Even at 15 years of age, there was something special about the way Daniel Pope made sandwiches at his local sub shop.
"I wasn’t old enough to drive a car, but there was a Subway in the strip mall near our house," he tells me. "So, I worked there. I even had a little name tag, ‘Daniel P – Sandwich Artist.’"
Pope was raised in a military family, so they were never in the same place for very long. But, restaurant work was available everywhere; so, he spent most of his teen years working in restaurants, gaining experience at both the front and back of the house.
"I’ve been a bus boy, a dishwasher, a server, a bartender," he says. "For a while, I got obsessed with espresso, so I even worked in a coffee shop for a while."
It wasn’t until he was 20 that he chose to settle down in Chicago. Even now, he says the city is the closest he’s come to having a place he considers "home."
It was there that he started taking cooking more seriously. For a while he worked as a line cook for the renowned vegetarian restaurant, the Chicago Diner. But, it wasn’t until he applied to work at Jason Hammel’s Lula that his perspective – and career trajectory – changed.
"The place that changed my entire thinking about cooking was Lula Café in the Logan Square neighborhood," he says. "It was so farm to table that sometimes one of our farmers would deliver his chickens to us at 7 p.m. – right in the middle of dinner service."
Pope credits Hammel with teaching him "everything" he knows about cooking – probably not a stretch considering Hammel is the reason why Pope earned his degree at Le Cordon Bleu.
"He didn’t want me unless I was fully committed, so he told me I’d have to go to school if I wanted to work for him. So, that’s what I did."
Pope lived and worked in Chicago until about a year and a half ago when he moved to Milwaukee. He worked as executive sous chef at the Wisconsin Club before accepting the position of chef de cuisine under Chef Peggy Magister at AP Bar and Kitchen.
His dedication has resulted in widespread acclaim for the fledgling restaurant, which recently garnered honors from The Thrillist as one of the top new restaurants in America.
His dedication is evident. Even as we sat in dining room at AP, chatting about his work at the restaurant, Pope never left his post as chef. In fact, our conversation ebbed and flowed as Pope darted in and out of the kitchen, like a nervous mother, tending his bubbling pot of goulash.
OnMilwaukee.com: So, you’re taking great care tending the goulash. Talk to me about that.
Daniel Pope: The goulash is my baby. I don’t trust anyone else with it … I just sit and watch it like it’s my baby. It has to simmer for six hours. The onions have to caramelize for a whole two hours. But, it’s really important that they’re even, because it gives the dish its depth.
When I was in my early 20s, I spent some time backpacking in Europe. When I finished culinary school, a friend I’d made in Vienna invited me to move back there for a while. I had saved up quite a bit of money. So, I lived there for a year.
While I was there, I worked in a little café. It’s where I learned that German and Austrian cuisine is one of the most underrated in the world. Nobody can braise a pig like Germans can. After eating the food over there … it’s amazing.
It’s difficult to find a good German restaurant in America, and I don’t know why that is. It’s one of the reasons I put the goulash on the menu.
OMC: Describe your relationship to food as you were growing up.
DP: Since I moved around a lot, I got to taste a lot of different things. What really woke me up was Fisherman’s Wharf in (San Francisco) California. I ordered a quiche. My grandmother ordered a bowl of clams. When we got our dishes, I saw her big bowl of clams and my little egg dish, and we decided to switch.
I remember thinking how amazing the clams were. And from that point on, it was like "if it looks good, eat it." I wanted to try everything new and different.
OMC: Who have been your major influences?
DP: I would say first and foremost, Alice Waters. I’ve never been the kind of cook who was really into the whole molecular gastronomy thing. I’ve always been into simple, good food. It’s the ingredients themselves that are really great. She was one of the first to really bring that to the world. If it’s as fresh as possible, let’s not mess with it.
There’s no sense in hiding the turnip. It’s all about the turnip. And all it needs is a bit of roasting, maybe some acid, to make it shine.
People who do simple streamlined food, that’s who I love the most.
OMC: What do you enjoy most about your craft?
DP: The creativity and the energy. And the fact that no matter how many days you do this, you learn something new every day. You are never going to know everything.
I was tasting the goulash and the flavor just wasn’t there. I could taste every flavor that was supposed to be there and yet it didn’t taste right.
