Dan Sibley’s relationship with the food industry began in high school, when he began taking jobs at area restaurants.
"The coolest place I worked was at Ferch’s Malt Shoppe," he recalls. "They were around before Cold Stone Creamery. I grew up in Greendale, and that was always the place to be. It was cool, really laid back … we were always coming up with crazy ice cream flavors and backhouse stuff."
He says an experimental ice cream he remembers with particular fondness was a flavor made with taco seasoning.
"It was surprisingly better than you’d think," he says. "But, I don’t think people would have paid money for it."
Sibley sits across the bar from me as we chat. His ankle is wrapped from a recent injury, but his face is glowing and his smile makes me feel as if we’ve known one another forever.
Sibley tells me about how he attended MATC for a year while he was waiting for them to start up the associate’s degree program in culinary arts. He would have continued, if it weren’t for a job offer he got from a childhood buddy in Madison at the Tornado Room.
He worked there for almost four years as a line cook, learning every station and gaining plenty of professional experience. When he met up with an old girlfriend, he made the decision to move back to Milwaukee, where he landed a job at Carnevor.
That was five years ago. Sibley started as garde manger, worked his way up to the sauté station, and now works on the broiler, making some of the best steaks Milwaukee has to offer.
"A guy named Mo was working the broiler when I started, and I just watched him," Sibley tells me. " When he left, Dane Baldwin took over, and I took over after him."
There’s a lot of pressure when you work at a high end steakhouse, but Sibley takes it all in stride. We sat down to talk about his journey to being a sous chef, what he’s learned along the way, and some of the fun things he’s dealt with while working at Carnevor.
OnMilwaukee.com: What made you choose food as your career? Who influenced you?
Dan Sibley: Definitely my grandmother. She had a pretty big hand in raising me and she was always baking bread and always in the kitchen. So, that’s where I got my passion… my start. I helped her all the time. We’d make bread and drop off loaves to my aunts and uncles.
I remember, when I was really young, she’d just let me go and make what she called "poison soup"… Make-believe soup. I’d put in dish soap, potatoes, everything … it was really fun.
OMC: What do you wish you had known when you took your first sous chef position?
DS: Just how much more work – and how much more of yourself you have to put into it. As a line cook you’re told what to do, how to do it, when to do it. But, when you’re a sous, people are coming to you for answers. It took me aback a little at first when people ask me how or why we do things we’re doing.
OMC: From your point of view, what’s the most important role a sous chef plays?
DS: I would just say making sure that everyone is on their game. We’re held to a pretty high standard here. And it always comes back on Jarvis (Williams) – good or bad. So, we want to get as close to his vision as possible.
OMC: What’s the most challenging part of your job?
DS: For me it’s the sacrifices. You don’t get a lot of me-time. We have a lot of late nights. We stay open to accommodate Packers, Brewers, the whole nine yards.
OMC: What’s the best part?
DS: Just knowing that when people come to Carnevor, they’re expecting a certain degree of service, and we’re giving it to them. I like having that as our niche. It’s just awesome to be in this place that’s held so high in regard of restaurants in Milwaukee.
OMC: What have you learned most about yourself while working in the kitchen?
DS: I can push myself – people can push themselves – much farther than you might think. Whether it’s long hours, or coming up with new dishes… you can really break through the wall. And, when you put in the work, you’ll surprise yourself.
OMC: Of the chefs you’ve worked for, from whom did you learn the most? Why?
DS: I probably learned the most from Jarvis . I’ve been with him the longest, and – at the place we’re at in our relationship and careers – we’re bouncing pretty crazy ideas off of one another now. That’s what’s cool about Jarvis. He’s really open to listening to ideas.
OMC: What kind of crazy ideas?
DS: I once saw Jarvis barbeque halibut – barbeque sauce and the whole nine yards. And we ran it on the menu. Sometimes people weren’t exactly ready for it, but it went over really well. I remember trying it and looking at him … it was pretty darned good.
OMC: How would you describe your cooking style or philosophy about food?
DS: I like to take really basic family home food and put kind of a new twist on it. Just basic, good food. If you can do that, you’re way ahead of a lot of the people out there. You always want to push yourself, but basics will win every time.
I learned that here. I’m really glad to be a part of SURG. I left Carnevor for about six months. I went over to Ricardo’s in Greendale, and took a kitchen manager position. It was probably the first time I’d opened a can in my career, and I knew right away that wasn’t what I wanted. I called Jarvis, and they took me right back.
OMC: Anything you’re working on perfecting in the kitchen?
DS: I’m always in search of the perfect medium for steak. I wish I could go out there and see people cut into their steaks every time.
OMC: What’s the one thing you wish people knew about sous chefs?
DS: Just that we’re the ones who are doing the actual work. I mean, Jarvis puts in more hours than any of us, but we’re the ones executing the vision. It takes more than one person to make it happen for the dining room. It’s a team effort for sure.
OMC: Where do you envision yourself five, ten years from now?
DS: I think everybody is working towards the goal of their own place. I would love to have my own place – more of a bar with really good bar food. Restaurants are awesome, but I’m from the south side. That’s where everyone goes to unwind and talk about their day, bitch about their day.
OMC: If you could call the shots on the menu at Carnevor, what would you cook?
DS: I always want to put pork tenderloin on the menu. I am just such a big fan of pork, and it’s still kind of undiscovered territory. You send out a medium piece of pork, and people might freak out. I wish people weren’t afraid of it.
OMC: You get quite a few celebrities in here at Carnevor. Who’s the coolest person for you to have met or cooked for?
DS: I probably had the most fun with Charles Woodson when we did the wine dinner with him. I’m a huge Packers fan, first off. But, it was cool. He was here for his wine; you could see his passion for his wine. And … for a split second … it was kind of like we were in the same field.
OMC: I’ve also heard you get some pretty crazy requests from customers. What’s the craziest thing someone has asked for?
DS: It was a Friday or Saturday night and it was really busy and this guy wanted a breakfast sandwich. I remember there was pork belly on it. Fried egg. It was on our house bread. And maybe there was cheese. It was like $40, and he had two of them. It was probably the most expensive breakfast sandwich he ever bought.
OMC: And what do you think of the food scene in Milwaukee?
DS: I’d call it "up and coming." It’s impressive. And not a lot of people know it. People come up from Chicago and tell us that this restaurant could be in Chicago just as easily as in Milwaukee. And I don’t think it’s just us. It’s the whole city.
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.