By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jan 08, 2010 at 1:04 PM Photography: Whitney Teska

Yes, you read that headline correctly. This installment in our chef profile series features Justin Johnson who is executive chef at Harwood Place Retirement Community in Wauwatosa, a post he's held for two years. Harwood Place has about 200 residents.

Does that make you think Johnson defrosts a lot of Salisbury steak and peas and pre-sliced carrots? Think again. Harwood Place is a "high-end independent living complex."

"In two years," says Johnson, "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."

This winter the residents of The Arches are eating roasted rack of lamb with mint curry, spice fried Yukon gold potatoes and Nameko mushrooms; seared sea bass with hot house rhubarb, Israeli couscous and seared lemon thyme Brussels sprout leaves; and butter poached halibut with braised Savoy cabbage and sunchoke puree.

What's on your menu tonight?

We decided to take this rare opportunity to find out how a young chef like Johnson has bucked expectations and made "The Terrace" and "The Arches" at Harwood Place retirement complex some of the best places to eat in Tosa.

OnMilwaukee.com: Tell us a bit about yourself. Are you a Milwaukee native?

Justin Johnson: I'm originally from Slinger. I moved to Milwaukee when I was 20. Really, I came here to try my hand at acting. While doing various student and community theater plays, I paid the bills by cooking. I worked at the Waterfront Deli, Pier 347, The Shorewood Inn and the Barclay Garden Café, to name a few. Eventually, I tired of acting and discovered that food was fun. After nine years of working odd jobs as a cook, I decided that I needed to go to school.

OMC: What kind of experience and training brought you to your current position?

JJ: I attended the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago / Le Cordon Bleu program. It's funny, the first thing that I learned in culinary school was that I didn't know nearly as much as I thought I did about food. That was the best way for me to start my education. Just throw out everything you think you know. I was really humbled by the experience. Being away from home -- away from my wife, Jessica, and newborn son, Max -- I was able to become extremely focused and keep my eye on the prize throughout. I was utterly undistracted by the college experience. My only goal was perfection ... and to learn as much as I possibly could from my instructors who, frankly, scared the living daylights out of me.

OMC: Did you think, while studying at Le Cordon Bleu, that you'd be where you are today?

JJ: I did. Or, at least, that was my plan. I am still sort of amazed that it actually worked. But honestly, I had been a cook for nine years and the last position I held in a kitchen before going to school was as a sous chef. So, it seemed only logical to me that when I came out of school, I would need to get to the next level quickly, if not immediately. Despite being offered a line cook position at one of Milwaukee's top restaurants, I was confident that I could hold out for a head job. Fortunately for me and my family, that opportunity did arrive. I was hired as the opening chef for a new restaurant Downtown. That experience came with a world of challenges that I did not perceive but challenges that, nevertheless, pushed me to be better.

OMC: How do you overcome the preconceived notions about what the food is like in communities like Harwood Place?

JJ: That's a loaded question. First of all, "overcoming" the preconceived notions is almost impossible because there are still an awful lot of communities that are living up to the stigma that senior living is not synonymous with quality food. The institutional model in retirement communities is alive and well in many places for a number of valid reasons. First of all, it's easy to prepare and cheap to produce. Furthermore, there is a mentality often found in these communities that seniors will not appreciate better food or will be alienated by contemporary dishes. And I've found this to be completely untrue. Our focus from day one has been fresh, scratch cooking. You don't make a change from all frozen, dried, powdered, pre-made food to all fresh, seasonal, from-scratch cooking in one day. In fact, depending on the size of any given facility, it's hard to make the complete transition in a year. But, we have taken great care to integrating fine food with humility and an open mind so that residents can feel a part of the process and the journey, and not as though things are being taken away from them or that time is leaving them behind.

OMC: What can you tell us about the menu there?

JJ: We run a cycle menu that changes with the seasons and features two entrees nightly. If I had to describe the culinary style, I would say it's a cross between "new" American and traditional French. Our nightly entrees differ slightly in that one, which we call our "Dining Room Special," is a throwback to a classic dish that residents may have grown up with or cooked themselves, such as braised short ribs, veal liver, beef rouladin, or coq au vin. Then, I have a "Chef's Feature" which is something slightly more contemporary, however, still accessible and recognizable. No molecular gastronomy here. Those dishes will consist of sea scallops a la nage with lemon beurre blanc, seared sea bass, bleu cheese tenderloin, or tea smoked duck breast. We also do our own desserts, such as molten chocolate souffles, crème brulè, or a spiced pear upside down cake.

OMC: Do you get suggestions from residents? How about feedback? Did you meet resistance?

