Milwaukee is filled with amazing people. And some of those people are wild about food. 8 Questions is a series that focuses on 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’re an avid diner on the Milwaukee scene, there’s a pretty fair chance you’ve bumped into Chris and Eric Stolarski at one of the city’s many restaurants. And, if you’re active on Twitter, you may have also caught their often tongue-in-cheek banter from their respective accounts, @CRStoli and @Mrs_Stoli.
The two food lovers, who have been married since 2011, met while attending Marion College in Fond du Lac, where Erica majored in psychology and Chris pursued his degree in journalism and public relations. And they’re a living testament to the idea that opposites attract.
"We were very opposite," notes Erica. "I’m pretty out there, and don’t give a sh*t. Chris was very buttoned up. But, together we really complemented one another. He keeps me in line, in a good way."
Chris agrees. "We had more things in common than we would ever have guessed, and we always had fun together. She brought me down a bit and loosened me up. She makes sure I don’t take myself too seriously."
After graduation, the two moved to Indianapolis, where Chris took a job consulting with Phi Sigma Kappa; meanwhile, Erica launched her career in applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy working with children with autism. But five years later, when Chris took a job as a media relations specialist at Marquette University, they found themselves back in Milwaukee.
Today, Chris is still enjoying his work at Marquette. And Erica spends busy days as a case manager for SaintA. The two live in St. Francis with their two dachshunds, Peter and Penny. When they’re not eating or drinking, Chris loves golf, boating and fine cigars. Erica enjoys reading, running. She also maintains a fine collection of coffee mugs that bear offensive sayings.
We sat down with both of them at one of their favorite Milwaukee spots, Meritage, in the weeks before Chef Jan Kelly served up her last meals And we picked their brains about food, cooking and living in Milwaukee.
OnMilwaukee: What inspired your love of food?
Erica Stolarski: When I lived alone, I lived off of Cheetos and beer. And I pretty much ate nothing but toast and macaroni and cheese. But, when we moved to Indy, Chris traveled, so I needed to fend for myself. I ended up discovering the Food Network.
Chris Stolarski: I’d go on the road for about two weeks at a time, and every time I came home, she had new skills and new dishes. And eventually I was like "Wow, this girl can cook. She can run circles around most people in the kitchen."
How about you, Chris?
Chris Stolarski: I was always an adventurous eater. When I was three, my mother worked nights at the hospital. I remember at one point my dad was watching television and he opened a can of smoked oysters. I asked him to taste one. At first he said "no," but I insisted. And I ended up eating about half the can.
I was also always really interested in restaurants. I remember there was this great show on PBS called "Great Chefs"... and it was amazing, not like most Food Network shows now. They really focused on the chefs cooking in the restaurants. And I loved that. I always loved eating out and the whole restaurant scene.
My first job was a busboy at the Country Squire, and I worked part-time at a high end steakhouse downtown while we lived in Indiana. What I found out is that I’m the world’s worst waiter. I was pretty good at expediting, but not such a great server.
Do you cook? If so, what are some of your favorite things to make?
Chris: My dad did a lot of cooking while I was growing up. He passed away when I was 15, and I knew I didn’t want to eat "single mom" food. So, I started reading and getting into cooking. But, Erica is really the cook.
Erica: I loooove to cook. I like to wish I was Italian. I love cooking sauces and pasta.
Chris: Her risotto could be in a restaurant. And her bolognese is amazing.
Erica: Stirring is really relaxing to me. So, after a hard day at work, all I want to do is stir. And sip. And stir. And maybe sip some more.
Chris: And that’s how we unwind. I have a drink. And she sips wine while she cooks. And that’s bonding time. But, we complement one another, because I’m very creative. And I love plating things. I even entertained culinary school for a while. And then I talked myself out of it.
Erica: Yeah, and I don’t have a creative bone in my body.
Chris: But her skills are so much more refined in the kitchen. So, I bring the creativity and she brings the skill.
Erica: His knife skills are so bad. And I don’t really like to share the kitchen.
Chris: But I do cook fish. I’m the resident poissonier. And I’ve really gotten into wine. And pairing wine with dishes. A friend of ours is really into wine -- and a serious collector -- so he’s kind of my mentor.
You guys have traveled a bit. Do you have a favorite food city?
Chris: I’m torn between New York and New Orleans. For very different reasons. New York is about ethnic food. And I know they have Michelin starred restaurants and so on… but in Hell’s Kitchen there’s a stretch of restaurants owned by immigrants and it’s all amazing. And you only have to travel four or five blocks to travel the world. New Orleans is the most honest food I’ve ever had. It’s down to earth, accessible. And it’s filled with pride, and that comes through in the cooking. Plus, it’s a boatload of fun.
