By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Nov 14, 2014 at 11:02 AM

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"I was working as a sous chef in San Francisco. I was pretty burned out and I needed a life change – maybe even a career change. So, I decided I wanted to spend some time abroad."

Professional fatigue was the impetus for Bavette’s chef Karen Bell’s first trip to Spain. But, she had no idea it would spark the beginning of an intense love affair. 

"My sister Jessica was living in New York at the time. We wanted to spend some time together, and she suggested we travel to Madrid," says Bell.

The two anticipated a one year trip during which they would teach English and explore the culture and countryside. But, when Bell’s teaching gig fell through, she needed a back-up plan.

"People kept telling me about this American who owned a restaurant and how I should check it out," she says. "So, after a few weeks, with money dwindling quickly, I went back to the kitchen."

The restaurant was small, Bell tells me. There were about seven tables and a very tiny kitchen. But, what started as a simple means to support her travels, turned out to be much more.

"It renewed my passion for cooking," she says, "I’d always worked in large fine dining restaurants, and this was small and hands on. I went to the market. I prepped. I did dishes. And after a year came and went I didn’t feel I’d had enough time. I wanted to stay and continue the process of learning the language and immersing myself in the culture."

Her sister returned to the states after a year and a half. But, Bell remained in Madrid, hooked on the idea of opening a restaurant.

"At the time, most restaurants were pretty traditional Spanish. Barcelona was a different story, but Madrid was less prone to international fare," she says.

So, Bell decided to open a small restaurant that served seasonal, internationally-inspired fare.

A Spanish Alice Waters

"At that time, the perception of American food was that it was all hamburgers and hotdogs," she explains, "So I didn’t want to call it American fare. But, I’d lived in San Francisco, and that was really during my formative years, so I called it ‘California Cuisine’." 

As it turns out, the concept was a hit.

"Reporters would call me wanting to know what that meant," Bell says. "There were comparisons to Alice Waters … it was all very flattering."

Despite the success of her restaurant, after six years in Madrid, Bell made the decision to return home. But, Spain remained a source of passion for the butcher chef, who says that – while she loves it in Milwaukee – her love affair with Spain is exceedingly real.

"It’s part of why I carry so many Spanish products here. I always say I’m either local or Spanish," she says.

A hint of Spain

You’ll see the influences on the menu at Bavette La Boucherie – in Bell’s choice of charcuterie, in the emphasis on down-to-earth, uncomplicated dishes which reflect both seasonality and locale, and maybe most dramatically in her wine list – which reflects lighter bodied wines that are complex, earthy and mineral-forward with higher acid and lower alcohol.

"During that first trip, I did bring back a lot of knowledge about Spanish food, but I think I really brought more back about Spanish wine which was a topic I really hadn’t known much about."

Bell says that, despite having a palate that was formed on the basis of new world California wines, she really grew to appreciate the old world style of Spanish wines, and it deeply influenced her preferences and palate.

"And now when I go back, I’m looking more at the meat shops and the types of charcuterie. I’m more interested in how they butcher," she tells me.

So, she keeps her eye out for new techniques and cuts of meat – like the presa, a cut between the shoulder and the loin or the secreto, a tender cut that comes from near the belly.

Most recently, she discovered a version of morcilla, Spanish blood sausage, made with tongue, which she says inspired her to consider making more blood sausage at the shop.

"I’d really love to do some stages in butcher shops while I’m there," Bell notes.

During her latest trip to Spain, she traveled with her sister and Jeremy Shaw, owner of Iberian Wine Tours.

"I’m not a huge fan of organized tours," she told me. "But we got so many special experiences that we couldn’t have found on our own.  It was the middle of the harvest, so the owners and winemakers were there. There were delectable bites ... tapas, pintxos, long multi-course lunches and one star Michelin dinners," says Bell.

"We had these very lovely intimate experiences – lunches with winemakers where there was laughing and dancing.  It was really inspiring, and I’m excited about sharing that."

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

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.