By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Jun 03, 2011 at 9:01 AM

Zach Espinosa likes to talk about his history with beets. The day care center he attended with his brother served them canned, and he hated them.

"I can't tell you how many ways we found to hide those beets because we had to eat them," he says. Or somehow make them disappear. Empty milk cartons were his favorite place to stow the despised veggie.

Now the new executive chef at Harbor House, which is operated by the Bartolotta Restaurant Group, Espinosa calls himself "a champion for second tier vegetables." That includes parsnips, rutabaga, celery root and ... beets!

"Some of my favorite things to do is cook with those vegetables at home," he says. "I grew up a very picky eater. My parents thought I would be eating ramen and macaroni and cheese for the rest of my life."

The Milwaukee native's palate matured and broadened at about the time he decided to end his pursuit of a history degree at UWM and enroll in the culinary arts program at MATC. "Much to my parents' dismay, I dropped out of college. I felt out of place there," he explains.

"I graduated No. 2 in my class at MATC. Cooking makes me happy."

Espinosa learned that in his first job when he was 15. His employer was 1 Potato 2 at the Mayfair Mall food court.

"I had to scrub 200 pounds of potatoes my first day at work, and I thought it was great. They were paying me to do this. By the time I was 17 I was a manager."

The executive chef points to his maternal grandfather and father as key influences in his affinity for cooking. "I had strong male role models in the kitchen," he says.

"My grandfather was always there. He didn't cook extravagant things. It was Wisconsin fare."

Espinosa noted that his father is Hispanic. "He cooked a lot of everything. Always something on the grill."

MATC receives high grades from the chef. He worked as a line cook at Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery while in school.

"They filled in the blanks for me at MATC," he says. "I could grill and saute, but why is braising a good thing? MATC teaches you how to be a professional, how to carry yourself and interact with others.

"We have an amazing program here in town that is really pumping out quality people."

With his diploma in hand, Espinosa was almost immediately promoted to sous chef at Rock Bottom. In 2003 he joined the Bartolotta Group, opening Pizzeria Piccola in Wauwatosa and on Downer Avenue, as well as the commissary that serviced them.

From pizzas he moved on to a variety of jobs with Bartolotta -- sous chef at Bacchus, executive sous chef at Lake Park Bistro, helping launch the catering operations at Pier Wisconsin and the Grain Exchange, and finally chef de cuisine at Harbor House after a three-month gig with a new restaurant outside of the group. Espinosa moved up to Harbor House executive chef at the beginning of May, and the first menu revision under his leadership debuted Thursday.

Proving how happy he is in a kitchen, the chef often cooks in the new home he shares with his wife, Katie Espinosa, the general manager at Bacchus. He was pleased the house came without appliances so he could buy a fancy stove. "My wife says, 'boys with their toys'," Espinosa chuckles.

Asian cuisine is his favorite to eat, the chef reports, partially because he has no professional exposure to it. While hesitant to name his favorite non-Bartolotta restaurant, Espinosa will say, "We have never been disappointed at Jake's (in Brookfield). My wife and I like going there because we grew up near the original Jake's on North Avenue."

Espinosa says he is surprised by the thing he likes best about being executive chef at the Harbor House. "It's a challenge to find the best sources for the freshest seafood. I'm always on the phone trying to find the best, and then I am thinking about new ways to sauce it, get a vegetable on it and present it."

What he likes least about the job? Less free time and "there are days I don't touch a saute pan." That is when Espinosa goes home to his fancy stove.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.