By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Jan 05, 2012 at 9:05 AM

Numerous changes are on the horizon for area restaurants in 2012, including a new executive chef at Roots Restaurant and Cellar.

Daniel Jacobs, who has worked at Roots since July 2011, took over Jan. 1 after former executive chef Paul Zerkel and his wife, Roots' chef de cuisine Lisa Kirkpatrick, announced their departure at the end of 2011.

Originally from Chicago, Daniel Jacobs' career began at The Cookery in Fish Creek; but, it was his experience at the Inn at Cedar Crossing in Sturgeon Bay that cemented his love for food and convinced him to attend culinary school and pursue his career as a professional chef. Little did he know that his career path would influence his entire perspective, and encourage him to cultivate a true appreciation for seasonal cooking.

Jacobs was first introduced to the possibilities of the farm-to-table movement when he worked under the tutelage of Bruce Sherman at North Pond in Chicago. He later landed the position of chef de cuisine at the farm-focused Bistro Campagne, where he sharpened his talents alongside local food pioneer Michael Altenburg. His resume also includes work at restaurants including Carlos' Restaurant in Highland Park, Pluton, Green Zebra, Spring, Tru and Naha.

Although Jacobs plans to update the dessert menu at Roots with the help of his newly appointed pastry chef, Chase Anderson, he doesn't plan to make any drastic changes.

"The things Paul, Lisa and I were doing this summer and fall ... we were kicking out great food," Jacobs comments. "Roots has a great history and great food. You won't find molecular gastronomy on Brewer's Hill anytime soon."

What you will find is an imaginative seasonal menu that will feature ethnic specialties each month throughout the winter. Jacobs' January menu will begin with a culinary tour of Spain, followed by Italy in February, South America in March and Pacific Northwest-inspired cuisine during the month of April.

On Jan. 2, Jacob's first official day on the job, I sat down with him to chat with him about his history, his cooking philosophy and the foods close to his heart. Describe your relationship to food as you were growing up. What led to you working in the restaurant industry?

Dan Jacobs: I have no idea. My parents both worked, and if it didn't come out of a bag, a box or a can, we didn't eat it ... there weren't a lot of fresh vegetables. We had fresh mashed potatoes twice a year, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The rest of the time they came from a box.

My dad was out of work in 1987. The stock market crashed, and he didn't have a job for almost two years, so he started playing around in the kitchen making pasta sauces and chili. My way of getting out of chores was to hang out with him in the kitchen. We would throw stuff in pots to see what would happen. And that's where the cooking bug started.

When I moved out into my first apartment when I was 18, my roommates and I cooked. We really didn't cook anything good, but it was fun for us. For me, cooking was always something fun. It wasn't something I thought I could do as a career.

OMC: What made you decide you would become a professional cook?

DJ: In Door County, I really began to see what food could do. I looked at the guys I was working with – the sous chef, the executive chef, and a guy who was in culinary school in Appleton. And there was something about the flow of a night, how crazy it could get and then the incredible calm afterward, and the camaraderie in the kitchen. Also the structure of it – it put you into place. Somehow, it turned into a passion. And it was all-encompassing.

OMC: Who were your mentors?

DJ: Shawn McClain was really my first mentor. He really showed me how a chef should be in a kitchen. He was the first one in, and last one out. He was in the thick of it with us every day. He never yelled; in the three years I was there, I think I heard him yell three times. It formed my vision of how I wanted to be.

Then I worked for Michael Altenburg at Bistro Compagne for four years. He was the first person to really start practicing farm-to-table in Chicago. And he really drilled it into us. If it wasn't seasonal, we didn't have it. If it wasn't coming from one of our farms, we weren't using it. Everything on our menu was raised locally or came from within 200 miles of the restaurant. It was so challenging, but so fun.

OMC: Describe or define your style of cooking and/or your cooking philosophy.

DJ: When I go to a restaurant, there's something so pleasurable about something done simple and right. I love what's going on with molecular gastronomy – used in the right way I think it's really neat and fun – but simple ... something prepared well like a nice brined, roasted chicken for instance ... I can't believe I'm saying this, but that would make me happy. If you can cook a piece of chicken properly, something is going right. You need to know what you're doing. There's nothing to hide behind.

OMC: What's the one thing in the kitchen that you can't live without, and why?

DJ: Really?! Really?! Well, there are a couple of things. I, personally, love my fish spatula. It's a multi-purpose tool. It could be a whisk, a spatula. It could be a spoon sometimes, in a pinch. I've used it as a knife. But, I love spoons. I'm obsessed with spoons. There's something about someone doing a one-handed quenelle. It's one of those simple, pretty things that takes forever to learn how to do. But, holy crap, that's awesome.

OMC: What is your favorite food/ingredient to cook with?

DJ: That's a tough one. To tell you the truth, my favorite ingredient is the potato. You can do so much with it. You can get fancy with it – potato tuiles, potato windows. But, then you can also ... well, whoever makes a good potato gnocchi, you're my hero.

OMC: What is in your refrigerator at home?

DJ: Lots of Asian stuff. Lots of condiments. My wife does a great job cooking, but when I cook at home I like to do Asian food. So there's a lot of hoisins and soy sauces, rice wine vinegar and other sauces. Paul always liked to make fun of me for my sauce and rice vinegar obsessions. Lisa used to tease me that I drank the rice wine vinegar because it was always gone.

Working for Shawn (McClain) for three years gave me a big foundation in Asian cooking. For the last five years, I really haven't been able to do much with Asian food, so when I finally had the opportunity again, I was like 'Oh, yeah. Let's bring some stuff in.' And Milwaukee has really awesome little Asian markets ... like Pacific foods on the South Side. Milwaukee is not a second-class city. There are plenty of cool little markets and ethnic foods. You just need to drive around and find them.

OMC: What would be on the menu for your "Last Supper?"

DJ: Menu for my last supper? Oh my God. Seriously, I've never even thought about that ... There was a restaurant I went to in Boston, L'Espalier. I would want to eat there again. It was the best restaurant experience of my life. I was 22 years old. It was classic French. I am a total sucker for girondine and table-side and that sort of thing. I would have the Dover Sole Meunière for two. There's just something about that type of cooking. It kills me. With bananas Foster or crepes Suzette for dessert.

OMC: What is the best compliment someone could give to you?

DJ: You changed my day ... when someone leaves and they say 'I was having a sh*tty day, you've changed my day ... now I've had a great day.' I think food, the whole experience, has the power to change things. And I absolutely do not discredit what the front of the house does; I couldn't do that.

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.