The first question to ask any chef this week is, how hot has it been in your kitchen? Aaron Patin, appointed executive chef at the Brookfield Charro this spring, said the thermometer hit 112 around the burners at his restaurant Wednesday.
That presents obvious challenges to people and machines. Patin discourages his staff from drinking soda – "sugar doesn't hydrate you" – and installed a five-gallon cooler jug that he keeps filled with water or Gatorade.
Then he tries to forget about the temperature. "The moment you think about how hot it is, you are done," he says.
A broiling kitchen can also cause the refrigeration equipment to surrender. Condensers overheat and short out, and your staff must deal with that while also preparing food.
If Patin had stayed in his native Houston, he probably would be more accustomed to this week's heat, but his family moved to Chicago when he was a child, and his first restaurant job was doing grunt work at a hot dog and gyro diner in Antioch, Ill. "If I was lucky, I got to peel onions," he said over coffee in a Bay View shop on his day off this week.
Occupying the bottom rung of the restaurant job ladder did not dissuade Patin from pursuing a career in the industry. He gravitated to culinary courses in high school.
"I've always enjoyed eating," he explained, adding that his Mexican mother and his father's French heritage introduced strong food cultures into the Patin home. "I had an early exposure to good food."
The chef's dad went to Europe on business and sometimes took the family, broadening Aaron's young palate. Graduating from onion peeling to cooking on a line, Patin was a chef de cuisine in Chicago by the time he was 20. He is now 26.
Patin held the chef de cuisine title at the French creole Maple Tree Inn in Blue Island, Ill., and Radius 10 in Nashville. He was sous chef and executive sous chef at the Park Grill in Millennium Park in Chicago, and executive chef at 360 Bistro in Nashville.
"It (being a chef) is a job that if you want to excel, people will give you opportunities," Patin explained.
The executive chef enjoyed his Nashville gigs, and that influenced his decision to move to Milwaukee. "Nashville was a great experience for me in an agricultural sense," he said. "It is surrounded by farms, and I was able to establish some wonderful relationships with farmers."
Chicago's size makes that more unlikely, and he was seeking a top kitchen spot in a slightly smaller market.
At Charro Brookfield, Patin is supervising a pan-Latin cuisine that offers such items as Cuban Ropa Vieja (braised pork and beef, sweet plantains, salsa verde and four cheeses), Brazilian Vatapa (shrimp with cashews, parsley and cherry tomatoes in coconut milk sauce) and Bolivian Picante de Pollo (crispy fried chicken with spicy tomato salsa.) It fits his interest in world food.
In 2009 Patin backpacked through Thailand and Cambodia for nearly six months, observing and sampling the different regional cuisines in local restaurants. "I would hang out in a kitchen for a day, watching and learning," he said.
Asked if he cooked at home, Patin responded, "a lot. We do a lot of canning and preserving. The bounty of spring and summer – cucumbers, tomatoes, yellow wax beans. We (he and his girlfriend) have a garden.
"I do a lot of wood-fired grilling at home. Wood fire grills are one of my passions."
What is the best thing about being an executive chef? "Aside from eating, the teaching. You continue to teach yourself, and a good chef teaches those around him."
What is the worst thing about his job? "The ongoing joke in the industry is that Murphy's Law always applies in restaurants." That means anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
Does Patin watch television cooking shows? "No."
His pet peeve? "Chefs who cook for themselves rather than the guests. They want to satisfy the need to be unique in the eyes of their colleagues.
"I do that on my own time. In the restaurant, you don't cook for yourself first. It's not about me. When guests understands that, they are more likely to try something new you offer them."
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.