Would you like to meet some of Wisconsin's finest chefs? Maybe get a little bit of advice from them about how to make your home cooking shine? Would you enjoy a leisurely weekend lunch at one of Milwaukee's finest restaurants?
Then, you'd be the perfect match for the Marcus Chef Series, a sequence of two-hour cooking demonstrations held at the chef's counter of Mason Street Grill, 425 E. Mason St. The Saturday morning sessions, which Marcus has been offering seasonally since 2009, have been quite a success.
"I receive four to five emails consistently after each one, thanking me and Marcus for offering the classes," reports Marcus Marketing Manager Meghan Deutsch. "They tell me the classes are fun and informative, or that they made several new friends!"
The classes have become so successful that Marcus now offers a fall, winter and spring series. In addition, according to Deutsch, most classes sell out as far ahead as three weeks from the date of the courses.
But, it's not only the students who enjoy the classes.
I had the opportunity this past week to sit down and chat with Chef Brian Frakes, one of the five Marcus hotel chefs who lead the cooking demonstrations. He told me about some of the things he enjoys about the cooking demos, as well as where his love for great food stems from.
OnMilwaukee.com: What's your favorite part of teaching the classes?
Chef Brian Frakes: It's truly the interaction with people, with the city. There are probably eight faces who have become regulars at my demos, and they'll email me. I love developing those relationships.
The day before Mother's Day I did a class called "Mom's food, my way." I did kind of a fancy version of tater tot casserole, and one of the women at the demo emailed me for tips on the dish. She sent me photos of the dish when she tried it, and she now contacts me pretty regularly for cooking tips. I enjoy those ongoing relationships.
I like making our food a little more approachable and sharing that with people – showing them it's not that hard, nothing to be afraid of. And hopefully they can do a little bit of that at home, and then come back and eat at our restaurants too.
OMC: What's your best tip for novices in the kitchen?
BF: Pay a little extra for a good quality knife. It's in the tools. If you're going to be a painter, go get yourself some good paintbrushes. Spend a little extra on a good quality knife.
OMC: What has been your favorite class to teach so far?
BF: One that sticks out for me was our class on food truck cuisine, just because it's so popular now. But, really, I enjoy them all.
OMC: You mentioned "Mom's food" – what was your relationship to food growing up?
BF: My grandma and great-grandma were great cooks. My mom wasn't that good of a cook; she was always working. But, she had a couple of dishes that are still my favorites – her pot roast and rice casserole – still two of my favorite dishes of all time, because mom cooked them.
But, my relationship to food ... I liked to draw. I liked to write. But, I wasn't super great at either of them. And I realized that food could be my art. So, I think it was more of that than a deep-rooted food relationship. It was more of an art relationship. And I developed a love affair with food along the way.
OMC: How do your cooking "roots" influence you in the kitchen?
BF: I've really been influenced by the various experiences that I've had in the kitchen. In south Florida I was exposed to a lot of Latin flavors – bold, clean types of food. So, I really embraced that. Then there were the Cajun and creole flavors of the deep South from my experience in Tallahassee. And when I was out in Los Angeles, the Mexican and west coast style of food influenced me. Now that I'm here, I love bacon and cream and butter.
I've been smart enough to adjust my style to the demographic I'm serving. A younger me might want to serve sushi in the Café Pfister, but that really makes no sense. Instead, I listen to what the guests are looking for, and then I put my own flair on it and go from there.
OMC: What's your favorite menu item?
BF: Right now it's probably the garlic meatballs with soft-cooked duck egg and thyme gnocchi with chorizo oil. It's a dish that was in the L.A. Times over Easter weekend, and currently my favorite ... though that could change by this afternoon.
OMC: What five words describe your food?
BF: Passionate, bold, crisp, flavorful, innovative.
OMC: In your opinion, what's the most undervalued ingredient?
BF: Heirloom foods – tomatoes, carrots. Using the kinds of foods our grandparents tasted. When a tomato tasted like a tomato – a beautiful, explode-in-your-mouth tomato. The flavor of the week is "farm to table," but heirloom farm fresh produce is very undervalued. I'm passionate about that, and I try to ensure my cooks are as well.
OMC: What do you, as a chef, want guests at the Pfister to take away from their experience?
BF: I'm very proud of where I work. We've been here since 1893. I'm humbled by the great chefs who came before me. I have tremendous respect for those screaming Austrians, or whoever they were. One of the stories told by The Pfister narrator talks about an old lady who used to cook here, and that just rung out to me. Yeah, the ghosts here in The Pfister are cooks and chefs.
I bring cooks here once in a while just to look at the lobby. It's easy to get caught up in the back of the house – no windows, cinder blocks and stainless steel. So, I try to keep myself and my cooks refreshed in remembering where we are. I want guests to come in, knowing that we are the No. 13 luxury hotel in the country, and then exceed those expectations. If they're going to get an egg dish, I want it to be a badass egg dish, something memorable. Even if they're just getting a cheeseburger, I would want it to be a drippy, good, absolutely delicious cheeseburger.
The fact is, we're only as good as the last plate we serve.
Care to try one of those plates? Two more classes remain in the Spring 2012 series:
April 21: Kick-Start Spring: Robert Fedorko, Market Executive Chef, Marcus Hotels – If you've already given up on your New Year's Resolution, start over with a new resolution for spring. The weather is getting nicer and if you want to look great for summer, it's time to change your eating habits. Kick-start your diet just in time for nice weather and let Chef Robert Fedorko show you healthy alternatives for six meals a day.
April 28: Full Flavor—Gluten Free: Michael Sawin, Executive Sous Chef, Grand Geneva Resort – Gluten-free has been a cornerstone of healthy eating, along with a reputation for being bland. Now the gluten-free lifestyle is getting a makeover. Join Chef Michael Sawin as he shows you how to prepare dishes filled with fresh foods and fresh flavors for eating gluten-free.
Classes begin at 10:30 a.m., and each is $29, or $49 per couple. Seating is limited; make reservations at (414) 935-5942.
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.