By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Nov 06, 2013 at 11:04 AM

Kelly Connors, sous chef at Maxie’s, hails from Wabeno. She started off in the service industry washing dishes and working as a prep cook at Mulligan’s Sports Bar & Grill in nearby Lakewood.  At the time, she had no idea that the job would lead her to a full-time career in the industry.

But, as she explored her career options beyond high school, she found herself choosing to enroll in the culinary arts program at MATC.

"My favorite thing about the program was making fresh pasta," she tells me. "And I still love making fresh pasta. That’s where I heard about Joe and Maxie’s. I actually started eating their food well before I got my job here."

Coming from a small town, Connors says that everything she encountered in the industry was made from frozen food … dried pasta. 

"Getting beyond that was so cool," she says. "It really opened my eyes to this whole new world."

Before starting at Maxie’s as a line cook, Connors worked at the Hotel Radisson on Mayfair Road. As of October, she’s reached her three-year anniversary working with Executive Chef Joe Muench at a job she says she "really loves."

I sat down with Connors recently to learn more about what led her to pursue work in the culinary industry, and what she sees for her future. What made you choose food as your career?

Kelly Connors: Always growing up, I watched my mom and grandmother cook. When I was old enough to make my own food, my mom taught me to make basic things.

I loved eggs. I taught myself the one-handed crack and how to flip eggs. I didn’t know that was what I wanted to do at the time, but I liked it. I was always cooking for other people, and it led me to my calling.

OMC: What do you wish you had known when you took your first sous chef position?

KC: A lot of things. All of the people in this kitchen have all this experience, but, fortunately, I pick up on things really easily. I pay attention to detail; I’ve learned to listen closely.

I do wish that I’d had more experience; that I’d been able to work with different kinds of cuisine before I started here. But, this is actually a great place to be. I’m learning a bunch.

OMC: From your point of view, what’s the most important role a sous chef plays?

KC: Making sure everything runs smoothly. Even though it’s not going smoothly for you, it should seem like it’s going great. The real joy of this job is the rushing. Some nights it’s really crazy. Six people want four different things. You run out of things. It can be rough.

OMC: What’s the most challenging part of your job?

KC: Everything has its challenging parts. Sometimes ordering… if you’re ordering for off-premise events, it’s hard to gauge how much. In house, it can be challenging to please every customer. Some people just aren’t happy with what you give them.  We also have a 20-30 minute window within which things have to go out. And that can be a challenge to make happen.  Keeping everyone calm when they’re overwhelmed, that’s tricky.

OMC: What’s the best part?

KC: I enjoy making a dish and seeing it go out to the customers. I like my staff – guys and gals – who are happy to be at work.  Keeping everyone happy.

OMC: What have you learned most about yourself while working in the kitchen?

KC: I’ve learned how to change. If I don’t do something right, if I’m making mistakes, I’ve learned that I have to readjust and make changes. I think it’s like Joe says: "Cooking is a lifestyle."  It was a big change for me to make the transition from doing it as a job to really caring about it.

OMC: Of the chefs you’ve worked for, from whom did you learn the most? Why?

KC: I would have to say Joe Muench. With him, it’s all we talk about is food. It’s awesome to pick his brain; he knows so much about everything. And he corrects me when I make mistakes.

OMC: Do you have chefs you admire, or from whom you take inspiration?

KC: Gordon Ramsey. I’ve watched him a lot.  And I like Alton Brown. Who thinks about these things? Who thinks about making a show like this? He’s fun and weird. Too many people think it’s a chore to cook, and he clears up all the misconceptions.

OMC: What’s the one thing you wish people knew about sous chefs?

KC: All the hard long hours that get put into it, to make their food taste delicious. People spend a lot of time to make food taste good for you. When someone says it’s just "alright"… that’s hard.

OMC: Where do you envision yourself five, 10 years from now?

KC: I see myself here, maybe for about three more years. But, I’d like to travel, explore what I’d like to do, discover my style of cooking.  So, maybe in another seven to 10 years I’ll be ready to open my own place. And somewhere in there I want to get married and have kids.

OMC: What’s your impression of the food scene in Milwaukee?

KC: I actually don’t get Downtown much. I’ve been to Le Reve. But, I don’t have a ton of time to go and eat. I need to do that more.  I do love to cook at home.

OMC: When you have the time, what kinds of things do you like to cook?

KC: Random things – Chinese, comfort food. I actually make a lot of breakfast foods. And I love baking. Bread, pies, you name it.

OMC: What about being a woman in the kitchen? Is it difficult to be female in the industry?

KC: I think it takes time to build respect. I’m young, (so) sometimes people disregard me. They assume that I don’t I know what I’m talking about.

There are hard moments. When I try to discipline someone, they sometimes try to go above me.  I learned a lot from Kimberly Pollman, the pastry chef… she’s been in the industry for a long time. She’s taught me that you have to be tough. You have to find the medium – not pushing too hard, but definitely standing up for yourself.  Being a girl, you have to prove to yourself that you can do more than just working pantry. 

But, I can handle the heat. Growing up with two brothers probably helped (smiles). 

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.