Jess Brandser might be the youngest executive chef in Milwaukee. But this 22-year-old is an old soul when it comes to food.
"I'm a little obsessed," she admits. "And I want to learn everything I can."
Brandser grew up in Milwaukee. When it came time to attend college, she studied marketing in the Business School at UW-Milwaukee. While she was in school, she worked as a server and bartender at Trocadero; but, she says she never thought of the work as a legitimate career.
"Ultimately, I couldn’t stand business school anymore," she says. "And I just really started thinking about things that I loved to do. What did I want to put my time and energy towards? Cooking was the answer."
So, in 2012, Brandser enrolled at the Art Institute to earn her degree in culinary arts.
"My mother was a lot more receptive to the idea," she says of the life change, "But my dad really almost had a heart attack. He had a definite idea of what he wanted me to do, who I should be. And being a chef wasn’t one of them."
At the Art Institute, she met Andrei Mikhail, one of the owners of MOVIDA, and he invited her to work in the kitchen at the restaurant.
She says she was intrigued. She’d traveled to Spain in high school, staying with a family in Valencia and traveling to Madrid and Barcelona. So, she’d had a taste of the food and culture. But, she was excited to learn more.
"What really excited me is that it’s not something that really existed in Milwaukee," Brandser says. "And to be part of that – part of really focusing on the authenticity of it, as tough as that can be – was really exciting."
Brandser trained with Mikhail and Chef Tom McGinty, manager of food and beverage operations at Destination Kohler and hired consultant at MOVIDA. And in October 2014, she was promoted to executive chef.
"She’s really dedicated," says MOVIDA co-owner Aaron Gersonde. "And her entire life revolves around food. When she’s not cooking, she’s reading about it or going through food photos on instagram."
Gersonde is right, to an extent. Branser says she’s also obsessed with her dog, Bean, a mixed breed she adopted from the Humane Society.
We were curious to learn more about Brandser. So, we sat down with her in the MOVIDA dining room for a chat.
OnMilwaukee.com: What inspired your love for food?
Jess Brandser: Food was always a huge part of my life, my childhood. Food was always a centerpiece. My mother was an amazing cook, and really taught me the importance of ingredients and patience in making different foods. I was just so lucky to have such amazing food around me. Always eating, trying new things. And the kitchen was always open to me. I was never frightened or intimidated.
OMC: And your dad? How does he feel now that you’re working in the field?
JB: Oh, he was so mad when I dropped out of UWM. Now, of course, he’s really supportive and he eats here all the time and tells all his friends about me.
OMC: What's your favorite thing on the MOVIDA menu right now?
JB: Probably the pork cheek. It’s seared and then braised for two or three hours. It’s served with a carrot mousse, white wine and braised artichokes with citrus gremolata. It’s probably the most tender thing you could ever eat.
OMC: What's one thing you wish people knew about MOVIDA ?
JB: We really like a family here. When we’re working long hours and feeling tired, we just really stick together and work to make it really fun. It’s definitely part of what makes MOVIDA work. So many of our customers are returning customers, some come two or three times a week, so they become part of that family too.
We do allow people to buy rounds for the kitchen, and every time someone buys a round, we should "OLE."
OMC: Do you have any favorite places to eat in Milwaukee?
JB: I used to go out to eat way more than I do now. A lot of the food I love is really low key.
I love Conejitos. I’ve been going there since I was really young. But, I love Crazy Water. They really do a great job there. And I love the atmosphere.
OMC: What's your overall impression of the Milwaukee scene?
JB: I think it’s really changing. People are really becoming aware and interested in things they’ve never seen before. As more people see food as a hobby, they’re getting really interested in new things and supporting more restaurants.
There aren’t too many things that have been overdone and redone. It’s not crazy intimidating yet – it’s not Chicago – but we really have some great places to eat. It’s amazing to see people coming from all over – from the North Shore and other places – to eat here. Walker’s Point and MOVIDA, we’ve become a destination. And that’s really amazing.
OMC: Who are your mentors? Any chefs you look up to?
JB: Definitely mentor-wise, Tom McGinty. He taught me so much about being in a kitchen, having a great attitude, putting out positive energy. He’s been my greatest mentor so far. And I really have to give him credit for giving me the bulk of my kitchen knowledge and the tools I need to do what I do. I’m still new at this, so my head’s down and I’m really trying to develop my style and figure out who I am.
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook? What do you like about it?
JB: I love "The Edible Selby." It showcases weird restaurants around the world that are doing things that aren’t traditional. I think it really showcases people in the industry who really love what they do and are constantly pushing boundaries and limits.
OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?
JB: Probably a writing utensil, honestly. And I know that sounds stupid, but I’m a list person. There’s so much we have to keep track of, so I’m obsessed with lists.
OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?
JB: It would either be chocolate malts from Culver’s or Chinese takeout from Hongan Palace in Mequon.
OMC: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned working in the kitchen?
JB: Take everything day by day. Stay in love with what you’re doing, and don’t let the stressful everyday stuff get in the way of where you want to go. How you feel, what your attitude is, is reflected in the dishes you make. So, you really have to put yourself into it. Because if you don’t love it, people can taste that.
OMC: What’s the highest compliment that someone could pay you?
JB: A combination of loving the food – the food making them happy – but also hearing that I exposed them to something they’ve never had, but that they’d try again. Inciting a change in perspective, that’s really cool.
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.