When we last talked with Adam Pawlak, he was running the kitchen at Port of Call Bistro and Beer Garden Downtown on the Milwaukee River. The position was his first executive chef role after working at Nonna Bartolotta’s, Pizzeria Piccola, Turner Hall Restaurant and Bosley on Brady.
Since that time, Pawlak has also worked for Sebastian’s in Caledonia, where he gained additional experience working with fresh foods from the restaurant’s organic garden. Most recently, he’s taken on a new challenge as executive chef of Plum Lounge, 780 N. Jefferson St., the new hot spot recently opened by Dogg Haus owner Mazen Muna.
It’s a pretty swift change of pace, so we thought we’d catch up with Pawlak and see how things were going in his new role, as well as getting to know him a little better.
OMC: Curiosity question. What are your hobbies outside the kitchen?
Adam Pawlak: I used to play drums. That was actually my first go-to dream job -- to be in a band. These days I golf and watch Food Network.
OMC: Your first job was at a pizza joint in Bay View. And I recall you said that job made you realize you could make food your career. But, what -- before that -- sparked your initial interest in food?
AP: It came from my Italian roots. I’m 75% Italian, so there were always family meals. There was never food being eaten around the TV. We were always cooking.
OMC: Living in an Italian household, there have to be a number of great dishes that you remember and cherish.
AP: Oh, definitely. For me, the dish I remember most is spaghetti and meatballs -- the pot going on early in the morning and not being finished until dinner at five or six o’clock. That was my mom’s staple. She made it at least once a week.
OMC: So do you have her recipe for meatballs?
AP: No, I don’t cook much at home. And I really haven’t worked in a legit Italian restaurant since Bartolotta’s.
OMC: Did you spend a lot of time in the kitchen?
AP: Yes, definitely. There are a lot of family photos of me and my brother Alex in the kitchen in full-on chef coats, all covered in flour [one of which Adam was kind enough to share with us; see right]. My brother ended up going to culinary school.
OMC: But, you didn't. What prompted you to make the decision to get your experience on the job?
AP: I was already working in kitchens when he went off to culinary school, and I was really focused on working and learning at a quick pace. I loved the hands-on, and I really felt it was the best way to learn for me.
When you’re in the trenches, taking tickets and really getting to know the sense of urgency in the kitchen -- and how you only really have one chance to please a customer -- it's a different experience from being in the classroom.
Culinary school can be a really great option, if it’s a good fit. And there are a ton of great chefs out there who really benefitted from it. But, getting the experience on the ground works too. If you put your head down and do the research and the work, that’s what it’s all about. It gets you used to the work you need to evolve and keep moving forward.
OMC: I’d imagine you’ve relied -- to great extent -- on great mentors who’ve really given you the education you needed to succeed. Who were some of those people?
AP: My first real mentor was Thomas Peschong, who I worked with at Turner Hall. He taught me classic techniques, really refining the way I cooked… from classic soups to mother sauces to plating. I got great high volume experience while I was working with him. And he taught me how to be a humble chef, to focus on giving people the best experience possible. Food was always a first priority for him. And he was also great to go to outside the kitchen as well. I could go to him for anything.
I also really benefited from working with Sean Skala, who was the exec sous chef. Our friendship grew and we ended up growing together, talking food. We ended up as roommates, and he taught me things I didn’t know. He really influenced what I know now.
OMC: What’s your philosophical approach to the food at Plum?
AP: I’m classical in my techniques, but there’s always a twist. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Everything has been done before, but there are always ways to make it my own.
My specialty here is really taking great fresh ingredients and giving them their own personality. We have a great scallop dish on the menu. It’s very classic -- pan seared scallops with a petite salad of kale, arugula, bacon, cherries, apple. It’s simple, straightforward, and the ingredients really speak for themselves. I want each ingredient to come through and let it shine.
OMC: What’s something no one knows about you?
AP: I actually used to be really shy and more reserved. But, over the years, I’ve really become more outgoing. And working in the kitchen has really helped that.
OMC: How does that impact you in the kitchen?
AP: A chef needs a voice in the kitchen. He needs confidence and he needs to believe in what he’s doing. Being passionate is about expressing yourself, having ideas. And that’s really important.
OMC: How do you want people to see Plum, in terms of food?
AP: I want people to be able to have a good time. They should enjoy our signature drinks, but they should also enjoy the food. Great food and drinks go hand in hand, so they can come, relax, hang out on our great patio. Food in this type of atmosphere is very social. It gets people talking, eating, drinking and enjoying themselves. Everything here is orchestrated to really encourage that.
OMC: What's your favorite thing on the menu right now?
AP: Right now, it’s the scallop dish. The sweetness and tartness of the cherry along with smokiness of the bacon really complements the scallop. Scallops are a great ingredient; they’re versatile and they’re not heavy, but they’re substantial.
OMC: What's one thing you wish customers knew about what you do?
AP: How much passion, time and effort goes into creating a menu and making the food that they enjoy. So much thought goes into what you decide to invest your time in and share with the city. This isn’t a corporate environment; it’s more like family. It’s a collaboration, and it’s hard work that takes effort to be executed correctly. We think about every plate -- whether it’s chocolate or scallops. I touch every one of them and make sure it goes out. Days off for chefs are scarce, and that’s part of the commitment to making sure things are just right.
OMC: What are your favorite spots to eat out in Milwaukee?
There’s so many new restaurants. My favorite right now would have to be either Odd Duck or c.1880. Thomas Hauck is unreal with his food. He delivers every time, and his food is so well executed. I’m also a big fan of Hinterland.
OMC: If you could cook for anyone in the world, who would it be?
AP: Honestly, and this might sound cliche, my my grandmother passed away before I really got into cooking. So, it would be great to show her how far I’ve come, and that I really took on everything she taught and showed me.
OMC: And what would you serve?
AP: That’s a super tough question. I would cook her the classic spedini -- pounded veal, rolled and filled with breadcrumbs. I’d serve it with a nice traditional red sauce and homemade fresh mozzarella cheese.
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.