By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Sep 18, 2013 at 11:01 AM

It was just over six years ago that Maxie’s opened its doors in the old Gerry O’Brien’s Meat Market at the corner of 68thStreet and Fairview Avenue. Known for its Southern Inspired "from-scratch" cooking, Maxie’s has become Milwaukee’s "go to" spot for "low country" comfort food cooking.

Probably the biggest misconception about Maxie’s is that it’s a Cajun restaurant. Although it’s a spot that pays annual homage to Mardi Gras, Maxie’s is more than a Cajun/creole joint.

Its food represents riffs on Carolinas, Creole and Cajun cooking of Louisiana, traditional slow-smoked southern barbeque, and southern comfort cooking of all kinds. The bar offers a well curated selection of quality wines, micro-brewed and imported beers, and top-shelf liquors. And what sets them apart from others is the quality of their offerings – which include fresh oysters, clams, shrimp and fish, flown in daily from the East Coast.

The restaurant is a collaboration between owner Dan Sidnor and Executive Chef Joe Muench, who met while they were working for the DeRosa Corporation here in Milwaukee.

Original owners Dan Sidner and Chick Evans met at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Evans was the driving force behind Maxie’s Supper Club, a restaurant in New York after which Maxie’s in Milwaukee was modeled. Sidner worked on the operations side and came on as the general manager.

The two of them were smart enough to hire Muench as their executive chef. Muench had a wealth of restaurant experience, and he brought a lot to the table of their fledgling restaurant.

Raised in Wauwatosa, Muench began his culinary management career as sous chef at iconic Milwaukee restaurant, Grenadier’s. He moved on to open Eddie Martini’s and ran the kitchens there for the first four years of its operation. Subsequently, he took on an executive chef position at the Big Foot Country Club in Lake Geneva, position as corporate chef for the DeRosa Corporation and executive chef at the now closed Sticks and Stones in Brookfield. 

So, Muench wasn’t a newcomer to the restaurant world. And when Evans and Sidner decided to part ways, Muench stepped up and took on co-ownership of the restaurant with Sidner and his wife Meg.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Muench has helped to make a name for Maxie’s as one of the best restaurants in Milwaukee. He took the helm when the restaurant decided to open Blue’s Egg, a breakfast, brunch and lunch destination a few miles west.  And he’s maintained a strong connection between both Maxie’s, Blue’s and the Milwaukee community.

I sat down with Muench this week to do a bit of catch up, talk about his career, and get a sense of what makes him tick. How did you come to make a career in food?

Joe Muench: I think I always had an interest in it. Growing up, my grandmother lived with us after my grandfather passed away. It was like Thanksgiving every day at our house with my grandmother cooking. I didn’t get my hands dirty much with her. But, I did watch.  And inevitably there was a plate with graham crackers and chocolate frosting around that I’d eat while she was finishing up.

When I got into high school, the Frugal Gourmet ruled the airwaves. PBS was a big deal at the time, and I watched all those shows … Graham Kerr and Jeff Smith were the guys. That was my inspiration.

I went to Whitewater for sociology – figured I’d get into teaching – but then, I got married when I was 22, and ended up switching over to MATC Culinary School.

OMC: What was your very first job in the industry?

JM: First restaurant job was making pizza at Marty’s Pizza in Greenfield. I think that was my favorite job ever. I loved delivering pizzas; it was a blast. There were seedy hotels and you’d deliver pizzas at 1 in the morning. There would be teenage girls who’d call you back the next day and the next day and the next day … it was great.   I also worked at Perkins & O’ Donahue’s. That’s how I got through school.

OMC: You got your start at the Milwaukee classic, Grenadier’s.  Talk to me about what you learned there.

JM: I still think, to this day, that there’s no restaurant that compares to what we did at Grenadier’s. The farm to table thing, we did that before it was the thing to do.  I mean, the types of foods we did there weren’t modern presentations. But, we had pigeon, woodcock, Scottish hares. We didn’t bring in one prefab piece of meat. Everything was cut down. Fish was boned. We had to break down our veal legs.

We cooked for a lot of people from Julia Child to George Bush senior to the Duke of Luxemburg.

OMC: What was it like working with Chef Knut Apitz?

JM: Chef Knut was a tough one to work for. He was old school, in your face. But, then again, I only recall him getting mad at me two or three times while I was there.  If you goofed off or made simple mistakes, he’d get on you.

We had these plastic lids for the plates, and one of the servers knocked one on the floor. Knut responded by yelling at her:  "If you’re gonna drop the damn lid, then break it!"  And he took the lid and smashed it into a million pieces on the floor.

OMC: So, he was a yeller?

JM: Yeah, he was a yeller. Mostly at the servers. There was one cook … he really rolled that guy. I don’t know why he took it. But, that was the way Knut motivated people.

OMC: So, talk to me about starting Maxie’s. Did the southern food thing speak to you?

JM: Yeah, it did. It was right when it started to become somewhat of a trend. Now, it’s a staple. You see shrimp and grits everywhere. But, some of the best dining scenes in the South – Asheville (N.C.), Tennessee – there are great restaurants there. And it’s great to see how all the restaurants interpret dishes.

Southern is the largest cumulative style of cooking in the United States. But, I don’t think people really get it.

