Casey Davison was a picky eater. He didn’t eat a lot of things that were set before him at the table. But, he recalls his grandmother’s Sunday dinners with particular fondness – plates piled with roasted leg of lamb and delectable Yorkshire puddings.
Davison, who grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., spent a portion of his college years struggling through classes in mortuary science. His father was a medical examiner, so the career path seemed like a natural choice. But, Davison found the subject matter "too depressing." In fact, he kept thinking more and more about the jobs he’d had working in little pizza shops and chain restaurants throughout his teenage years.
He loved the fast pace and the creativity of it all. So, he decided to try his hand at culinary school at the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education.
"I fell in love," he says. "I enjoyed the creativity, freedom … working at a country club, cooking burgers for people out on the course. Someone was so happy about this burger that I cooked. It was awesome to see that I could make a smile on his face."
When Davison’s culinary teacher introduced him to Sandy D’Amato, D’Amato invited him out to Milwaukee to interview for an open position at Coquette Café. He was hired as the grill cook, and he worked at Coquette for nine months, staging at Sanford on his days off to gain even more valuable experience.
Not even a year later, Davison took over the fish station at Sanford, as well as responsibilities as lead line cook. As his passion for the work grew, he came in early, worked off the clock and put in as many hours as he could, knowing it was the best way to hone his craft.
Now, as sous chef under Sanford owner and executive chef Justin Aprahamian, Davison is developing into a seasoned chef with a disciplined palate and an understanding of what it takes to run a restaurant. He manages a kitchen staff of between five and six, depending on the day. And he seems to be enjoying every moment of it … at least according to what he told me when we got together for a chat this past week.
OnMilwaukee.com: From your point of view, what’s the most important role a sous chef plays?
Casey Davison: Obviously helping Justin [Aprahamian] out, making sure I’m keeping everyone else in line. Keeping as much off of the chef’s plate as I can. Tasting food, making sure that it’s right. Letting him write recipes, and do his thing without having to check up on things.
OMC: What’s the most challenging part of your job?
CD: Writing the special tasting menu. That’s nerve wracking. People come in, and it’s their anniversary, a special occasion, or maybe just a great night out. But, you want to make sure that everything is absolutely spot on. Even those couple of little bits, you want them to be up to expectation. There needs to be a flow to the menu. You want the proper balance in flavors. It’s a lot of pressure.
OMC: What’s the best part?
CD: The ongoing learning is really the best part for me.
There’s nothing that chef won’t let you try. If it works – great. If not, there might be things we can do to adjust it to make it work the next time around.
I really love the creativity that goes into what we do here, and the way I’ve been taught the proper use of ingredients, as well as and using them to their full potential – the use of the full animal, the full vegetable. We don’t throw things away here. Not the bones, not the scraps. We don’t throw away greens from radishes.
I think that’s really something I learned at Coquette and here. So many places don’t use the scraps, but here it’s just the opposite. If we have some odd bits laying around, we make ravioli. Nothing gets wasted.
I once heard a chef say that he thought chefs by nature were simple minded, and that’s why we do what we do. But, I disagree. What we do takes a lot more than simple mindedness. Doing great things with simple ingredients isn’t simple minded at all.
OMC: What have you learned most about yourself while working in the kitchen?
CD: My passion for this job, for this career. I never thought I’d come to a place where the chef is 6 years younger than I am where I’d be learning so much. But, I really am.
There’s no turning back now. I don’t want to do anything else. Being in the sous chef position, it’s long hours. And it only gets more stressful. I know that. But, I’m constantly preparing myself. I know that I want it.
There’s so much to learn here yet, so it would be silly for me to move on, but ultimately, I really want to.
OMC: Of the chefs you’ve worked for, from whom did you learn the most? Why?
CD: Justin Aprahamian. I’ve been here for six years, and he’s taught me a lot. I didn’t work as much with Sandy [D’Amato], it was really always more working with Justin. From properly balancing food to making a dish work, helping everything to come together … I’ve learned all of that here.
I learned never to add something without purpose. If you serve a rich food, you’re always adding an acid to balance things out and bring you back.
OMC: How would you describe your cooking style or philosophy about food?
CD: I don’t know. I’m not sure if I have a style yet. I don’t want to be tied down to anything. I want to be able to be open to anything – to explore new styles, new approaches to food, new ethnic dishes. Philosophy wise, it’s about not mistreating your product.
OMC: Is there a style of food you’d really like to explore in a more detailed way?
CD: Oh, yes. French Caribbean cuisine – spicy and exotic food. I’d like to get more knowledgeable in that area.
OMC: Where do you envision yourself five, 10 years from now?
CD: I would like to have my own restaurant ... or even to be chef de cuisine. I’d like to be running a place for myself, or even for someone else.
OMC: If you could call the shots on the menu, what would you cook?
CD: Actually, chef kind of lets us do that. He asks me what I want to do.
I’m in the process of designing one of our next ethnic menus. I chose Russian. I brought the ideas to Justin and we fine-tuned the ideas together.
OMC: What kinds of things?
CD: Stuffed pickled celery with stuffed oysters. Buckwheat dumplings with buttermilk soup and smoked salmon, stuffed rabbit with a walnut sauce and a spring vegetable salad. Dessert will be black bread pudding with grilled apricots, cherries and sorghum ice cream.
OMC: Mmm. When will that menu be served?
CD: Probably toward the end of May.
OMC: Speaking of delicious food, are you still a picky eater?
CD: Well, some textures still bother me, but overall no. I eat all sorts of things now. Including Brussels sprouts – the way Justin taught me how to do them, sauteed with garlic, shallot and deglazing with rice wine vinegar. I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to eat them before. But, now … even my wife really likes them.
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.