One of my very first chef interviews when I started writing for OnMilwaukee.com in 2011 was with Mitch Ciohon. At the time he was working as executive chef for Beta by Sabor on Water Street.
I was a big fan of the inventive fare he produced at the restaurant and was disappointed when Beta and Sabor closed itsdoors in 2012. But the closing, which was prompted by the owners’ retirement, marked nothing but opportunity for Ciohon, who decided to pack his bags and head across the country.
"My wife Laurel and I had been planning on a big move for a while before Beta closed," Ciohon tells me. "So, it was perfect timing, really. We worked on our camper for like three months in preparation for the trip. We didn’t have a definite plan, but we had an idea of what we wanted to do."
The couple would travel across the country in the camper, lovingly named "Belafonte," eating only from food trucks or cooking food they had acquired from roadside stands and farmer’s markets.
"It was a super interesting way to experience the country," Ciohon notes. "We bought a KOA membership for the camper and spent about a month (on the road)."
They drove down the East Coast, into Florida, through the south and then up the West Coast through Seattle before zigzagging back across the country toward home. Meanwhile, they logged their adventures on a blog entitled Food Truck Road Trip.
"I think we stopped in like 47 cities and traveled through 32 states," Ciohon recalls, noting that one of his favorite food trucks along the way was one called Heirloom LA. "They do hyper-local and regional small plates. There’s a menu of six or eight things that change every day, and it’s totally not like food truck food. There were things like tempura fried sea bass – kind of like having Beta on a food truck."
Ciohon says part of the reason for the trip was simply to explore and have an adventure. But, the other piece was research.
"We were always checking out places where we might want to go," he says. "And Austin turned out to be the place."
Shortly after returning to Wisconsin, Ciohon packed up his belongings and headed for Austin, Texas, where he began work as a private chef and caterer. The goal, he thought, would be to establish a presence and then move forward with plans for a food truck.
But, as fate would have it, he met Chef Sonya Cote, owner of the Hillside Farmacy, a restaurant with a catering arm called the Homegrown Revival, and she asked him to join her team.
"We got along great," Ciohon says. "Like old friends. So, I started doing pop-up dinners with the catering company, which sourced all its products from local urban farms. Eventually, she asked me to take over as the chef at the restaurant."
Hillside Farmacy offered Ciohon an opportunity unlike any he’d had previously.
"It was so focused on fresh foods and supporting urban farming," he said. "It was such a cool place; I loved being there. We had like 37 vendors, which felt insane at first, but which was really great once I developed a system for dealing with them."
After about a year, however, Ciohon decided it was time to head back to Wisconsin.
"It’s not that we didn’t like Austin," he recalls, "But it never felt like home."
Ciohon got back around Labor Day and took a job he had lined up with Max Supper Club in Door County, where he stayed through the summer season before launching his own catering company, Chef Mitch Catering.
"We do small, intimate dining experiences," he explains. "We go to peoples’ houses, take over their kitchens and do two to seven courses with wine and beer pairings. We use as many ingredients as we can from Door County, which is actually not the norm there."
He also hatched the plan for a low-cost food trailer, which he named Gypsy Taco. He took the trailer around to farmer’s markets where he sold two staple tacos – Tapuat kombucha braised pork and roasted root vegetable and goat cheese tacos – along with slaw and specials that he developed using products from the market vendors, including a significant amount of products from Waseda Farms in Bailey’s Harbor.
"I always had agua fresca," he says, "And when it got colder, I’d serve pozole Gypzole. At first, I had two or three catering gigs a week, and then I did the taco thing on two or three other days. And then it flip-flopped. It wasn’t what I expected at all."
Ciohon traveled to farmers markets and festivals, and then he struck up a relationship with Door County Brewing, which let him set up shop in its parking lot.
"It was great. I had a place to be all the time, and it was great for them and for me," he says.
Ciohon, who travels back to Milwaukee regularly, has also set up Gypsy Taco at Boone & Crockett, where he serves tacos from the patio.
"As I’ve been gone, I love seeing all the things that have happened with my friends and all the new cool chefs in town," says Ciohon. "It really makes me want to come back. And when I do, there’s always a plan. I come here and I eat at different places."
Ciohon says he’s enjoyed great meals at both Odd Duck and Goodkind, as well as Vanguard, where his latest favorite is the Killig, featuring spiced sausage with hoisin and bean sprouts.
"Admittedly, I almost always end up at Ardent, hanging out with Justin [Carlisle] and Aaron [Patin]," he says. "I came and staged there one weekend. To sit and watch him do stuff ... he’s so talented, and it’s great to be there and refresh yourself by working with him … especially when you’re trapped up north with the fried clam strips and other things that don’t make any sense."
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.