By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 03, 2011 at 1:05 PM

If you've been paying attention to the dining scene in Milwaukee over the past decade or so, then you know exactly who Kevin Sloan is.

His work at The Social, Room 434 and Sol Fire is near-legendary. Since those days, however, Sloan has been working more behind the scenes, satisfying the appetites and the palates of the vast array of talent that comes  to perform at The Pabst and Riverside Theaters.

"I cook for almost all of the shows that come through The Riverside, and about half of the shows at The Pabst Theater," says Sloan. "Most of the shows and Turner Hall and some of the shows at The Pabst, the catering budget for the band is just not there and we will just do some simple take out from Hector's. That can leave me with some considerable downtime occasionally."

But don't think for a second that Sloan's sitting around doing nothing. He's reunited with his former partner Carrie Torres -- recently returned from living in Spain and Chile -- and they're running "Back Stage Catering," which does in-home dinner parties and cooking classes, and are prepping a new venture due to launch in a few months in Chicago.

We asked Sloan about how he got to where he is today. Are you a Milwaukee native?

Kevin Sloan: I am, I grew up just off of 76th and Good Hope Road. My folks still live in the same house. I moved to New Mexico when I was in my early 20s. I stayed for five years, got my culinary degree, cooked in some great restaurants, met a lot of great people and then came back to Milwaukee.

OMC: Of course, some will be familiar with your previous ventures, but what kind of experience and training brought you to your current position?

KS: Well, besides what I picked up from Mom as a pup, I learned how to cook in New Mexico. My first mentor was at a restaurant called Monte vista Fire Station. The exec was a James Beard Award nominee that year, but the chef de cuisine Jerry Waquie really took me under his wing. He taught me how to work a busy line, hit my temps, handle eight pans at once.

Then, on the big holidays he would invite me up to the Indian reservation he grew up on in the Jemez Mountains. I'd take my motorcycle up into the mountains early in the a.m. and watch the dances in the morning, then make pasole with him and his grandma and he'd let me pull bread out of the beehive looking ovens outside the little shack that was there home. It was really surreal for me and I never took those experiences for granted. The Jemez Mountains are still my favorite place on earth and I've been a lot of places.

After that I moved to a restaurant in the foothills of Sante Fe, Cafe de Las Placitas. There, the chef/owner Matt Brewer really got me to the next level. Every morning started with making the bread, we had a great old sourdough culture he brought back to New Mexico from his cooking days in San Fransisco. We made our own pasta, butchered lots of different meat and fish in house. I learned how to make a proper stock. We had a huge garden in the back with a few tables in the middle of it. What we couldn't grow in our garden we would source from Elizabeth Berry, one of the o.g's of organic produce. The menu was worldly and very experimental at the time.

The owners of Gruet Winery used to come in once a week in the afternoon, bring us some kick-ass sparkling wine and sit for hours while we cooked up French classics for them between lunch and dinner which was always fun as we didn't really roll like that on the menu. Matt was a gifted chef, and really caring to his cooks, he taught me a ton about cooking, the business and life in general, I found out about a year ago that he hung himself in his garage and it was a bitter pill to swallow.

It's crazy how owning a restaurant can make you crazy. Right before I moved back I helped a friend of mine open an Asian noodle joint back in Albuquerque. So that's where my foundation was laid.

OMC: And in Milwaukee?

KS: Upon coming back to Milwaukee I worked at Lake Park for a year which was a great experience. It was a bit of a culture shock for me, a little regimented for my taste but Mark Weber ran a great kitchen and the staff there went on to do a lot of really good things in Milwaukee which says a lot about Mark and Joe (Bartolotta). After that I was lucky enough to get in the kitchen at Sanford. Though I had a good grasp on cooking at that point I certainly learned tons from Sandy (D'Amato) in my first year and a half and then more, in a different style, from David Swanson in the last year and a half. After that I really dug into to traveling for a while before I started the process of opening The Social.

OMC: You have one of the most unknown jobs in the rock and roll world in Milwaukee. How did it come about?

KS: The way I recall it, the director of the theaters, Gary Witt, was looking to re-invent the idea of tour catering, Mike Eitel and I were in the middle of a very amicable break up of a short stint I did with him, when he and Gary found each other over the same foosball table. Mike mentioned my name and Gary took it from there and convinced me to come by and see what was going on at the theaters. I was a little hesitant at first, not knowing if it was going to be cooking for a bunch of high maintenance assh*les, and I was a little worried about the kitchen, as well. It was pretty sparse. So I came in and cooked for a show, and really soaked up the vibe. I asked Gary if he would be willing to invest a little money in the kitchen and he was on board. And though I'd love to have a few more things at my disposal in the kitchen, its fully functional and allows me and my sous chef, Lou Lou Griffin, to put out some really fun stuff.

OMC: What's a typical day like for you? Are you always juggling a lot of riders and menus for upcoming shows, as well as focusing on tonight's show?

KS: I used to juggle the riders a lot more. Paul Smaxwell took on the hospitality manager position for the Riverside and Pabst a few months ago. He's the point man for the tour manager and in charge of making sure the dressing rooms -- which can be really high maintenance -- are all in order. Since Paul's come on, he takes the time to really dissect the rider with the tour managers and he points me in the right direction as to the basics for each show. So the point is, Paul is the one who is usually juggling.