Erica: I don’t know that I’ve traveled enough to have a favorite city. But, I do love Chicago. It’s accessible. They have great ethnic cuisine, and just great restaurants. A long weekend there and my bank account is gone. I just want to eat everything. And I love me some Purple Pig. That bone marrow… It was the first place that we went that cuts the bones lengthwise, and they get caramelized. And then you don’t have that gooey texture. It was so good. And we came home from our trip and gave Peter the bone, and he loved it.
What's your favorite dish at a restaurant in Milwaukee?
Chris: I have to keep it to one? My favorite new dish is the piri piri chicken at Amilinda. It’s the perfect spicy, and it’s so flavorful. It’s so smart, and so good. Thomas [Hauck] does hamachi that’s really great at c.1880. And he has many versions, and they’re all good. And my favorite everyday food is Aaron Patin’s brisket [at Iron Grate BBQ].
Erica: The chicken fennel sausage with mustard gnocchi at Triskele’s. It’s tasty. It’s something I’d probably make at home, but it’s also a comfy dish. It’s more fall and winter, but I’ll also eat it in the summer. And I order it every time I go there, unless it’s not on the menu. And the bistec con rajas y queso at El Senorial. Oh my God, it’s so good.
Now the tough one. What's your favorite Milwaukee restaurant?
Chris: c.1880. I want to be clear. This, in no way, impugns other restaurants. Meritage -- which we’ll miss -- was a longtime favorite. Odd Duck, Goodkind, Morel, Amilinda… there are so many places. But, that "gun to your head moment" for an anniversary or birthday, and it’s c.1880. It’s so amazing. And we’ve never had better service in a restaurant in this city.
Erica: All of Walker’s Point. Can you just say that?
Any guilty pleasures?
Erica: Taco Bell, though I have no guilt. No shame. Cheesy gordita crunch, soft shell tacos and the straight up nachos with the fake cheese.
Chris: I’m a sandwich fiend. People underestimate the value of a good sandwich. I love back to basics sandwiches like bologna and cheese. And not good bologna. Bubble pack bologna. Once while Erica was in the hospital I was on my own for a week. I was a little upset, but I also didn’t feel like cooking. So, I subsisted on bologna and cheese and braunschweiger sandwiches for like five days. I lost ten pounds doing it too.
I’m also an unabashed George Webb’s fanatic. I like their burgers, breakfast. I love diners and back to basics stuff. And I love their coffee. And whenever I take a Friday off of work and it’s just me, I go to Webb’’s. I take my paper and I drink coffee. And I’m the youngest person there. I love it.
As food lovers, what's the most frustrating thing for you about Milwaukee?
Chris: One is personal. The lack of Eastern European food in this city is appalling given our heritage. My grandparents were Polish immigrants. And there’s so little Polish food in this city. There’s only one restaurant left. And then there’s this antiquated notion that all the food is heavy. But, cuisines in every country have evolved.
My other gripe… or rather a worry… is the following of trends. My friends and I always joke that we’re going to open a small plates restaurant with repurposed barn wood and Edison lights, and we would name the restaurant "Cliche." And it’s not that I don’t love a lot of these restaurants, but they’re so much the same. It’s minor, but it’s a caution to those in the scene. Be cautious about chasing fads.
Erica: I don’t know. I am annoyed by the idea that Milwaukee is only brats, cheese and beer. But, I think that annoys anyone who spends time here. I don’t want the beer or cheese to go away. But, comeon, we have food that’s better than brats. We have Ardent and c.1880 and places that go way beyond that.
When you think back, what are some of your best food adventures?
Erica: I think mine is coming. We’re going on a trip to London and Ireland in September. I plan to eat my way through. I want curry and fish and chips in Liverpool. And whatever they eat in Ireland. I don’t care, I want to eat it. I’m so excited. Am I going to like salt cod? Maybe. I’m going to come back 30 pounds heavier? Yoga pants all day long.
Chris: I have a lot of great memories. I ate chorizo in Boise, Idaho that was served from like a hotdog cart in a Basque section of the city. I had onion rings at Easystreet Cafe in Bowling Green, Ohio that were battered (the only way to eat them, in my opinion), and they were crispy and sweet. I ate the best mozzarella sticks ever in Kentucky. One of the best restaurants I ever ate at was an old Civil War field hospital in Gettysburg called the Dobbin House Tavern. So, I have a lot of those tales.
But, my most recent discovery was the African Braai. I have a friend from South Africa who lives in Walworth. And a couple of years back, he said, "We’re going to have a braai." And what I loved was both the focus on the food and the focus on being together. We’ll sit there for seven straight hours and eat little bits for hours and hours. And he’ll make boerewors and kebabs with curried lamb and apricot, and lamb ribs. And they have these things called toasties, which are essentially a grilled cheese sandwich. And you eat in this cycle… you’re talking and eating and drinking. And there’s just a different feel about it.
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.