If there's any figure on the contemporary dining scene in Milwaukee that needs no introduction it is Sandy D'Amato.
D'Amato, who is best known as the founder and former owner of Sanford and Cafe Coquette, has cooked around the world and might almost be the one man most responsible for the current restaurant boom in the city.
When he opened Sanford in 1989 in his family's long-lived, and then-recently closed grocery store on Jackson and Pleasant Streets – after spending a few years in the kitchen at John Byron's – there was nothing like it in Milwaukee.
Since then, D'Amato has cooked for Julia Child and the Dalai Lama and has been feted by the James Beard Foundation, Zagat, Wine Spectator, Esquire, Food & Wine, Gourmet and Bon Appetit.
Last year, D'Amato and his wife Angie sold Sanford to their top chef, Justin Aprahamian, and the couple – which splits its time between Milwaukee and Hatfield, Mass. – is working toward opening a cooking school out east.
We caught up with D'Amato as his hardcover memoir and cookbook, "Good Stock: Life on a Low Simmer," is published by Agate Publishing.
The illustrated book is laced with alluring recipes, but most interesting of all are D'Amato's reminiscences and look back on a life lived in kitchens.
Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks with Sandy D'Amato.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell us a bit about writing the book. Was it hard work for you to remember all of the details?
Sandy D’Amato: As far as food experiences go I have almost a photographic memory, with most of my life having something to do with food. Probably the same way any batter remembers specific pitches from games years before.
OMC: Did reliving all this stuff – all these experiences – give you a new or different perspective on what you've accomplished?
SD: It was fun to put it all down on paper but I still haven’t changed my philosophy that it’s all about the next meal or dish, not being satisfied, and always striving to make whatever I’m making better than the last time I made it. I’ll be a student for the rest of my life!
OMC: Can we talk a bit about Sanford? Had you been grooming Justin (Aprahamian) to take over or did he just impress you in a way that led you to think maybe it's time to hand it off to the next generation?
SD: Justin, Angie and I started talking about the prospect about five years prior. Both Justin and ourselves wanted him to be completely comfortable and as ready as you can be to own a restaurant. Justin is a very special talent in that he always wants to learn, is self-reflective and always open to criticism, which along with talent makes for a winning combination.
OMC: Was it especially hard not only because it was your restaurant, but because the building is so much more than that, being the place you grew up and being so important to your family history here?
SD: The success of a small restaurant like Sanford is tied to the real estate so we felt it was important to sell it as one and know Justin is the right steward, as he has strong family ties and great character that will make the restaurant continually successful in the future.
OMC: Speaking of family, does the title of the book, "Good Stock," suggest that you inherited or learned a lot about the joys of cooking from your parents and grandparents?
SD: Exactly, it is a metaphor for growing up in the Midwest and about the lessons I learned on how to treat people from an early age that became the format for our restaurant family at Sanford.
OMC: When you came back to Milwaukee to open Sanford, you could've made a career in kitchens anywhere in the world. What drew you back here?
SD: Two reasons. First, I wanted to not just open a restaurant, but to actually own it. I knew the that was a very slim option in New York City. Second and more important, I was looking for balance in life. New York City restaurant life left me little time to cultivate any kind of personal relationship which is a problem especially if you are married.
OMC: Surely many, if not most, would say you are the godfather – for lack of a better word – of the current vibrant dining scene here? Do you accept that title?
SD: Is that godfather or grandfather? I like to think that I am part of what happened in Milwaukee if just by showing other chefs that you can come home again and do the kind of food and service that you want. In the late '70s and early '80s finding great food outside of the culinary epicenters of the country was hard. Today you can find great food everywhere and can easily come home wherever you may be from.
OMC: Who do you think held that title when you were an aspiring chef?
SD: For me it was definitely Knut Apitz at the Grenadiers. He was a big reason I decided to come back to the city.
OMC: Are you encouraged by what you see here these days in terms of chefs and restaurants?
SD: Completely, there is a plethora of great young talent here and as they all mature you’ll see more excellent focused food.
OMC: There was an earlier time when the city was alive with great restaurants, too, wasn't there? What had happened to end that era? Could it happen again?
SD: When I went to the CIA in the early '70s the places everyone knew about outside of Milwaukee where the big three German’s places Ratzsch’s, John Ernst and Mader’s, and, of course, Frenchy’s. With a lot of places if you don’t change and evolve your clientele dies out. And that was a time when "new blood" wasn’t moving into the city.
OMC: Is there a Milwaukee restaurant from the past that you miss most?
SD: That’s an easy one – Big Boy. Although at my age it’s probably a good thing.
OMC: How much time do you and Angie spend in Milwaukee these days?
SD: We’ve been doing a 50/50 split for the last year.
OMC: Where do you eat when you're here?
SD: Since we sold the restaurant to Justin and Sara we’ve been discovering the city. In just the last months we have been to Wolf Peach, c 1880, Odd Duck, Blue Jacket, the new Stone Creek on Erie and Zach’s, along with our regulars Beans and Barley, Triskele's and, of course Coquette and Sanford. We’ve been very well fed.
OMC: Now that you're planning to open a cooking school, is the book a way of putting a period on the portion of your career as a chef-restaurateur?
SD: We knew it would be happening about the same time as I needed to be freed of the day to day to be able to finish the book. The cooking school is going to be low-key as we don’t want a huge operation. We look at it as Angie and I having 10 to 12 friends over and we all cook, eat and drink in a really great open kitchen with produce grown outside our door. Yes, it will be my dream kitchen in Angie’s dream house.
OMC: Do you ever see yourself missing the restaurant game and opening a new place?
SD: No, we gave it everything we had and are very proud of what we accomplished, but at this time of life it’s time to step back; still cook, but on our own simple terms.
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.