Some chefs are drawn to food unexpectedly; others can barely remember a time when food wasn’t a part of their lives. Jodi Janisse-Kanzenbach of Cafe Souerette in West Bend is a chef who hails from the latter camp.
Janisse-Kanzenbach grew up in a family in which food played a starring role. Although her father traveled for work during the week, she says, weekends were always dedicated to activities surrounding food.
"He’d bake all of our fresh bread for the week before we went to church" she recalls. "And he always cooked; he was a great cook. On Christmas Eve every year, my dad would kick my mom out of the house, and we’d pick cookie recipes and he’d bake with me and my brothers."
Family vacations, she recalls, were always built around her father’s travel schedule. "He’d have business meetings, and I’d go to all these fancy dinners with him."
And when her parents got divorced and her and her siblings went to live with her father, he continued to insist that they set aside time to eat dinner together as a family.
By the time she graduated from high school, Janisse-Kanzenbach says she had a sense that culinary was the direction she should head. So she pursued her culinary degree at Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis and worked at a number of restaurants in Minneapolis before moving back home to West Bend, WI where she worked a number of jobs before taking the leap and starting her own restaurant, Cafe Souerette.
We sat down with Janisse-Kanzenbach, whose restaurant turned eight this past November, to find out a bit more about her – her favorite things, the people who’ve influenced her work, and even spots she likes to visit in Milwaukee.
OnMilwaukee: Cafe Souerette is a seasonally driven restaurant, so the menu changes often. But, are there any dishes that you’ve had on the menu since the beginning?
Jodi Janisse-Kanzenbach: There actually are. Both the crab cakes and the Alsatian onion tart are dishes that were on the first menu and have stayed on over the years. The Alsation tart was adapted from a cookbook my dad brought back from me while he was traveling. There’s also the bacon wrapped watermelon rinds.
OnMilwaukee: Bacon wrapped watermelon rinds?
Janisse-Kanzenbach: Yes. Have you ever had them? I’d never heard of them before they were suggested to me by one of our regular customers. His name was Peter. He just passed away a year ago in December. He was really into cooking and he had lived in California back in the day, and he asked me if I’d ever had pickled watermelon rinds. He brought me a jar of them and told me I had to make them. And then he told me I had to wrap them in bacon and bake them. And we did. And people went crazy over them.
OnMilwaukee: Thinking back, who in your life has had the most influence on your work?
Janisse-Kanzenbach: As a younger chef, I used to idolize Marcus Samuelsson for what he did. His style was so crazy across the board, and I’d save up to eat at Aquavit when that was still in Minneapolis. It was so different and so funky.
On the business end, Tony Mandela really gave me so much, showing me how to do things right. And then there’s my dad. He owned his own business, and I really took a lot of my entrepreneurism from him. I do all of our bookkeeping and everything for the restaurant.
OnMilwaukee: You have quite the pantry at the restaurant, and you do a lot of preserving.
Janisse-Kanzenbach: We spend the summer freezing and canning. We do jams, chutneys, tomatoes, pickles, a variety of different fruit butters, sauces. As far as freezing, I have one walk-in and four stand up freezers. We have a whole freezer of fruit, and then the rest are all different vegetables. We also have cold cellar storage for pumpkins, squash, carrots. This fall, I bought ten crates of apples from the farmer’s market; I did that last year, and we just used up our last ones in July. I try to plan so that we can get through the winter on a lot of what we have.
OnMilwaukee: Was there a learning curve when you started cooking with local foods? And trying to make them last?
Janisse-Kanzenbach: Definitely. Figuring out how much we needed to make it last was huge. Learning different recipes for canning – that was fun, but then I had to break it down to what I was actually using.
OnMilwaukee: Do you have a favorite restaurant in the Milwaukee area?
Janisse-Kanzenbach: Crazy Water is my favorite. The interior is gorgeous, I love how quaint it is and I really love her style of food. It’s always the place I recommend. I tell them that it’s like my food only a hundred times better. When she does lamb, it’s awesome.
OnMilwaukee: Do you have a guilty pleasure?
Janisse-Kanzenbach: I love popcorn. Me and my husband both. We make it at home in a whirly pop on the stove. For a while, we actually ate popcorn three or four nights a week for dinner after I got home from work.
OnMilwaukee: How about favorite cookbooks?
Janisse-Kanzenbach: The American Club Cookbook is one. I got that when I was probably 17. I have a super old school cookbook too that has some of the best old classic recipes in it that are no fail. Baking is definitely the one thing I use cookbooks for. I have a collection of probably 800 cookbooks, most of which I just use for ideas.
OnMilwaukee: What’s the hardest part of your job?
Janisse-Kanzenbach: You know, as a chef, you’re not just cooking anymore. We – our jobs – have become so visible. You have to put yourself out there, market yourself and open yourself up to the public.
OnMilwaukee: What would you consider the biggest culinary trend to hit over the past ten years?
Janisse-Kanzenbach: Butchery is coming back, and that was really always one of my favorite things. In fact, we’re really going to try to put that into place here this winter. We’ve started working with some of our farmers to make sausages. I’ve also started to do a lot more in house, grinding my own meat and breaking things down.
OnMilwaukee: Last one. If could cook for anyone in the world, living or dead, who would it be?
Janisse-Kanzenbach: My staff. They work so hard to serve and prepare this food; but, they never actually get to sit down and enjoy it like the guests do.
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.