I get the basic info from Paul, look at the rider and try to get a feel of what kind of food they are into. I usually take a day to mull it around then I sit down, have some scotch and start writing a menu. As for the day of the show, it's usually pretty laid back, every now and then breakfast is involved. Mostly it's just lunch and dinner, and sometimes just dinner.

The kitchen is attached to the green room at Riverside, band members are usually rolling in and out, grabbing some coffee, watching a game on TV, putting records on the hi-fi or playing video games. It's a very tranquil atmosphere. Me, Lou Lou and our pastry chef Julie Thorson are usually discussing options about how to execute the menu for the night while cooking. I almost always stop to play some silver strike or foosball in the dining room with Gary and Paul at some point in the day. The artists usually want to eat right after sound check, so around 5:30 or 6. We put out the food, hang out for a little while and watch without staring. Then it's time for scotch -- Lou Lou prefers whiskey -- and if we are into the band, we watch the show from stage right.

OMC: What's the response to the work you do on the part of musicians?

KS: It's been amazing. The musicians almost always stop in the kitchen to say hi and let me know how much they appreciate the food. It turns out most of these guys and gals are just really cool people who love food and have been away from home for a long time. It's not lost on them when they are treated really well, which is the goal of the many people involved on our end.

OMC: Do you get some unusual requests? Can you share some?

KS: Most of the time those requests are geared toward the dressing rooms. Those requests go from specific snacks or beers to smokes and lighters, to very specific kinds of porn and just about everything in between. As far as my end goes, there's not a lot of bizarre requests outside of your normal food allergies and the occasional raw diet. The first time the raw diet came down the pike I got chewed out by Jonsi, for lack of creativity after lunch. So I checked out some menus online from some "raw" L.A. restaurants and put something fun together for dinner. Though I was irritated at the time, I really enjoyed taking a different approach to putting dinner together that night.

OMC: Do you have a signature dish?

KS: Hmm, I have a few. I really love recreating Sol Fire dishes especially in summer like ropa vieja, empanadas or just about anything I can put plantains on, but my favorite dish to cook and eat is a roasted duck breast, I alternate slices of it with sliced bratwurst, pickled red cabbage and either spaetzle or knodle and some type of demi glace. It's even better when my buddy Paul Zirkel from Roots makes the brats for me. That boy has got a way with sausage and the dish screams Milwaukee, in all its glory.

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

KS; Outside of a couple overworked, stressed-out tour managers I'd have to look really hard to find something not to like about my job. The staff at the theaters from top to bottom are some of nicest people in Milwaukee. I get to cook a dinner party for some of my favorite musicians or comedians in a dining room that is super groovy. And up until a couple weeks ago, when my dog Rashi swallowed a ball that sent him to his demise, I got to do it all while my best friend entertained the guests. So whats not to like about that?

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

KS: I'm kind of a meal specific diner in Milwaukee. I go to Cubanitas when im in need of ropa vieja, Barnacle Bud's for oysters or a crab cake. Speed Queen when I'm in need of barbecue. Elsa's for an au poive burger, EE-Sane for some spicy noodles, West Bank (Cafe) for a bowl of pho, Hooligan's for a chicken sandwich, Just Art's for a hot dog. If I want to bend my mind a little bit and can't get out of town I go to Roots; I really love what Paul and his wife Lisa are doing in the kitchen over there.

OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook?

KS: Argh. That's akin to the favorite kid question ... not that I know anything about that. My apartment is filled with them and I do a rotation. But If I was getting on a boat and could take two I'd take "Modern Art of Chinese Cooking" by Barbara Tropp and "Culinary Artistry" by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. For very different reasons, but those are the two I would take if I left town tonight.

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

KS: Mario Batali. Esthetically I just love how he rolls. His dishes are really pure and flavorful. His cooking pre-dates the term rustic. I also love the fact that most of the times I eat at Babbo, I get to hear Jane's Addiction's "Nothing's Shocking" front to back during dinner. I still love the New York Times review that gave him 3 1/2 stars and offered that it would have given four if it wasn't for the constant blaring of rock 'n roll ... love that dude.


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

KS: A well seasoned cast iron pan and a thick dark wooden spoon.

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

KS: I'm out of the loop here. I don't own restaurants anymore so I couldn't care less. The things I personally love about food and cooking are not going away anytime soon.

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

KS: The next shift.

OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?

KS: A Royall with cheese.

OMC: Which band would you like to cook for more than any other and what would you make for them?

KS: Man, I wish I could answer this one on the spot for you. The fact of the matter is it takes me a little while to write a menu for a specific artist, I put a lot of thought into it. It's hard for me to think about who I would like to cook for when I've been cooking for Neil Young, the Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, Norah Jones, Anthony Bourdain, Trey Anastasio, Mark Knopfler and the like. When you get to watch Yo Yo Ma drink your lobster consomme out of the bowl that you've been working on for two days, then come up to you to politely mention it's one of the finest things he's ever put in his mouth, its hard to spend much time dreaming of what could be.

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 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.