We all remember the old Comet Cafe -- small, cozy, perpetually smoky and filled with smells that clung to you long after your departure. Yet, with delicious food, good coffee and an artsy, mellow environment, it was a vital cultural hub for the under-30 crowd.
Two years ago, Comet grew up, cleaned up and expanded to include a bar -- a welcomed transformation that had a lot to do with executive chef / co-owner Adam Lucks.
Lucks and his sister Valerie moved up from Chicago to help Scott Johnson and Leslie Montemurro turn Milwaukee's beloved coffee shop into something even better, and it worked. Lucks says his inspiration for Comet's comfort food-meets-sandwich shop menu came from the desire to be the place people go to after work for a meal they'd make at home if they had the time.
"In Chicago it was hard to find a normal breakfast or a normal sandwich," he says. "Everybody had sandwiches or breakfasts but it was always hibiscus pancakes or coddled portobello mushroom whatever, and it was like, what are you doing to food? What ever happened to meatloaf? What ever happened to a turkey sandwich?"
Now, you can get your meatloaf dinner at Comet, and you can get it vegan, too.
OMC: What kind of training and experience did you acquire before coming to Comet?
Lucks: I trained at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Ore., which is Le Cordon Bleu certified. I have a classic French background and interned at North Pond in Chicago, a three-star French restaurant. I've spent the majority of my cooking time in places like Comet, though. I ran a small diner in Portland, I was the kitchen manager at the Flying Saucer in Chicago, I worked for Whole Foods for years in their kitchen and restaurant, and when I was 14 I was a dishwasher who butchered chickens at a fried chicken place. I've done the fine dining thing and I didn't really like it. I didn't like the pretension or the attitude that went a long with it.
OMC: Do you have a signature dish?
AL: At Comet, I think our signature dish is the meatloaf. Otherwise, once a year I make a turducken for Thanksgiving, which is a giant turkey, stuffed with a chicken, stuffed with a duck, with sausage between each layer, wrapped in bacon and baked for 14 hours. It's an old classic recipe, but I've added the sausage and bacon.
OMC: What do you like most, and least, about your job?
AL: Brunch. I love the fact that it's hectic and coming up with brunch specials is hilarious -- we get here at 6 a.m. and make them up. At the same time, brunch has a way of seeming like an endless day of work, but it's also fun.
OMC: What are your favorite places to eat in Milwaukee, the country and the world?
AL: I'm not a world traveler. I've been to the Bahamas, Mexico and Canada -- and the Northern Yukon doesn't really offer that much to eat.
I did just eat at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, N.Y., last weekend. It holds the claim for the inventor of the Buffalo wing and I have to say they were the best wings I'd ever had in my life. In Chicago, I do enjoy the North Pond. It's classic French, slow food and the chef brings in all organic produce and grows a lot of his own stuff. It's phenomenal food.
Locally, I find myself eating at Lulu and Tenuta's in Bay View all the time. But if it's my birthday, I love eating at Izumi's or Sanford, which has hands-down fantastic food.
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook?
AL: "The Joy of Cooking." It sounds generic, but it has a basic recipe for everything. For someone who doesn't really follow recipes, it's a great base. If you've never made tartar sauce before, you can look in there, get a basic idea and then modify it. I've got two copies, one here (at Comet) at one at my house. It's one of the very few cookbooks we have here. It's a kitchen necessity.
OMC: Do you have a favorite Food Network chef?
AL: I don't have cable but I do own a cookbook by Alton Brown, one of the chefs on the Food Network. I like him because he looks at food scientifically. Like, if you heat an egg to this temperature, it will do this. If you mix this and this together, the chemical reaction is buttermilk. He's the reason our fries are the way they are at Comet. He taught me how to make fries in his cookbook. There's a science to it.
OMC: What's been the biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?
AL: I don't know if there are too many things that have come up -- I mean, potatoes have been around for a long time. There's sous-vide, where you vacuum pack your food in a pouch and slow cook it in water. A lot of chefs are into that now.
OMC: Which kitchen utensil can't you live without?
AL: A 10-inch chef's knife can do anything.
OMC: What's the next big trend in food?
AL: Right now the trend seems to be using organic foods, growing your own food and supporting your community by buying seasonal produce from local farmers and supporting renewable sustainable agriculture versus buying from a large factory farm in Mexico. If tomatoes aren't fresh in December, don't buy tomatoes in December. Roots is doing it, Barossa was doing stuff like that. We try our best to buy as much stuff from food distributors that are in Milwaukee and get all our produce delivered fresh daily, as opposed to in bulk.
OMC: What is the toughest day / night to work in restaurant biz?
AL: At Comet, we tend to be opposite the general restaurant trends. Mother's Day is a ghost town; Easter, same thing. If it's a holiday on a weekend, we're slow. The busiest day to work at Comet is Sunday brunch, every week -- except Mother's Day and Easter.
OMC: What is your favorite "guilty pleasure" food?
AL: Palermo's supreme thin crust frozen pizza and I have a Presto Pizzazz pizza oven at home. I don't actually have a stove at my house. I have a nice kitchen with a Pizzazz, a toaster oven and two butane burners. I remodeled my place and haven't gotten around to finishing the kitchen. It's low priority because I don't cook at home, unless I'm making a pizza with my $20 Pizzazz. It makes a good pizza!
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.
As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When OnMilwaukee.com offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”