For the eighth straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by Locavore, the newest restaurant at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. 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 2014."
What kind of a chef is excited to take on a restaurant that carries the tagline: "Meat. Cheese. Beer?"
That's what I sought to find out when I interviewed Millioke’s new executive chef, John Rudolph.
Rudolph grew up in rural Buffalo, N.Y. He went to St. Bonaventure University because "everybody goes to college."
But, in Rudolph’s case, college wasn’t the answer.
"I was undecided and then I went into marketing," he says. "And that was just a fail."
But things turned around at Erie Community College, where Rudolph began exploring hospitality and the culinary arts.
I got a job cooking with Bravo Café," he recalls, "And I realized I was good at it and enjoyed it. So I worked with them for two or three years."
Ultimately, Rudolph made the decision to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Pougkeepsie, N.Y., where he was assigned an externship at the Boca Raton Florida Resort & Club, where he started as a lead line cook and progressed to an executive sous chef at their Beach Club.
Rudolph moved to Milwaukee this past August to take over the help at Milloke, a Milwaukee restaurant emphasizing Wisconsin-inspired cuisine, including meats, cheeses and beer.
I sat down with Rudolph this past week to chat about his experience so far in Milwaukee and what he gets excited about in the kitchen.
OnMilwaukee.com: Had you been to Milwaukee before moving here? What are your impressions?
John Rudolph: No, I hadn’t. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was definitely better than I expected. It’s a lot like Buffalo, but maybe a bit more modern. It’s got a big city feel but a hometown feel at the same time… that’s just really great.
Coming from Florida, especially south Florida … people are so friendly here. They say "hi" to you on the street. This is weird for me, very different.
Milwaukee seems like a really cool city with an interesting food history. I really like the historical aspect of food – and the history in this region is just phenomenal.
OMC: Is that part of what drew you here?
JR: Definitely. I’m all about meat beer and cheese. My lower left leg is tattooed with craft beer symbols. And my right arm is full of pigs. So, if there were ever a thing as being fated to come to a place, this is it.
Once I learned about the direction that the restaurant wanted to go – with the local flavors, the local terroir, the historical part, that was really the point at which I knew it was a good fit.
I’m Polish and German and it’s very comforting to come into a city – to come into this atmosphere – and to be able to understand the concept so well and feel confident that I can carry it out.
OMC: What are the biggest challenges in heading up a restaurant like Millioke?
JR: A lot of research and changing peoples’ perspective of it. I think it’s coming into a place that’s been through so many changes within a year. It’s like a young child with no identity yet. So, it’s trying to find the perfect flow of the restaurant.
In some ways, this place is about taking something old that’s already been done and making it new and exciting – I think that’s a direction this restaurant can go.
It’s also about getting people away from -- not necessarily their comfort zones – but giving them a nudge in a different direction. In the Midwest – and in Western New York – people are set in their ways. They call them meat and potatoes people. But, now with the wealth of food knowledge out there, we can go beyond "here’s a steak and here’s a potato."
For example, I did a tasting over the weekend and used a Lakefront Pink Snout Stout – used as a braising liquid for short ribs. I smoked it for about three hours, so there was a subtle smoke flavor. A lot of people were amazed by the flavor that came out of that beer. But, there’s a lot more to cooking with beer than beer can chicken. And I want to go there.
OMC: Hotel restaurants seem to be making a comeback. To what would you attribute that?
JR: You know, people are becoming more educated. And with education comes demand. Business travelers may be here for just one night. They come in at night and fly out the next day, so they don’t have time to explore the city. With hotels, there’s traditionally been a lot of conformity. But, people want variety. They want to say "I went to Milwaukee and I ate at the restaurant in the hotel, and it was fantastic."
I think that’s part of why hotel restaurants are coming back – because those discerning businessmen want a good meal.
OMC: How about the general public? How do you get them to eat in a hotel restaurant?
JR: When I worked in Boca Raton, there was an in season and an off season. And it’s similar here. You need business from locals to make a go all year round.
Our goal is to make it dynamic enough that we can stand up to all the other restaurants that surround us. You need the locals to be interested. And we’re doing good food fast – so it’s the perfect place for business lunches. Because we’re using the local flavors – you know what it is, and it’s familiar and beloved.
OMC: Do you have any favorite places to dine out in Milwaukee yet?
JR: I have been nose deep into this place since I got here. I haven’t been too many places. But, I did take a week out to explore the town a bit. I had a burger at Oscar’s. That was a great burger and great atmosphere. I also went to Hinterland. It was good. Cool atmosphere there too.
People keep giving me recommendations. But, right now I don’t know where anything is yet. My staff is always telling me to "go here" or "go there" … so if you have a list of places I should try out feel free to give it to me.
OMC: So, now your feet are wet. Where does the Millioke concept go from here?
JR: Honestly? Make damn good food. Right now, I have a lot of ideas. We definitely are moving back into the realm of those local flavors. And we’ll be doing more with meat, beer and cheese.
There will be a re-imagining of the concept. For me, that will be about bringing the history back into the dishes. Being able to see that history – that’s what’s cool to me.
OMC: What’s the next big food trend you see coming around the bend?
JR: I feel that the history of food is cyclical. It’s hard because everything is changing so quickly. Molecular gastronomy was it three years ago, and now people are coming back to more rustic fare.
I think what we’re trying to do here – localizing your flavors – is really going to be the next big thing. Traditional foods with local identity. You’re going to see less California cuisine here. The concepts may be there, but we’ll be using our food.
That’s the other thing about the Midwest. It had its heyday with bustling commerce and trade, and then everyone moved out. Places like Detroit were hit the hardest. But, people are proud of where they live, where they’re from. And they’re embracing that.
OMC: Do you have a favorite guilty dining pleasure?
JR: I love doughnuts. For me, it’s definitely doughnuts. If it’s a good doughnut it just makes my day. And a bad doughnut still makes my day – just not as much.
OMC: What about role models? Who do you look up to in the profession?
JR: Paul Kahan in Chicago, definitely. I went to Chicago with my girlfriend for a vacation a while ago, and we went to Publican with my girlfriend. And he was at the host stand. Meeting him was like … wow.
Rick Bayless is another one. A lot of the people I look up to are in the Midwest. I think it’s a place that’s overlooked. The chefs here are overlooked. I think the mentality is that if you aren’t in New York, that you’re just not there.
But, obviously, you can’t put aside someone like Thomas Keller, who has done so much for the industry. He’s … genius.
OMC: If you could have anyone in the world cook you a meal, who would that be? And what would you want to be served?
JR: April Broomfield in New York City. If I could have her cook me a meal, that would be pretty amazing.
Unfortunately, I haven’t eaten at The Spotted Pig yet. But, she does fun food. It’s very whimsical – the way she makes a menu. She’s English trained. And she didn’t go to school, but she apprenticed in all these kitchens… and she loves pigs.
As for what I’d like her to serve … I’d love to do the market with her, walk around. Or just sit down in the kitchen and talk with her. It would be cool to just work with whatever was around. Kind of a free-flow menu. I think that’s interesting – taking what’s on hand and making it phenomenal.
And that’s where I want to go. The whole snout to tail cooking. Craft beer and pig, that’s where it’s at.
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.