For the seventh straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by the restaurants of Potawatomi. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2013."
Jesus Cabrera was born in Veracruz, Mexico, and grew up in Oaxaca, where his mother baked for a living.
"She used to make fresh rolls, sweet breads and empanadas and sell them at the market," Cabrera recalls. "I watched her do great things with less expensive items. That’s where I get the inspiration."
Cabrera kept that inspiration under wraps for a number of years, knowing that in Mexico, men who worked in kitchens were often mocked.
"They called us ‘little mamasitas’," he says.
After turning 16, he served in the Mexican army for almost four years before taking a job at the Gran Melia resort in Cancun. He started out working security for the resort, but ended up working in the kitchen.
"It was really an accident," he told me. "I didn’t pick the business. The business picked me."
After gaining some basic experience, Cabrera tossed a coin onto a map of the U.S. and made the decision to move wherever it landed. The coin led him to Troy, Ohio, where he worked in a number of restaurants. He moved on to live and work in Chicago, Fort Wayne Ind., and ultimately Milwaukee.
When I ask him how he ended up in Milwaukee, he smiles.
"I’m a big fan of baseball, and I liked the Brewers," he says. "Milwaukee was a nice city … my goal was to come to the U.S. to make money to help my family. I thought I would come back and build a house, but then I met my wife."
Cabrera worked at Café Hollander before moving into his role as sous chef at Blue’s Egg, which is where I caught up with him to talk about his role at the restaurant and his vision for the future.
OnMilwaukee: From your point of view, what’s the most important role a sous chef plays?
Jesus Cabrera: I’m in charge of the daily specials, the soup, setting up the whole line. I do ordering and planning, especially for the weekend. I have to make sure we’re all on the same page. We work together.
I would say that the execution and operation of the whole restaurant depends upon everyone. But, for a sous chef, it’s about being 100% dedicated and professional. You have to be at the top of your game all the time. When the doors open at 7, you have to be ready. Things need to be the same. The regulars know if the butter on the pancakes doesn’t taste the same, they know.
Here you also have to be a morning person. It’s from 4:30 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon.
OMC: What’s the most challenging part of your job?
JC: Keeping the same flavors in the dishes. And doing it well. There’s some fear when you make a mistake with a special, or make something the wrong way. There is a constant flow of communication between the kitchen and the servers, especially when it’s busy.
OMC: What’s the best part?
JC: Being able to taste everything – pancakes, bread, everything. I love food, bacon and sausage, and you can eat it. You have to taste everything to make sure that it’s good. At the end of the day I don’t need a meal.
OMC: What have you learned most about yourself while working in the kitchen?
JC: I’m definitely getting better on working under a lot of pressure. Everyone has a different character, but it’s part of me. I love to wake up in the morning. I love to move fast.
OMC: Of the chefs you’ve worked for, from whom did you learn the most? Why?
JC: It has to be Joe Muench. He’s not your typical chef, and this isn’t a corporation. I’ve learned how to clean a whole fish, cooking skate wing. Everything is fresh, and you get to try new techniques and learn so much.
Moving here to Blue’s it was the techniques that really stand out to me … the level of techniques that we execute in this restaurant. We’re starting to work with sous vide right now, and I’m learning so much. Right now we’re working with porchetta. When it comes out, it’s literally like butter. It’s so yummy, so good. It melts in your mouth. I didn’t know anything about sous vide before.
Like our browns, this restaurant has the best of the best. We work with local farmers and the community. The owners, Joe Muench and Dan Sidner treat people well. Everyone is treated the same. I fell in love with the restaurant and the dream we have to serve the best of the best.
OMC: How would you describe your cooking style or philosophy about food?
JC: I would say comfort food. It has to be good, taste good, look nice. As far as breakfast goes, it has to be fast.
OMC: What’s the one thing you wish people knew about sous chefs?
JC: The amount of hours that we work.
OMC: How many hours is that?
JC: Probably 50 hours a week. I mean, I’m not complaining, but we work a lot to be able to feed people how it is supposed to be.
OMC: Where do you envision yourself five, 10 years from now?
JC: In five years I have to be in charge of a restaurant. I have dreams, I want to open my own restaurant. A real Mexican restaurant. Not like the ones we have here…
Mexico is huge. Every place has a different mole, different spices. The food came from Spain, but also France. There’s a lot of fusion going on.
OMC: What’s your biggest complaint about the restaurants that are here now?
JC: They are not authentic. Mexican food is not just tacos. It’s beautiful. I would like people to be able to visit Oaxaca. Every little place there has a different mole – red mole, brown mole, chocolate mole … all sorts. I want people to taste all those flavors.
OMC: What do you do in your spare time?
JC: I love boxing. I go to a gym and gather with my friends and practice, and that’s my hobby. We go to the lake. I spend time with my family. And I love movies – action movies or interesting movies. Like "Les Miserables." I loved that movie.
OMC: What do you think about the food scene here in Milwaukee?
JC: I think Milwaukee – the food is growing. It’s getting really big. Lots of restaurants are opening. People are interested in more and more kinds of food. It’s interesting. Now you can have like Maxie’s – comfort food. There’s so many new things to try.
Lori Fredrich (Lo) is an eater, writer, wonderer, bon vivante, traveler, cook, gardener and girlwonder. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, she has tried to leave many times, but seems to be drawn to this quirky city that smells of beer and alewives.
Some might say that she is a little obsessed with food. Lo would say she is A LOT obsessed with food. After all, she has been cooking, eating and enjoying food for decades and has no plans to retire anytime soon.
Lo's recipes and writing have been featured in a variety of publications including GO: Airtran Inflight Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Cooking Light, Edible Milwaukee, Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as on the blog Go Bold with Butter, the web site Wisconsin Cheese Talk, and in the quarterly online magazine Grate. Pair. Share.