Even if you follow Chef Jarvis Williams on Twitter – where he’s very active – you might not know that he is perhaps, unofficially speaking, the Packers’ favorite chef.
His restaurant, Carnevor – part of the SURG Restaurant Group – is a favorite among athletes who roll through the state, though the chef is too modest to boast about it or let it go to his head.
Instead, this home-grown culinary star says he views every guest – famous or not – the same. "I think that everyone that comes in puts pressure on me," he says. "So on any level, bad dining is something I don't want to happen on my watch."
We caught up with Williams to ask him about his background, his job and a few of his favorite things...
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell us a bit about yourself. Were you always interested in the kitchen?
Jarvis Williams: To be honest, I wasn't always dreaming of working in a professional kitchen. Like any other kid, I dreamt of being a firefighter, policeman and, most of all, a professional basketball player, which I believe I still have talent to do, if I must say.
I grew up on the North Side of Milwaukee where it was still old-school tradition, playing outside until the lights came on ... couldn't go past a particular light pole on the block and that every neighbor was also your parent. Those kind of grounds for growing up gave me a lot of discipline to be able to handle a stressful atmosphere such as a kitchen.
OMC: What kind of experience and training brought you to Carnevor?
JW: I used to work with Dane Baldwin at Bacchus, who then moved over to Carnevor. He then gave me a phone call and we met out for a beer and we talked about me possibly joining Carnevor to be their executive chef. At the time I was a line cook and had no prior experience being an executive chef. I used to work for the Bartolottas previously and was at Ristorante in Wauwatosa, Pizzeria Piccola and Lake Park Bistro.
OMC: We recently had a story about how popular Carnevor is with professional athletes in Wisconsin. Does having them in the dining room put pressure on you back in the kitchen?
JW: Not necessarily, to me. I think that everyone that comes in puts pressure on me (laughs)! But it’s definitely cool to have them consider your place for dining. The guys in the kitchen really get a kick out of cooking for them, too. It’s kind of cool to see them make a great play one week and then have them eating in your dining room the following week with their families.
OMC: I assume the last thing you want is a Packers player to tweet to half a million followers that he wasn't happy with his experience.
JW: No, definitely not what I want to happen. On the same end, the customer who isn't a Packers player could make a possible negative remark about our restaurant and the retweets/shares can be through the roof! Especially if they make a humorous remark regarding it. So on any level, bad dining is something I don't want to happen on my watch (laughs).
OMC: What are some of the upsides and potential downsides of Twitter on a restaurant's success?
JW: It’s nice to be able to inform potential customers of upcoming ideas, direct questions they may have, etc. It makes me a little more accessible to them, which is a great way to have them get familiar with Carnevor before they step a foot in the place. Downsides, I haven't came across any so far and I hope that stays that way. Got a piece of wood to knock on?
OMC: Do you have a signature dish?
JW: To be honest, I don't think I have a signature dish. I try to make myself as versatile as possible so that technique, season, ingredient and inspiration can play the role for me. I'll start to pay more attention to myself to see if I can get a signature dish.
OMC: What do you like most, and least, about your job?
JW: What I like most about my job is that I don’t hate my job. I love coming to work every day – except on Mondays, I have bowling league that day – and challenging myself to get better and create better dishes each day. It’s always inspiring to have like-minded chefs like Mario (Giuliani) and Dan (Sibley) to bounce ideas off of and have their creative ideas come into play, as well. I honestly don’t have anything that I like least about my job. All ponies and bunnies over here.
OMC: Do you have any favorite places yet to eat out in Milwaukee?
JW: I like to eat at Maxie’s and so does my family; it's always a good evening when we go there. Also I like to eat at Blue’s Egg, as well. I just don’t wake up early enough on Sundays to get there in time.
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook? What do you like about it?
JW: My favorite cookbook, I would have to say, is "The French Laundry" by Thomas Keller. I like it because of the stories and the passion it exudes through the words. I'm big into the stories that are in cookbooks, more than the actual recipes. I like to know why they chose a particular recipe more than anything.
OMC: Do you have a favorite TV or celebrity chef?
JW: I like Emeril (Lagasse) a lot. He's always been a favorite of mine to watch on TV. His personality and passion for food is what I love.
OMC: What's been the biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?
JW: The art of rediscovering (laughs) ... getting back to the old times of making your own sausages. I would not say farm to table. To me that should have been something that should have been taking place already. But awareness on that end has brought it to the forefront, which is a good thing.
OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?
JW: My sous chefs, Mario and Dan! I mean they are human beings, great ones at that, but without them I can pretty much forget about it. Kitchen utensils I can break and just buy more, those guys I can’t pick out of a brochure. Well, I haven't looked yet.
OMC: What's the next big trend in food?
JW: I don’t know if it's a trend, but special dietary restriction menus are appearing more and more on menus. Doing tastings that are gluten-free, vegetarian or vegan. I think that’s important not to ignore those issues and I hope that trend is here for a while.
OMC: What's the toughest day or night to work in the restaurant business?
JW: I would say Mondays. Those are the days where you’re usually restocking your restaurant from a busy weekend that could've possibly started on a Thursday and been busy throughout. Also Mondays tend to have a lighter staff in the kitchen so that could make things a little more challenging.
OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?
JW: It's no question: chicken wings! Just thinking about them right now makes me want to fry up some and drink beer.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.