By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 11, 2011 at 5:15 AM Photography: Whitney Teska

A little more than a year ago, we introduced OnMilwaukee.com readers to Justin Johnson, a chef that was turning pre-conceived notions of the retirement community dining experience on its head.

Johnson was at the helm of the kitchen of Wauwatosa's Harwood Place, where he made a fine dining restaurant out of what some might expect would be little more than a cafeteria.

"In two years," Johnson said at the time, "we have taken what once was an almost exclusively institutional food program and turned it into a full service, fine dining establishment. It is my dream that, through what we've been able to accomplish at Harwood Place, we can inspire other chefs to consider jobs in senior living communities, as they are starved for great food and highly appreciative of the craft and art of fine cuisine."

At the dawn of 2011, Johnson accepted an offer to take over at Hotel Metro, which was coming off a rough patch, having had at least two other chefs in the past year or so. Johnson oversees all the culinary operations in the hotel, from Cafe Metro to banquets to room service to Zen on Seven.

One of his earliest changes appears tonight when Hotel Metro hosts what Johnson says is the venue's first-ever fish fry. His take on this Milwaukee classic dishes up bluegill or grouper along with potato pancakes or fries, swiss chard or carrots, Savoy cabbage slaw or red apple cider slaw, New England clam chowder and a glass of wine or beer for $16.95.

Matching Johnson with the Metro is an exciting prospect, so we revisited the "Chef profile" concept with Johnson, who talks about his previous experience and how it will help him re-energize a Downtown hot spot.

OnMilwaukee.com: What kind of experience and training brought you to your current position?

Justin Johnson: After a period of about nine years working odd jobs as a cook, I decided to attend the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago. I earned my first executive chef's job at the age of 26 after graduating summa cum laude. My last three years at Harwood Place exposed me to all the challenges and joys of opening a restaurant virtually from scratch.

Despite Harwood residents and their families being the only people able to enjoy our restaurant, our food was good enough that our efforts began to receive local and national attention. This resulted in me being considered for positions like the one at Hotel Metro.

OMC: How has the transition to Hotel Metro gone so far?

JJ: The transition is still in its infancy but I've been pleasantly surprised to find a skilled and dedicated culinary team that is hungry for a fresh approach. I've been working on getting settled and developing my menus, as well as, reaching out to local vendors like Sweet Water Organics and Braise RSA.

The daily operations have seen no disruption thanks to the help of the former chef Jerry Garcia and sous chef Markus Heinevetter. This has enabled me to take the time to do things right as opposed to rushing though and having things missed or not done properly.

OMC: Are the challenges different than the ones you faced at Harwood Place?

JJ: I'm sure they will be but I'm trying to not let that change my approach. Our mindset at Harwood was always that we were catering to the public even though we had a somewhat captive audience. There's no question that the biggest difference between Harwood and Metro is that the onus is on us to keep people coming in the door as opposed to them already living here. But, I want to let the food do the talking for the most part.

OMC: Will your experiences there help you in this new role?

JJ: Unquestionably. Harwood Place will probably prove to be the most invaluable industry experience I will ever have. The reason is that you're sort of in a bubble. I had complete autonomy to try anything, see it succeed or fail, understand why and have my customers right on top of me telling me exactly why they did or didn't like something. The returns were immediate.

Sometimes, in the real world, you can try something and not see an instant response or you do marketing or advertising and don't always have an exact way to measure its effectiveness. Harwood was a like a mini community. My customers were very close to me and very vocal. It was kind of like "restaurant school" in a way.

OMC: You were offered this position once before, correct? What made you reconsider?

JJ: The main reason I didn't accept the position two years ago was because I didn't feel that I had finished what I started at Harwood Place. I felt that I owed them a completed project before I moved on to something else. Also, I didn't really have the vision for Hotel Metro that I have now. It was through my work at Harwood that I gained an understanding of the importance of sourcing locally and sustainability. Two years ago, I wouldn't have brought those values -- at least, not to the extent that I will now.

OMC: Do you have a signature dish at Metro now?

JJ: Well, my new menus will roll out mid-March so time will tell what our customers gravitate toward or what the definitive dish of the restaurant becomes. Right now, I'm running some of the dishes for the new menu as concept specials.

Some of the dishes from the new menu that you'll see from now until the re-launch will be MacFarlane pheasant with port-braised fig and nutmeg, russet potato and parsnip puree, and butter sautéed white kale, or Viking Village seared scallops with Sweet Water Organics mixed greens, orange and grapefruit segments, Laclare Farm aged goat cheese, and cucumber vinaigrette.

OMC: What do you like most, and least, about your new job?

JJ: Honestly, to be the executive chef at the Hotel Metro is kind of a fantasy-become-reality for me. So, what I like the most right now after only two weeks in the building is the feeling of potential. I feel that we have the foundation to build something special that returns the restaurant to the values and spirit in which this hotel was founded.

I haven't been here long enough to develop any significant dislikes but the only thing I would say -- and I believe that this sentiment would be shared by everyone -- is that we're anxious to move forward. Most of my days are filled with the less glamorous side of establishing my systems and operational efficiency so that when we roll out the new food we have the means to execute it consistently. It would be nice to skip over all of that and get to the food but it's a vital part of the process.

OMC: How do you think the dining scene has changed in Milwaukee over the past year or so? Has the economy taken a toll?

JJ: Anyone running a restaurant will tell you that the economy has taken a toll. But, you can't really blame the economy because there will always be an ebb and flow to economic prosperity. Anyone can keep a restaurant open in a good economy. That's where staying power becomes life and death.

Look at Sanford. How many economic downturns has he seen? Yet, he's not only still open, he hasn't budged from his perch atop the Milwaukee restaurant scene. Those are the models that I'm most impressed with. I don't like gimmicky food or trendy food because, it's usually here today, gone tomorrow.

For a while it seemed as though fine-dining was dying in Milwaukee and being replaced by sports bars. In the last few years, that has changed a bit with good, honest, refined food coming to the forefront with restaurants like Hinterland, Crazy Water, Maxie's Southern Comfort, Pastiche and some of our premier hotels becoming identifiable as dining destinations.

It's an exciting time to be a chef in Milwaukee.

OMC: What do you think will be the toughest day / night to work at Hotel Metro?

JJ: I'm not sure yet but, in my 15 years, everywhere I've been has hunkered down and had all hands on deck for Mother's Day. It's funny how often that day is sort of dreaded in this business. I've always liked it because; you usually have a scaled back menu. Plus, there's nothing better to me than a kitchen full of people working -- just the energy. Now, if you're behind or overwhelmed, it's awful but you've just got to be prepared and set yourself up to succeed.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

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.