For example, we get comments all the time about our gumbo… it’s not right, it should be this way or that way. People don’t understand Cajun, creole, southern food. There are so many variations. Gumbo started in Africa. It didn’t even start in the U.S.  It started with okra. Some people cook it down so you can’t distinguish the parts. Some leave the bones in.

Southern cooks leave the tails on the shrimp. They serve whole trout. Neither of those things go over well with guests – so we adapt. That’s the one sacrifice we make is that sometimes we just can’t do what we want to do. Some of the stuff just doesn’t sell. I feel bad sometimes that we have to do that.

But, we don’t want to be a themed restaurant. We want to be an authentic restaurant. We travel extensively. We eat the food at diners and greasy spoons, things like Memphis style fried rice, barbequed bologna.

OMC: What’s new over at Blue’s?

JM: Well, we’re in the midst of a menu change. We’ve been working on some new techniques. We’re doing all kinds of cuts of meat under vacuum steam in an Alto Shaam CombiTherm oven.

We’ve been doing a lot more of our own baking – making breads and rolls and things. We’re doing porchetta, duck pastrami – lots of curing, smoking, pickling, brining.  We’re poised to start incorporating things like that on the menu.

OMC: Talk about Maxie’s and Blue’s connection to the community. Where does the inspiration for that come from?

JM: Dan and I definitely have a charitable nature about us. A lot of people are out there just to make a lot of money. But, we don’t feel that way. We want to be a part of the place where we are.

For us, it’s not as much about giving back; its’ about having an impact. Being part of a cause. You know that Blue’s Egg is an acronym, right?  Breakfast Lunch in an Urban Environment with Everyone’s Good Graces.

That’s what we’re about. The egg plate at Blue’s is a great example of what we do. Every month we pick a charity and we give a dollar from each plate to whatever charity we’re supporting. We sell about 700 egg plates a month.

OMC: I’ve recently had the opportunity to get to know quite a few members of your kitchen staff. They’re an awesome group. What’s your management philosophy when it comes to your crew?

JM: I try not to be an a**hole (laugh). 

I hire on personality more than I do on skill. I can teach technique; but, you can’t change personality. We have a very professional staff over there; a lot of the people at the front of the house also work at Bartolotta’s, Meritage, other places around town. 

But, we have very low turn-over. We try to give them a lifestyle, fair compensation, encourage them. And I’m in the kitchen with them all the time.  I mean, I don’t line cook anymore, but I’m always there with them.

OMC: Do you miss it? Cooking?

JM: Yeah, I wish I was a line cook. That was fun.

OMC: Speaking of cooking, what ingredients are always in your fridge at home?

JM: I have pretty much everything. I have pickled eggs, a slew of sausages. We have more ice cream in our house than 31 flavors. Chicken hearts, chicken livers, numerous kinds of rice. Probably rotting potatoes somewhere that I didn’t get to. 

I probably could throw a party for 20 at any given time. They might have to bring booze, though.

OMC: What is the best meal you’ve ever been served?

JM: I had liver and onions at Spago in the original location in West Hollywood, and it was hands-down the best flavors and meal that I’ve ever had.

OMC: In your opinion, what’s the best development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?

JM: I think there are multiple answers. It’s hard to say what the best thing is. But, the Food Network has done a great job of really getting people deeply interested in food. 

Paul Bartolotta says, "It’s a great time to be a chef," and that’s really true.

Companies like Alto Shaam, PolySci, they’re building great tools. And then there’s the accessibility to the science behind everything – the molecular cuisine going on at El Bulli, the local farming and the aquaponics. 

The aquaponics is great. It’s changing the way we do things. We’re working with Central Greens right now to do different kinds of produce – sorrel, kale, mizuna,

OMC: So you’re responsible for the living sorrel and mizuna that just started showing up at Outpost?

JM:  Yeah. We gave them a list of things we wanted them to grow. And now we give our compost to them to use for fertilizer.

OMC: Speaking of aquaponics, what’s the next big food trend you see coming up on the horizon?

JM: I mean, I think it’s hard. I think the next trend is going to get back to fine dining and service. I think as the economy improves, people want to get served. I think what takes away from fine dining is that people want to eat out more often. They go to mid-tier restaurants. Casual restaurants have $150 bottles of wine and seared tuna. You don’t need to go to fine dining to do that. So, what fine dining has to do is to up their game.

People will realize that they want another level of service. With Braise, c.1880, Odd Duck opening, it’s starting to happen. 

OMC: What are your favorite places to eat in Milwaukee?

JM: I’ve always said to people I’m probably the worst person to ask. I haven’t been to Braise, Odd Duck, c.1880; I just don’t have time. I think I know Minneapolis better than Milwaukee. My son is at Madison and my daughter is in Minneapolis.  So, I probably know those scenes better than here. Because when I’m there I'm relaxed and we're dining out.  

Actually, I need to mention El Cabrito  When it’s a rough day, we’ve got a big party coming up, we’ll have one of the cooks run down there to grab a big container of tacos.  It’s great. Delicious. Authentic.

I really like that Milwaukee has so many great ethnic restaurants. So, if you ask – those are really my favorites. Not fancy, just really solid good food. 

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

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.