What do you think of when you think of German food?
In all likelihood, traditional fare comes to mind. Schnitzel. Spaetzle. Sauerbraten.
But a new mobile food operation, Döner MKE, is taking aim at exposing Milwaukeeans to a distinctly more modern, globally-influenced, side of German cuisine.
"Since World War II, Germany has had a huge influx of immigrants," notes Döner MKE chef and owner Matthias Letson-Maddux. "The culinary scene has also changed – much as it has in the U.S. – thanks to locality, seasonality and global influences. They have young chefs and celebrity chefs. And the food that’s being served in restaurants reflects all of those things."
Modern German menus still pay homage to deutsche küche, he says, but global influences are everywhere. Turkish döner kebab are omnipresent. Currywurst, originating from the influence of British soldiers in the late 1940s, represents the intersection of East and West. Meanwhile, foods like lahmajoun, an Armenian flatbread topped with minced meat, is eaten like pizza.
Letson-Maddux is a relative newcomer to the Milwaukee scene. But, prior to his arrival in the Cream City just two years ago, he spent years working in the culinary world, gleaning experience from some of the nation’s best chefs and immersing himself where culture meets history meets cuisine.
Traveler, chef, beer lover
Having grown up in a military family, he spent his childhood in a variety of locales across the U.S., eventually spending the better part of two decades living with his family in Germany. When he returned to the U.S. to attend college, he began working in the restaurant industry while in school.
What began as a purely financial proposition eventually became a passion. And Letson-Maddux says he slowly gained a true appreciation and passion for food and its origins.
As his appreciation grew for both the preparation of cuisine and "that moment of Zen in the middle of a Saturday night rush," he found himself switching careers. While attending culinary school at the Art Institute in Minneapolis, he worked with Tim McKee at La Belle Vie. He moved on to gain experience at Restaurant Vincent and Craigie Street Bistrot in Boston. When his wife, Melanie, took a job in Dubai, he worked in restaurants there, as well.
In the years following, he lived in South Africa, Kentucky, Georgia and Los Angeles, working as a photographer, blacksmith and homemaker. When his wife got a job with Johnson Controls in Milwaukee, he says he was shocked by how quickly he felt at home.
"We weren’t here more than two weeks and we fell in love with the city," he says. "There’s a great beer scene, a radically underrated food scene … and the arts! Milwaukee resonated really strongly with us. Every day we drive down Lake Drive, and it’s the most beautiful thing. I don’t know why they call it Lake Michigan. They should rename it Lake Milwaukee after the most beautiful thing on its shores."
As he got to know the city better and better, Letson-Maddux also got to know folks in the brewing industry. He frequented Draft & Vessel in Shorewood, where he became friends with the likes of Eric Gutbrod, as well as Simon McConico, co-owner of the forthcoming Vennture Brew Co. From there he also met people like Joe Yeado from The Gathering Place in Riverwest.
One day Yeado, who was looking for a permanent solution for the lag that happens at his brewery during the dinner hours, asked him: "If you were to open up a food truck – for this place – what would you do?" Letson-Mattox says he did the research and came back with a plan. Why not have a food truck that collaborated specifically with breweries to serve beer-friendly foods?
"The process was really interesting," he says. "I costed things out and came up with a menu. And, for the first time, in a long time, I began to think I might be interested in getting back into the business."
And that is how Döner MKE was born.
On the menu
The concept focuses on modern German street food, with dishes priced $10 or less. Menu items include currywurst, an item ubiquitous in Germany, featuring Usinger’s Vienna sausages paired with a housemade curry sauce that goes well beyond the typical ketchup mixed with curry powder.
Folks will find döner kebab featuring a traditional Turkish marinated beef skewer with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and shredded cabbage served on yufka (unleavened bread) or pide (a larger, leavened hard roll) with German garlic yogurt sauce or acilil ezme, a traditional spicy Turkish hot sauce.
There will also be schnitzel sarmie (the South African word for sandwich) featuring a fried pork cutlet with avocado relish on a hard roll; and landjaeger, the traditional air-cured garlic sausage, served up on a hard roll with mustard.
Letson-Maddux says he’ll serve "great" French fries. He is also likely to offer a vegetarian sausage and the option of "salad and fries" for those who don’t eat meat.
He says he opted for street food because it’s the perfect pairing for beer. Plus it’s easily eaten on the go. "There’s a reason why taco trucks are awesome," he says. "It’s fast, it’s quick and it’s good."
Letson-Maddux hasn’t yet invested in a full-blown food truck at this time, though that’s a goal he says is definitely on the horizon. But he’s acquired licensure to host pop-ups at local breweries throughout the summer.
You can find him beginning this week at Draft and Vessel on July 5 where he’ll be serving from 6 to 9 p.m. for a special event featuring MobCraft brews including Cranberry Golden Sour, Odd Ball Kolsch, Rhubarb IPA and Solid Non Fail.
You can also find him (and three other food trucks) at a food truck event hosted by Gathering Place at The Goat Palace, 3740 N. Fratney, just behind the brewery. The event begins at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, July 13.
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.