Milwaukee is blessed with a number of highly trained chefs who have garnered widespread attention thanks to things like the Beard Awards and other respected outlets.
But we've also got a lot of home-grown chefs who have followed a different route, starting out young in local restaurants and working their way up through Milwaukee kitchens, honing their craft along the way.
One of the latter is Chef Adam Pawlak who runs the kitchen at Port of Call Bistro and Beer Garden Downtown on the Milwaukee River.
Pawlak took some time out from crafting a new spring/summer menu at Port of Call to talk about how he got started in the business, growing up in Italian Bay View and more.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell us a bit about yourself. Were you always interested in the kitchen?
Adam Pawlak: I was born and raised in Bay View, where I have returned after living on the East Side for the past five years. I have always lived in Milwaukee and love it. Food was always a huge part of my life. I am a part of a big Italian family and my mother Rosalie is a fantastic home cook. I remember always asking what’s for dinner and when will it be ready. Food was always important to me I just didn't know at the time when I took my first job at 15 years old in a small pizzeria down the street from my house I would be starting my culinary journey.
OMC: What kind of experience and training brought you to Port of Call?
AP: All of my experience and training in the culinary world has been hands-on, and working on the line. I never got involved in a culinary institute, apprenticeship or traveled the world. People might say that is a lack of education and knowledge of the profession, but my motivation and passion for cooking kept me moving forward. I started at a young age working for small restaurants tossing pizza, flipping burgers and rocking the fryer. I took a position at Nonna’s, a Bartolotta’s restaurant inside of General Mitchell Airport. I started learning better knife skills, sauté and broiler techniques that would be vital to my success as a chef.
I wanted a new experience and change in the kitchen so I was hired on for the reopening of the historic Turner Hall Restaurant and worked under James Beard Award nominee Thomas Peschong, Sous Chefs Craig Wolf and Sean Skala. I worked under them day-in and day-out, learning old and new techniques that have made me what I am today. At the same time of Turner Hall Restaurant I was working at Bosley on Brady, which was a great experience and chance to show what I could really do.
They are known for their fresh seafood and prime steaks. A place where being busy is an understatement. I loved working at Turner Hall as well as Bosley but I wanted to take a higher position and push myself to the limits, which brought me to Port of Call Bistro and Beer Garden.
Port of Call Bistro has given me the opportunity to create new menus and specials, and put my own twist on classic techniques. I have a brand new spring/summer menu coming out in April.
OMC: I hear you have a tiny kitchen over there. Is that a challenge?
AP: Yes! Our kitchen is on the small side for a high volume restaurant on the river, but we make it work. Sometimes in the middle of prep, or a rush I find myself wishing I had more space! There’s nights where our pass is crowded and tight but that has not affected the flow and drive of the kitchen. I have worked in small kitchens in the past and they never seem to bother me. I like the compact tight kitchen concept.
OMC: We chatted about this briefly in the past, but are there other chefs in town overcoming cramped spaces to turn out amazing food?
AP: I have not been in every kitchen in the city but there are some incredible restaurants putting out food in small kitchens such as Bosley, Odd Duck, Pastiche and Chez Jacques.
OMC: What are the strategies for doing that?
AP: I would say the strategy for that is being clean, organized and aware of the people and equipment around you.
OMC: Do you have a signature dish?
AP: I wouldn't say I have a signature dish as much as a signature ingredient. I love cooking with scallops of any kind and introducing new flavors and presentations to the diners or Port of Call. I don't think there’s anything better then turning over that giant sea scallop and seeing the beautiful brown sear that we all love.
OMC: What do you like most, and least, about your job?
AP: The thing I love most about my job is learning something new every day. I will always find new flavors, pairings, presentations and techniques that will only make me better. The thing I like least about my job is missing out on important events like weddings, family and holidays. If you can’t handle working nights, weekends and holidays this business is not for you.
OMC: Do you have any favorite places to eat out in Milwaukee?
AP: I rarely get the chance to go out and enjoy a great restaurant experience, but there are a few restaurants that stick out in my mind. Hinterland, Bosley, The Pasta Tree, Sanford, Screaming Tuna.
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook? What do you like about it?
AP: Jacques Pepin's "Complete Techniques." I love this book because it shows the true classic techniques and styles of cooking that we all use to this day. Everything from making croutons, dicing an onion, to poaching the perfect egg.
OMC: Do you have a favorite TV or celebrity chef?
AP: It’s hard to watch celebrity chefs at their best on television, when I know their careers did not start with fancy kitchens, lights and fame. But I do enjoy watching Graham Elliot on the television show "Master Chef," and the always classic Lidia Bastianich. Classic cooking shows have always been a big part of my life and career including Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Rick Bayless and Ming Tsai.
OMC: What's been the biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?
AP: I think the culinary arts schools have really done a great job expanding their curriculum and educating students on not only the cooking techniques and recipes, but the business side of it. Wine and food pairings, food handling preparations, managing and the science behind the food. Although I did not attend culinary school I have the utmost respect for those who have.
OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?
AP: My 10-inch chef knife can do everything.
OMC: What's the next big trend in food?
AP: I wouldn't call it a trend as much as a chef lifestyle, but the whole farm to table concept and using local businesses and farms to obtain ingredients is genius. Why wouldn't you get the most fresh, ripe, in season ingredients as possible. It makes for better flavor, presentation and knowledge of where our food comes from. This business is all about building relationships and showcasing the best ingredients possible. The more farm to table restaurants that open up, the higher the quality of food is being introduced to the public, creating higher standards and experiences.
OMC: What's the toughest day or night to work in the restaurant business?
AP: It would definitely be a Saturday summer night in Milwaukee, catering to a 60-person patio on the Milwaukee River as well as a full restaurant. Sometimes turning over the restaurant five or six times. Fridays are pretty rough as well. (Laughs)
OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?
AP: I love a big greasy cheese burger with fries, but if I'm dining out somewhere I live for a perfect medium-rare New York strip with demi-glace and mashed potato.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.