When Graffito chef Dominic Zumpano headed to Florida to open Graffito South, Dane Baldwin got the call to step in to lead the kitchen at the Third Ward Italian restaurant.
Luckily, his years of diverse experience at places like Gil's Cafe, Dancing Ganesha and beyond have given him all the tools he needs to succeed.
We caught up with Baldwin, who's been running the show at Graffito since the start of February.
OnMilwaukee.com: What kind of experience and training brought you to your current position?
Dane Baldwin: Since I was 15 years old I've worked in the food industry. My first job was at a Sendik's Food Market in Whitefish Bay. At 20 I got in front of the stove, deciding then that this was the profession for me. I worked as much as I could.
My career started at Gil's Cafe, hired as a prep cook and eventually running the kitchen. Before taking the promotion at Gil's, I worked there during the day and at Dancing Ganesha in the evenings – two very different styles of cuisine. I wanted to broaden my knowledge base. At one point I was working at three restaurants at once; until I found Bacchus. I was hired as a line cook there shortly after they opened.
That is where things began to click for me, I often call it a growth spurt in my career. I moved on to work at Carnevor as Chef de Cuisine to Jarvis Williams, a model example of what a chef should be. And here I am, when Dominic left to open Graffito South, it seems as though I was an obvious pick to be his successor.
OMC: Have you felt a need to kind of chart a new course to distinguish yourself from Dominic, since he was such a force in birthing Graffito?
DB: Simply put, no. My concerns are not with distinguishing myself from anyone. I was Dominic's Chef de Cuisine for nearly a year and of course that experience has rubbed off on me. While I have learned a lot, I would like to think of myself as part of that force. I guess it's kind of like being the vice president, some people know your name and some people don't.
OMC: Are your perhaps differing talents going to give the Graffito menu something of a new look?
DB: Naturally. Of course there are staple items on the menu that don't call for a "new look," like the hot wing ravioli for instance. But, I think Omar (Shaikh) is pretty good about letting the chefs in the group express themselves through the food. As the new Executive Chef of Graffito I think naturally some of the menu is due for change but, that is a seasonal decision.
OMC: You've worked at the two major restaurant groups in town. Do they have a similar feel in terms of attitude, spirit and working to stay fresh and current?
DB: I think that question is better answered by the guest. I have personal ties to both groups, they have meant different things to me at different points in my career. It's hard to answer that question objectively. I do however, think that both groups have played a large role in presenting Milwaukee with a stronger dining scene.
OMC: What do you like most, and least, about your job?
DB: What I honestly like most is the teacher/student relationship that you tend to develop with the staff. Keep in mind, though, that's a two-way street. I learn from those around me on a daily basis. What I like least is paperwork, but, if that's the biggest of my woes, who's complaining.
OMC: What are your favorite places to eat out in Milwaukee?
DB: I don't get out to eat much, really, but, I've had great experiences at Crazy Water, La Merenda, Hinterland, Rumpus Room, Maxie's Southern Comfort, Roots, The Smoke Shack and Beta by Sabor, to name a few. That is not to mention the obvious.
I feel kind of silly in saying that I've never been to Sanford's; I won't be saying that for long. But, my favorite place to eat is at home with my wife Anna and my daughter Stella.
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook?
DB: Not really, I have collected many over the years. Cookbooks are a great way to educate yourself and perhaps get some inspiration. My favorite cookbook is usually the one I don't have yet, like "The Modernist Cuisine" (by Dr. Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet). Saving up for that one.
OMC: Do you have a favorite TV or celebrity chef?
DB: No, it changes from time to time. If I could answer that question like "what's in your CD player right now?" I would say Marc Vetri. To me, he's the real deal, not flashy; into being a chef first and not a celebrity. I really respect those who let it come to them and don't seek it out, so to speak.
OMC: What's been the biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?
DB: Farm to table cooking. And it should be, it just makes sense.
OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?
DB: Probably my fish spatula. Anyone who has worked the line with me knows that I use it for everything. Or maybe towels.
OMC: What's the next big trend in food?
DB: Tough one. It seems as trends come and go it's something revisited from years past, tweaked and called new. I hope it's bread, house-made bread.
OMC: What's the toughest day / night to work in the restaurant biz?
DB: At this point, I feel like I'm over it. You tend to adapt to the "toughest" parts of the job. You tend to accept it, react, refine, until it's not that tough anymore. A never ending story, I love it.
OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?
DB: There's no shame in my game. I love ice cream. I have no problem eating a lot of it guilt-free. Stella benefits from that.
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.