Last month, SURG Restaurant group snatched up three-time James Beard Award nominee Justin Carlisle to run the kitchen at Umami Moto.
Carlisle, who is now already at work at Umami Moto on Milwaukee Street, attended culinary school at Madison Area Technical College and has also worked or has been a partner at a number of Madison restaurants, including Harvest, Muramoto and Haze, as well as at Chicago's Tru and The Greenbriar Resort in West Virginia.
His most recent Beard Award nomination arrived this past February when he was named in the "Best Chef: Midwest" category alongside Sanford's Justin Aprahamian, Hinterland's Dan Van Rite and Tory Miller of Madison's L'Etoile.
When he told me the news, Shaikh called Carlisle an "awesome chef. He's a ... great guy, great vision and great attitude. He'll be a great addition."
We caught up with Carlisle recently to ask him about his experience, his favorite things culinary and what changes he might be considering for Umami Moto.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell us a bit about yourself. Were you always interested in the kitchen?
Justin Carlisle: No, not at all. I was originally going to go to school for marketing, but when I was a kid I would prep cook for my middle brother who was going through culinary school. I realized I really liked the feel and environment and I was good at multitasking. So after I graduated I went into the military for three years (National Guard) and cooked in restaurants while not on duty. The rest is history.
OMC: What was dining like in Sparta when you were a kid? Did you go out to eat much?
JC: We didn't go out to eat much at all. Sparta is a small community of about 8,000 people and close to a military base. We had a farm and cattle. It was an old school rural farm where we ate what we grew. The restaurants in Sparta consisted of fried foods or prime rib ... not really my family's taste.
OMC: What kind of experience and training brought you to Umami Moto?
JC: That's easy. Omar (Shaikh), co-owner of SURG Restaurant Group, brought me here. When I was executive chef in Madison, he ate at my restaurant 15-18 times and loved my style of cooking. On his last visit he noticed the food was different and asked why. Turned out I left to start up a restaurant in Chicago and he tracked me down. As they say, "he made me an offer I couldn't refuse."
OMC: You didn't spend much time in Chicago this time. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?
JC: I was hired to open a fine dining restaurant, but once things got rolling the restaurant group decided to focus on another concept first, so I worked at Bristol, which is a "neighborhood" eatery in Bucktown, then came Omar and my relocation to Milwaukee soon followed.
OMC: With your arrival Milwaukee has yet another chef recognized by the Beard Awards. What's going on here these days to make that happen?
JC: If you notice the restaurant groups who have chefs with Beard Award recognitions, those are the owners that really get it and want to deliver the best possible dining experiences to their customers. They have a passion about the level of food they want to offer their clientele and understand that putting the right people in place will make guests return again and again.
OMC: Are you re-writing the menu at Umami Moto or making other changes? If so, can you tell us about them?
JC: A little bit. Omar and I are talking about restructuring the menu with a bit more traditional sushi and from the regular menu portion ... change maybe about 65 percent of the menu. One of the things I'm doing, which not many chefs want to do before changing a menu, is talking to guests while they are dining with us. I want to know what they are like or don't like and what they would like to see on the menu. I'll take that information and add a touch of my flair.
OMC: Do you have a signature dish?
JC: No, not really. I try to put my best touches on every dish I make.
OMC: What do you like most, and least, about your job?
JC: What I like most is there is something new every day...nothing is ever the same. I say cooking is the one thing you can do that affects every "sense" of the body. I like to be able to affect people that way. Imagine having 150 people to your home and it's your responsibility to make them a fantastic dinner ... but you never get to see or meet them. People are in my home and I treat them that way. That's my job.
What I like least is that when you do this for a living ... it's all you've got and difficult to have a personal life.
OMC: Do you have any favorite places yet to eat out in Milwaukee?
JC: Jake's Deli. It's the closest thing I've ever found to Katz Deli in New York. I can't get enough of pastrami on rye; love their corn beef and Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda.
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook? What do you like about it?
Marco Pierre White, "White Heat." He explained the all-around lifestyle of being a chef. It was the first time I remember reading about someone's passion.
OMC: Do you have a favorite TV or celebrity chef?
JC: Not really....maybe Mario Batali because he's just honest and cooks it as it is.
OMC: What's been the biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?
JC: Clearly, the Slow Food Movement and people going back to the basics of understanding and appreciating where the food is coming from and it shows by the popularity of farmers markets as well as restaurant groups creating their own farms to grow and produce what they sell on their menus.
All of my prices have doubled over the past year and I can't transfer that to my clients. Farmers markets, herb gardens and local produce, all of those options cost less than trucking lettuce in from California. I'm thrilled to see this popularity especially because I grew up in a family that canned what we grew. If you have access to home grown food near you ... take advantage of that.
Another thing people haven't realized is that years of mass producing produce have cut out a range of foods like variations of broccoli. This is another reason why I jumped at Omar's offer to join Umami because SURG gets this new direction and within two years we will be offering an extended line of produce grown at their farm, Hidden Creek, in New London, Wisconsin.
OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?
JC: Chef's knife.
OMC: What's the next big trend in food?
JC: Gastropub movement will fall by the wayside. I think smaller more personal venues will grow ... 20-seat restaurants will be more appealing to chefs because they will be able to show themselves and their work on a more personal level.
OMC: What's the toughest day or night to work in the restaurant biz?
JC: I think all chefs would agree it's definitely Monday. Friday and Saturday are the World Series and by Monday you're struggling to move and get on-deck.
OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?
JC: Triple cream cheese.
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.