Ben Barger is a full-time engineering student at UW-Milwaukee and one not only with ambition, but with success in his field already.
Barger is a partner in a sustainable energy company in California and, says Pasta Tree general manager Jarid Bacon, "He also runs a pseudo zoo in his house with a variety of animals. His interests are diverse and he really nurtures them all."
So, it hardly comes as a shock that he's brought the same passion and drive -- and results -- to his first love: the culinary arts.
Working with Bacon, Barger has kept the kitchen at the long-lived and much-loved Pasta Tree on its toes and moving forward.
"Working with Ben is great. With myself being the Chef de Cuisine and the one with the culinary background and Ben having amazing skills in execution in the kitchen, we make a great team," says Bacon. "He is always excited and eager to learn new things and try new recipes, there's nothing he won't do for a coworker or teammate."
We asked this young chef about his experience and about his culinary favorites.
OnMilwaukee.com: What kind of experience and training brought you to The Pasta Tree?
Ben Barger: Starting in the service industry from the bottom up really helped me develop a real passion for food. Understanding the careful process of changing wholesome foods to delicious entrées has always been the basis of my influence. I also loved the opportunity to reside at a restaurant that has such a strong Italian influence, making the food a bit more simple which allows us to make everything from scratch.
OMC: Tell us about the "Italy -- One Region at a Time" series. Was that your idea?
BB: The "Italy - One Region at a Time" series was an idea to have delicious tastings that educate diners on the different cultures of Italy through the food and wines of that region. Jarid Bacon's passion for new and superb dining experiences is the driving force behind the sequence of dinners. We're trying to not only give them the experience of great Italian food, but a specific flavor and culture from the hugely diverse country. Guests also receive all the recipes from the dinner in order for them to try and replicate the experience and parings.
OMC: Do you have a signature dish?
BB: The specials are nightly at the Pasta Tree, so I don't necessarily get time to recreate the same dish over and over. However in my spare time, I love cooking biscuits in the morning for friends after a late night. There's something about the simplicity of the recipe, and I ordinarily don't care for baking. Hats off to double action baking powder.
OMC: What do you like most, and least, about your job?
BB: I love the ability to create great Italian dishes for people who really enjoy the food. We've had Italian families come in and tell us this was the first good Italian food they've gotten in America. That's a huge compliment for me and keeps the enthusiasm high. The worst part of my job is probably understanding the quantity of animals eaten by average Americans. I'm kind of a granola head so when somebody takes a dish with bacon in it and adds chicken and shrimp, I get a little uneasy.
OMC: What are your favorite places to eat out in Milwaukee?
BB: I love sandwiches, loaded with tons of crazy stuff. I really like Comet Café and Koppa's Deli. Not only are they competitors opposite (each other on) North Farwell Avenue, but they offer several sandwiches loaded with all the fixins. I also like supporting the local businesses, and at a block from my house, they're as local as it gets for me.
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook? What do you like about it?
BB: "The Joy of Cooking" by Irma Roumbauer and Marion Rombauer Becker. I just really like the comprehensiveness of it. It reminds me a bit more of a textbook, and as I am also a mechanical engineering student at UW-Milwaukee, it helps me relate to it a bit more on a scientific approach. It's rare when I hear of a dish and it doesn't happen to be in there.
OMC: Do you have a favorite TV or celebrity chef?
BB: I really enjoy Alton Brown. Although a bit zany from time to time, his tried and true methods not only work historically, but on a broken-down science level as well. I feel he has some of the most educational programming pertaining to cooking on television today.
OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?
BB: I gotta have my wooden spoon. The stand mixer and food processor are nice when I'm tired, though.
OMC: What's the next big trend in food?
BB: I'm hoping it's automated, mechanized fast food, where you can get high-quality ingredients at a cheap price because the labor has been eliminated by a series of computer functions that cook food cleanly, efficiently and consistently. I'm currently working with a small team on a commercial-level user automated kebob grilling machine.
OMC: What's the toughest day / night to work in the restaurant biz?
BB: It's usually mother's day, but seeing how The Pasta Tree is so romantic, it's Valentine's Day. The phone just rings off the hook for days leading up to it and we've been booked for a month. It's also pretty tough juggling school and work, when you've got to do inventory until late and have a Fluid Mechanics exam at 8 a.m. the next morning -- like last Tuesday; don't worry it went fine.
OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?
BB: I love to go out sometimes and get a huge greasy burger from a bar. I love it when you can't put it down or it'll fall apart so you just have to let the juices -- mayo, hot sauce, mustard, ketchup, grease -- run down your hands 'til you finish enough for it to maintain structural integrity. Just had a great one at Brazen Head in West Bend.
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 episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," 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 has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.