The story behind Lazy Susan, 2378 S. Howell Ave., is a compelling one. And if you haven’t eaten there, the food you’ll encounter is just as irresistible (think great vegetable dishes and luscious wild game).
Chef and owner AJ Dixon’s restaurant ownership dreams were propelled by a lifelong love of food. Inspired largely by her mother, an active cook who passed away when Dixon was just a freshman in high school, she would move on to work in a variety of positions – both front and back of the house – in restaurants across the city.
After completing the culinary program at MATC, Dixon’s cooking experience included positions at County Clare, Café Lulu and Jean Pierre; she worked as the first kitchen manager for Café Lulu, and even did a stint as a server at Watts Tea Shop. Prior to opening Lazy Susan, she opened The National Cafe, Pastiche, and Centro Café, where she started as a line cook and quickly moved up to head chef.
As Lazy Susan celebrates just over a year in business, it seemed time to sit down with Dixon and find out more about what makes her tick.
OnMilwaukee.com: Well, it’s been a year since you opened Lazy Susan. Are you finally hitting your stride with the restaurant?
AJ Dixon: Oh, yes. Definitely. We’re in the process of figuring out how to put forward an ever-changing seasonal menu in a way that really works for the kitchen and the customers.
OMC: What's your favorite thing on the menu right now?
AJD: I buy peaches from Tree Ripe every year. So, I’m really looking forward to my annual batch of peaches from them.
It’s essentially a savory version of peaches and cream with arugula, burrata, and peaches. I’ve done ginger-mint dressing, basil dressing, something that really complements the peaches. It’s one of the dishes I wait all year to do.
OMC: What's one thing you wish people knew about Lazy Susan?
AJD: We are not small plates! Our items are shareable -- but two people can’t come in and order nine plates. We’ve always wanted people to come in and share a meal. And sharing plates can be part of that. Come enjoy the people you’re with, put away your phone, and share that meal.
Also -- vegetables. Eat them! You can always judge a good restaurant on their vegetable dishes, and so we serve a lot of them. I pride myself on really being creative in that area. We also tend to gravitate towards game; people often don’t understand that, don’t expect it. So, I want people to come in and try new things, branch out. It’s not just about meat and potatoes.
OMC: Do you have a signature dish?
AJD: I don’t really know. People probably would say the Cambodian chicken wings, which we sell 60 pounds at a time of when they’re on the menu. But, they’re really time intensive, so we’re taking a break from them for right now. But, they’ll be back.
I’m also on an egg kick lately. So Scotch eggs are one of my "things." We’re working on an Asian Scotch egg right now.
OMC: What are your favorite places to eat out in Milwaukee?
AJD: Yeah, and places I don’t go enough. Guanajuato’s (GTO's) is my favorite Mexican place. Their food is so good, and they’re such nice people.
My husband actually bought me tickets to the rose dinner at c.1880 next week, so I’m pretty excited about that. Rose is my favorite thing to drink. I’ve only been to c.1880 twice before, but if I were to open an extreme fine dining restaurant, he captures it. It’s simple, but complicated. And if I could afford it -- and didn’t have kids -- I’d go there more.
I’m also a big fan of Royal India -- they’re by far one of the best among places I’ve tried. So good… Indian food all the way.
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook? What do you like about it?
AJD: Oh, my. I have so many. Mmm. I would say "Plenty" (Yotam Ottolenghi). It’s such a gorgeous book, and the way they treat vegetables, it’s just awesome.
Also "Vedge" (Rich Landou and Kate Jacoby) is a great resource. It gives me a lot of inspiration in terms of making vegan food. I really feel strongly that no one should be left out of the equation, so we always have vegan items on the menu. I make it a point to make them so good that anyone will enjoy them, even if they’re not vegan.
Another "go to" is "My French Table" by Dori Greenspan. Mike Engel actually got me that book as a gift when I left Pastiche. It’s so great for basic French dishes. And I get it out whenever I ask myself "What would Dori do?"
OMC: What's been the biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?
AJD: The entire local movement. It’s a big cliche -- but then it’s completely not a big cliche at all. It’s what people should be doing; it’s what they should be eating. I’m a big believer that that’s how we should cook and how we should eat. And it’s really caught on, and that’s great. Of course, it’s hard to get people to realize that we’re totally beyond the point where we should list every producer on our menus. And that’s sometimes tough for people to understand.
OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?
AJD: My mandoline. I use it for lots of things. We do have a love/hate relationship, though. I’ve sustained a lot of injuries using it, probably more than most.
OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?
AJD: Any menu that has tiramisu on it. It’s so awful, but whenever I see it on a menu, I order it. And I’ve had great ones, and really bad ones.
OMC: What’s it like to be a woman restaurant owner in an industry largely populated by men?
AJD: I do always feel like I’m not in the club. I’m always kind of in my own world. Maybe part of it is that I’m not going out, hanging out. I’m a mother -- not only to my staff, but also to my children. And it’s really kind of a boys club… and then here I am. Maybe someday people will invite me to do things.
I always say that slow and steady wins the race. And so that’s what I do. Head down, and I really just want to run my own restaurant, and do it well.
OMC: What’s your most memorable dining experience?
I got to cook for Jacques Pepin. Last year, I was out in Connecticut. I stayed at Michele Nischan’s house, and he was there. I mean, I just made salad… but I used fresh things from the garden. And I got to hang out with Michele while we were cooking -- and that was great… really good learning experience. He introduced me to coconut sugar, which is now my favorite thing to add to vegetable dishes; it’s so meaty.
It was surreal. I helped make this huge spread of food, and then I sat down with Jacques Pepin, Bun Lai, Jean George Vongerichten and all the other chefs. And I watched them … and they were smoking cigarettes and drinking rose and just having conversations about when they were young. Not many people get to have that experience. It was life-changing, in a sense. Very personal and really good.
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.