Aprahamian) has taken over at Sanford, they’re putting out some really great stuff. I’ve done the tasting menu there probably three times fairly recently, and he’s got great ideas. Great ingredients.
I also really love Goodkind. There aren’t a lot of places that make me really think about a dish or go back to try it. But, I sometimes find myself dreaming about brunch at Goodkind and planning the next time I can go back to eat things like those foie gras frosted cinnamon rolls.
And Katie Rose does such a great job with cocktails; there’s this one brunch cocktail with egg in it, I think it’s called "off to the races." It’s so good. A great breakfast cocktail, if there is such a thing.
OMC: Any secret food spots in the city?
ST: I find great things at places like Pacific Produce, and the Asian grocer on 35th and National.
I also love Pueblo Foods on Holton. They have a great little food counter that serves up the most amazing arroz con gandules, a traditional Puerto Rican rice dish with pigeon peas and pork.
They also have some other great things … a lot of them are fried (smiles).
OMC: What’s the most frustrating thing about Milwaukee, food-wise?
ST: I almost feel like the thing that’s most frustrating are the customers … maybe the overall lack of adventurous eaters, and the lack of appreciation for what the chefs, the restaurants, do.
I think that sometimes stifles the creativity on the part of the chefs – who end up compromising just to make a living.
I do think there’s been a rise in more foodie eaters over the past few years, so that’s good. I call it "food worldliness" – that means you care, not just about the food you eat, but how it’s made – all that stuff.
OMC: Tell me about your latest foodie adventure.
ST: I try to replicate some my mom's recipes and have had some successes. My latest food adventure was making my mom's famous egg rolls. I feel like I've gotten pretty good at it after I made a hundred or so this past holiday season as gifts for friends. Fingers crossed that you're on the "nice" list this year.
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.