Johnny Fellin, my sous chef said "I think you need more fat in there." And he got it right. That’s what was missing. So, we added duck fat.
So, no matter your level of experience, you can always learn something.
OMC: What trends do you see coming up the pike that you’re excited about?
DP: I don’t actually know. I’m not sure what’s coming next. But, I’m hoping this – the concept of all purpose, things that are modern, without this sense of a specific style. Things have gotten so rustic, and I think the gastropub concept is just tired. I like the idea of nice clean white plates that we can make pretty. Some of that got lost.
We really want to do playful food here. That’s what Peggy [Magister] and I are all about.
OMC: How does it work – the dance between you and Chef Magister?
DP: It’s kind of one hand washes the other. She’ll come up with dishes, and most of the time nothing needs to be fixed. She’s extremely talented. But, sometimes she’ll make things and she’s not happy with them, so she’ll have me taste it.
More than half the menu was created by the both of us. I’m pretty Mediterranean and Central European, whereas she has the Asian and world influence. So, we really complement one another. It’s really a perfect match.
OMC: AP has been recently acknowledged as one of the best new restaurants in the nation. How does that make you feel?
DP: It makes me feel really lucky that I was able to be a part of this. Peggy and me coming together couldn’t have happened at a better time.
OMC: How did you guys connect?
When they decided to change the format at the Wisconsin Club to more of a supper club environment, I knew I would really miss the creative element of coming up with new menus and creating dishes. So, I started looking for jobs.
I actually answered an ad Peggy placed on Craig’s list.
OMC: The Thrillist specifically mentioned your roasted chicken. What’s the secret to great roasted chicken?
DP: Well, herbs. Herbs and garlic. There’s not really a secret. It has to be cooked fresh. It has to be a great chicken. And you can’t over- or under-cook it. It also takes time. You have to care about it. Get a crispy skin.
Here at the restaurant, we cook our chicken to order, so it’s the one dish we tell people they’ll have to wait for.
OMC: You mention starting with a great chicken. What does that mean?
DP: I use Bell & Evans. I like the Amish chickens or some sort of free-range birds … no hormones or antibiotics. And they have to be air-chilled. There’s something about putting moisture on a chicken when you’re cooling it down. You just can’t get rid of that.
Ultimately, you just have to get a chicken that was treated the right way. I always think you can tell the quality of the chickens if every few have a few feathers still sticking to them.
OMC: OK, enough about chicken. What your favorite kitchen gadget, and why?
CP: Spoons. Honestly. I can’t do anything without spoons. I have like six different silver spoons that I’ve curated over my career. They’re non-reactive. If you taste a salad dressing, for instance, with just any kind of spoon, you can sometimes get a metallic taste. But, silver – it won’t react to anything no matter what.
Tongs can tear chicken flesh, but spoons won’t. If you’re good enough, you can cook everything with a spoon. Sometimes I actually challenge myself to that in the kitchen. I’ll clear my station of everything but spoons. Did you know you can turn a scallop with a spoon?
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook?
DP: Honestly, "The Joy of Cooking," because it has all the basic thing; things people don’t even do any more. Some of the best dumpling recipes ever are in "The Joy of Cooking."
And because it’s been continually revised, all of them work. In a lot of the big chef cookbooks, that’s just not true. They’re more for publicity than actual use.
OMC: What is your favorite food/ingredient to cook with?
DP: Probably chicken. It’s so versatile. You can do so many things with it.
OMC: Do you have a favorite thing to do with it?
DP: That roasted chicken dish on the menu is my favorite dish. Although the fried chicken we’re doing is really pretty stellar. And unexpected.
We brine the chickens for two hours, and then we steam and cool them. We leave all of the bones in to maintain the moisture, but we portion it out and fry it for like six minutes. There’s no batter, no dredging. Just really great fried chicken. It’s totally unexpected.
OMC: When you’re at home, what do you like to eat?
DP: Lately I’ve been eating a lot of chili, since it’s so cold. But, at home I pretty much cook whatever my wife wants me to. She gets cravings, and I cook for her.
OMC: Do you cook for the holidays?
OMC: What are you making for Christmas?
DP: I’m probably going to make a turkey, unless I can get a hold of a really good goose. Geese are really hard to cook.
Geese are really popular in Germany. In fact, three or four houses in Germany get burned down every year around the holidays from people trying to cook their geese.
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.