JJ: Do I get suggestions from residents? Let me soak that question in for a moment. Ah ... yes. Remember, we are working in their home, so naturally everyone has their ideas and opinions about how food should be made. And actually, part of my job is leading a resident-comprised food committee that is made up of resident elected "floor representatives" who come to the meeting with comment cards that might be praise for our efforts, suggestions, or yes, even complaints. In this meeting, we discuss these items and I offer responses. As for resistance, I think it's human nature to resist change or question things we don't yet understand. And that is where we have benefited most from the gift of time. It has been a long process of making a very complicated transition. Certainly, residents have been effected most by the tribulations of making the sorts of large-scale changes that we have. But in the end our goal is to offer the best food possible to them.

OMC: Do you have a signature dish?

JJ: Personally, I love goofing around with food and just seeing what it can do. And, from a creative standpoint, I don't get nearly as much enjoyment out of making something the second, third or fourth time as I got making it the first time. Once something works, and I've tasted it, I'm kind of over it. But If I were to say what my favorite dish to cook and eat is, I would say that I've always had a soft spot for steak au poivre. A great piece of tenderloin, fresh cracked pepper and a perfect sauce. It's probably what I would want for my last meal.

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

JJ: What I've enjoyed most about Harwood Place and what I've taken the most amount of pride in is the fact that the core of my kitchen staff is still here. They are the same people that were preparing the institutional foods that residents were eating when I arrived. Truthfully, the transition to a different way of cooking was harder on them than even the residents. Any chef worth his salt will tell you that he's only as good as his staff. And that is very true in my case.

It would've been very easy for many of these cooks to look at me and all the ways that I wanted to disrupt their work place and decide to walk. But they didn't. They bought in, reluctantly at first, but eventually started to see for themselves why quality food is more appreciated. What I like least about my job or, to put it another way, the most challenging aspect of the job is simply the mundane managerial duties that are separate from the actual production of the kitchen; meetings, paperwork, e-mails, etc. I do my best with these things, but can find them distracting.

OMC: What are your favorite places to eat out in Milwaukee?

JJ: Well, I certainly enjoy all the Bartolotta restaurants. My wife and I very much enjoy the Sunday brunch at Maharaja. But for my money, in the city of Milwaukee, it doesn't get better than Sanford. I can't afford to eat there often but when I do, I always get the chef's tasting menu. From service to food, that restaurant is an exercise in precision and perfection. It's a level that I aspire to.

OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook? What do you like about it?

JJ: I don't know if I'm alone in this, but I don't really have any cookbooks except for a Betty Crocker book somebody got me when I first moved out of the house. I, like many chefs, don't really cook with recipes or use other people's ideas. I do keep with trends and the business by occasionally checking out publications like "Sante," "Bon Appetite" or "Food & Wine." I'm also an ACF chef so I get the "National Culinary Review" which I find to be a great source of information on what is going on in the culinary world.

OMC: Do you have a favorite TV or celebrity chef? Why?

JJ: I'm a big fan of Gordon Ramsay. Not so much for his American TV shows like "Hell's Kitchen" or "Kitchen Nightmares," which are sort of silly and appear largely staged. But his philosophies about fresh, local, seasonal food are values that I share wholeheartedly. In the U.S. he's seen as the crazy, swearing, British chef but he's done an awful lot for a lot of restaurants. Also, where most TV chefs are about their own creativity with food, Ramsay's focus is the work. Anyone can make one great dish one time. But, can you communicate your standards and expectations to a team of cooks so that they can reproduce that dish 100 times and make it look and taste like you made it yourself every single one of them? It's the lifeblood of the restaurant business.

OMC: What's been the biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?

JJ: I think the emergence of "new" American cuisine and the evolving conversation about what that is and what that means has been the most interesting thing for me to watch. Seeing classic ethic or American dishes re-purposed or re-imagined in way that makes them original again is probably the most exciting thing about this business.

OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?

JJ: You can call me Edward Tonghands. I would be completely and utterly useless in a kitchen without a set of tongs. Having said that, I don't really need much more; except fire, I suppose.

OMC: What's the next big trend in food?

JJ: A couple months ago, my wife and I went to Cleveland for the Packers-Browns game. We ate at a restaurant called "Fire." And, with the help of a student group from a local college, they have pioneered a system for ordering food from a Web site called freshforkmarket.com that consolidates meat and produce from area farms. I was enthralled by this idea and wondered why we couldn't have something like this in the Milwaukee area. It would enable chefs all over Milwaukee to order locally without always having to leave the restaurant to track it down themselves. I think it's a brilliant concept and I hope someone brings it to this area.

OMC: What's the toughest day / night to work in the business?

JJ: I would say, anywhere I've ever been, it's always Mother's Day. I suppose because everyone's got a mom and who's going to ask mom to cook on her special day? Personally, I think that dad should cook on Mother's Day but that's a separate topic. It's always a day and half of prep, and a massive rush but I always enjoy those the most because your going so fast and working so hard that it's over before you know it.

OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?

JJ: When I was single and would come home from a 12-hour day, the last thing I wanted to do was cook. So, at least a couple times week, I would make tuna on toast sandwiches and a box of Ms. Grass Chicken Noodle soup. I still make it now because it's just really good and reminds me of simpler times.

 

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.