"It started years and years ago … on a faraway planet …"
That’s how Chef Joseph Sandretti began the dialog when I asked him to tell me about his career in the restaurant industry.
The response, which made me smile, set the stage for an introduction to Sandretti’s personality, which harbors a sense of humor and kindness that seems to thread its way through everything he does.
Sandretti, who grew up on a dairy farm in the Madison area, contemplated carrying on the family business by pursuing studies in dairy science. But, he says, it just wasn’t a good fit. Instead, he enrolled at Madison Area Technical College, where he earned a degree in culinary arts.
"Right out of school, I worked for the Inn on the Park in downtown Madison," he says. "And then I moved on to the Wilson Street Grill. Eventually I hooked up with a guy that I’d worked with in a couple of restaurants who’d started Monte’s Blue Plate Diner, and I opened Pasta Per Tutti with them."
Sandretti continued to work with Food Fight Inc., a name the Madison restaurant group formalized in 1994, and assisted in opening Johnny Delmonico’s and the Ocean Grill.
So, when he and his wife decided to move to Milwaukee around 2004, it was only natural that he’d find a restaurant to assist with another opening.
"I opened up Buckley’s with Mike and Pam Buckley," he tells me, "And I was there for five years before moving on to Port of Call."
Today, Sandretti has taken on a new challenge – helping Barkha and Jesse Daily to open the area’s first Nepalese restaurant, The Cheel, located at 105 S. Main St. in Thiensville.
The Cheel is a departure for Thiensville, whose restaurants typically serve up traditional American fare and pub food. But Sandretti, who has played an integral part in translating family recipes into restaurant dishes, says it has been a welcome challenge, and one he’s excited about moving forward.
We caught up with Sandretti to ask him about his new gig, his philosophies about food, and some of his favorite things…
OnMilwaukee.com: You’ve been in the industry for quite a while. When did the magic moment hit when you knew you wanted to become a chef?
Joseph Sandretti: Originally, I enrolled enrolled at MATC in Respiratory Therapy. But, I started going to what was called "The Chef’s Quarters." I struck up a relationship with the head of the culinary program, Bob Hurst and just fell in love.
I remember my first day of class with him and how he described French cooking – and I knew right then that it was something I wanted to pursue.
The energy of the kitchen… to put out good food, and get feedback, it’s inspiring and exciting. So, early on, especially in those first courses, I really found my mentor.
OMC: That sounds like a great way to be introduced to a career. Who else do you have to thank?
JS: As I got involved with the Food Fight group in Madison, they were a huge influence. Everything was pretty much open -- whether you were a general manager or managing partner. And I learned a lot about opening restaurants.
The bottom line is so tight – cost of labor and fixed costs – and when you open up a place, you never know. Will the concept work? Is the physical plant going to work for what you want to do?
So -- Monty Schiro and Peder Moren – I owe both of them a great deal.
OMC: The Cheel is a different kind of restaurant from ones you’ve worked in before. What’s been the most interesting part of working with Barkha and Jesse Daily on the restaurant menu?
JS: First of all, I hit it off with them right away. I think that having a good work ethic and being excited about food and what they wanted to do was great.
But, taking Barkha’s family recipes from "up here" (points to his head) and translating them for a professional kitchen has been really interesting. It’s one thing to double something, but when you’re making ten times as much, for thirty or forty people, it gets to be very much a challenge.
From the standpoint of the food – the culinary aspect – the taste profiles are very unique. They’re very bold, strong flavors. And just the style in which Bharka wanted the food presented – with everything made fresh –it was definitely something that took a lot of work.
We started working on recipes in April. It took a month and a half or two months of working every day. And when we couldn’t cook because of construction, we’d sit and look at recipes and edit what we had.
I learned a lot. I did research about the area where she came from, the history. It was really something I dove into. And what I came away with was just how unique, flavorful and healthy the food was.
OMC: Describe your style of cooking. How do you bring that to The Cheel?
JS: Growing up and going through the education I did, the classic French style of cooking has always been the way I approach things. The fundamentals – knife skills, how to make stocks -- being technically sound in all of those areas carries you through in all sorts of different cuisines.
Early on, my feeling was once you mastered the skill set, then your food and your style is your personality. Whether it’s the way you make your potato leek soup – a classic soup – it reflects who you are.
And here, I’m adapting my recipes and my style to the cuisine. Sustainability and local sourcing are central. So, I’m always looking at ways to adapt that to the food.
OMC: What parts of your personality come out most in your food?
JS: I guess, for me, it’s sort of like entertainment. Happiness. Being joyful. I’m not a screamer. I have my points back there when things don’t go right. But, for me it’s about trying to instill in everyone that we should make this good. It’s a lot of work, so it’s important to create an upbeat atmosphere.
It’s about love of food and love of people.
OMC: What is your favorite dish on the menu so far?
JS: I love the khow shew. It’s a real comfort food, I believe. I love lentils, and the chicken stock and lemongrass. There’s coconut milk that we add at the end… and an array of garnishes. It’s sort of like American chili – with cheese and scallions and things you add to it. With the khow shew, you have chopped egg, cilantro, lentil fritters, fish sauce and sautéed onions. And people can create their favorite flavor profile.
And then the vegetable and steak fing are absolutely wonderful dishes. They’re light and crispy. We do a hot version and a mild version. In the hot version we add senche achar, which has fried garlic and red pepper flakes. And that gives it a real kick.
I have a palate that – let’s say, on a scale of 1-10 I can tolerate about a six. At seven or eight, it overwhelms my palate … I start to cry. And this dish can get up to about an 8.
OMC: So, you’re not serving food according to the typical American heat scale?
JS: It’s not American hot, no. I mean American hot – we have Tabasco and peppers. But, this is a different type of heat. It hits the palate in different spots. And it really makes the food stand apart.
OMC: What are some of the biggest challenges for you and the restaurant?
JS: I think – being in Thiensville – staffing is always such a challenge. Simply because you can’t do it all yourself. And you need good people around you to help you produce consistent food.
And, for this cuisine, it’s been really trying to source the specialty items. Ingredients like black caraway … you don’t just pick it up at Piggly Wiggly. So, sourcing ingredients was a big challenge.
I’m getting things from Indian Groceries at Mayfair. But, they don’t deliver here. So, I go about every week and a half to pick up spices and lentils and mustard oils.
OMC: You mentioned that the khow shew is a comforting dish. But, what’s the epitome of comfort food for you?
JS: Oh gosh, I guess my No. 1 would be lasagna. The Italian cuisine – I grew up with the heritage and when I went into culinary school I really got into the cuisine. But, then again, there’s really nothing like a great big bowl of garlic mashed potatoes.
And gnocchi – that’s great comfort food. But even, just looking at the produce we brought in today – all you need is olive oil, some roasting, and salt and pepper, and that’s good.
OMC: Now for a fun question. For you, what kitchen tool is indispensable?
JS: My French knife. Otherwise you have to gnaw away at everything. Gotta have a French knife.
OMC: If you could prepare a meal for anyone, living or dead, who would it be? And why?
JS: For anyone? Interesting. That’s a good one. You know who I’d love to cook a meal for is President Jimmy Carter. I think he’s done such great humanitarian work. He’s a much better ex-president than he was president. But, when I think of people I’d admire, he's one of them.
That and my late father. He passed away while we were about halfway through Pasta Per Tutti.
OMC: Would he like the food at The Cheel?
JS: Well, he was very much a traditionalist. But, I think he would like the BLT. And he’d probably like the momos. They’d remind him of ravioli.
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.