When Ward's House of Prime opened in the former Yanni's space at 540 E. Mason St. last November, owner Brian Ward -- a local restaurant veteran -- was banking on the skills of his executive chef, Bill Baumann. The two, said Baumann back then, had a chemistry.
"Brian and I have known and worked with each other for nearly eight years," said Baumann. "Our restaurant knowledge and friendship will show at Ward's House of Prime, from the variety of full-plate entrees to the welcoming atmosphere and upscale service."
Now that Ward's has been a quick success, carving out its own niche in a restaurant heavy neighborhood, that appears to be true.
Baumann got his start at age 4 cooking French toast with his mom. Over the past 20-odd years, he's stepped it up with stints at Karl Ratzsch's, Ristorante Bartolotta and Mo's -- A Place for Steaks. He brings all that experience to fruition at Ward's, where he has created a satisfying full-plate menu with prime rib, steak, chicken, veal, seafood, vegetarian dishes and more.
We asked Baumann to answer our menu of chef profile questions so we could all get to know the man behind the menu a little better.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell us a bit about yourself. Are you a Milwaukee native?
Bill Baumann: I was born and raised in Wauwatosa. With the exception of three semesters studying accounting in Eau Claire and some time in the army I've lived in the Milwaukee area my whole life. It fits my personality perfectly; plenty to do without being lost in a giant metropolis.
OMC: What kind of experience and training brought you to your current position?
BB: I started out washing dishes in a small cafe and tried to absorb as much knowledge as possible from the cooks as time permitted. After working a couple of other restaurant jobs my breakthrough into fine dining came when I was hired as a line cook at Karl Ratzsch's. There I learned how much more than just the actual cooking went into making a kitchen work. At Bartolotta's in Tosa I moved into a Sous Chef position which was challenging, but fun. I started working at Mo's to help out part time in 1999 and wound up running the kitchen there for 10 years before moving over to Ward's House of Prime.
OMC: The predecessor in your restaurant space had a good reputation around town. Did you have to overcome guests' potential comparisons with Yanni's?
BB: When Brian Ward first showed me the Yanni's space I was convinced it was perfect for a new restaurant. He had some creative ideas for changes to the space and we both felt that with a great wine list and a menu that's more varied than a traditional steakhouse we would create our own identity and loyal following. I'm usually asked what used to be in the space rather than hearing comparisons to Yanni's.
OMC: Did the wide variety of restaurants in a two-block radius make it harder for Ward's to distinguish itself or did it help to draw a crowd that already sees the area as a great place to dine?
BB: The variety of restaurants is actually quite helpful. People have a good reason to be in the neighborhood and word of mouth is the best advertising. We decided to distinguish ourselves by providing an upscale dining experience that's reasonably priced and offers great value. I am a firm believer that all menu items must be as important as the signature dishes. For a group of 10 diners, not everyone is going to eat steak or prime rib. Veal, chicken and seafood dishes are not afterthoughts on our menu.
OMC: Do you have a signature dish?
BB: Prime Rib is our signature dish and is very popular. The veal Marsala has also gotten rave reviews.
OMC: What do you like most, and least, about your job?
BB: The most enjoyable part is walking through the dining room and seeing our guests enjoying our food. It is very rewarding after all the time and effort that has gone into making things perfect. The least enjoyable part is the number of hours of work it takes to make it all happen.
OMC: What are your favorite places to eat out in Milwaukee?
BB: I enjoy all types of food and am always working during the dinner hour so I don't eat out often but I really enjoy the quality and variety of food at La Merenda. I also like to dine at Karl Ratzsch's because the food is as good as it was decades ago.
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook?
BB: I don't have a favorite cookbook. I enjoy a variety of small cookbooks and the Internet is an awesome tool for chefs.
OMC: Do you have a favorite TV or celebrity chef? Why?
BB: I do not have a favorite celebrity chef because I seldom watch TV. I do occasionally enjoy a show that features foods from different cultures.
OMC: What's been the biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?
BB: The focus on organic foods and locally grown produce is the big trend lately. It is good to see people paying attention to what they are putting in their bodies.
OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?
BB: Tongs are the most important tool for me. My cooks know exactly which pair I use, so it has become a running joke in the kitchen if they aren't where I like them to be.
OMC: What's the next big trend in food?
BB: I don't mean to sound repetitive but I feel that locally grown foods will continue to be a great focus in the near future. Diners are asking more questions about the source of their food than they ever have before.
OMC: What's the toughest night to work in the business?
BB: The toughest night to work is Saturday. It is the busiest night and while I don't believe in ever running out of anything on the menu we are usually closed on Sundays, so I don't want to have too much food prepped, either.
OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?
BB: I almost always turn down the offer of dessert but every once in a while I enjoy something sweet.
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.