Starting on Monday, La Merenda, 125 E. National Ave., will add a new team member to its kitchen.
Matthew Devan, butcher and co-owner of SA Braai, LLC, Milwaukee’s first South African Sausage company, has been hired as a full-time butcher at the restaurant.
Devan, who was formally trained in South Africa, and honed his craft in Ireland, has worked as a butcher for over 17 years. So, he knows a little bit about meat.
"If you want to earn a decent wage as a butcher in South Africa, you have to be properly trained," Devan explains. "So, I worked in my dad’s butcher shop for a full year before I went to school. Then I did eight weeks of training. We did eight hours a day and learned all the cuts for lamb, pork, and beef. And then all the cooking methods. For the exam, you had to break down everything and then explain what it could be used for … it was intense."
Devan’s expertise is exactly what owner and executive chef Peter Sandroni was looking for.
"There are a lot of restaurants in town who butcher their own meat," Sandroni says. "But, they are chefs. And this is a butcher who’s trained as a butcher. It’s entirely different. I can’t imagine that anyone in town is able to break down two sides of veal in four hours."
Sandroni says he first met Devan at the Wine & Dine Wisconsin event last fall.
"We were getting slammed," Sandroni recalls. "So we couldn’t talk for very long. But, even our brief conversation sparked my interest."
So, when Matthew and his wife Wendi came into La Merenda for dinner a few weeks later, Sandroni took the time to talk with him in more depth. Devan told Sandroni about his plans for the SA Braai business and the limitations of his current situation.
"Once we got to talking about what he wanted to do, it triggered a light bulb," Sandroni says. "It occurred to me that we could really use his expertise."
Sandroni, whose restaurant focuses on serving up as much local fare as possible, says that the restaurant has gotten busier and busier over the past few years. And with his new breakfast and lunch spot, Engine Company No. 3., opening later this summer, he foresaw the need for additional help becoming even greater.
"Why don’t you come in and work once a week, on the weekend, and try it out?" Sandroni suggested.
Devan took him up on his offer, and ultimately decided to leave his job working for Riverside Meats, a processing facility in New Berlin, to join the restaurant.
"I was comfortable where I was and I didn’t know if I wanted a change," he admits. "But, once I started working here with the people, I knew it wouldn’t be a hard decision. I love what Peter is doing. And just talking about what he wants to do with the new breakfast place… making breakfast sausage and bacon and smoked meats … I think it’s going to be a really great partnership."
Sandroni says the new hire will allow the restaurant to bring in more whole animals, as well as reducing waste.
"We save money, and we can also have it butchered however we’d like," he says. "Plus, we can use the trimmings to make sausages."
And saving money is the name of the game in the restaurant business, especially for a chef like Sandroni who believes in keeping prices manageable.
"We’re in a constant battle of prices changing all the time," he says. "Everything is going up. But, we don’t change the pricing on our dishes very frequently at all. So, we try to squeeze in every way we can, and we figure it out. The more we can do, with the consumer in mind, the better."
The La Merenda menu has already benefitted from Devan’s expertise – with a variety of sausages, including Philipino Longaniza and duck and pheasant sausages with fresh sage – appearing on the menu.
"We also made classic bangers and mash," says Sandroni. "We saved half of the sausage and smoked it. And a quarter of that, we pickled. So we served it three ways."
Over the past few months, La Merenda has also required the necessary licensing to become a food processing facility that Devan and his wife will use to expand their product line beyond South African sausages.
"We’re coming out with chutney and two dry spices, and we’ll be making those at La Merenda," Devan says. "So, in addition to helping out with butchering at the restaurant, we can also expand our own business. It’s a win-win for everyone."
For now, Devan will be butchering and portioning meat, making sausages and filling in wherever he can in the La Merenda kitchen. But, when Engine Company No. 3. opens, he’ll have a dedicated space where he can stretch the boundaries of his creativity.
First on the docket, Devan will be working on a recipe for "back bacon."
"The Irish call it streaky," he says. "It’s a wider cut of bacon that’s much leaner than regular bacon, with more meat. It’s been popular for a long time in South Africa, and I’m surprised it’s not more popular here."
And there’s even more creativity on the horizon.
"For the next couple of months, we’ll be brainstorming together and thinking of things for the new place," says Devan. "We’ll definitely make a few different cures for the bacon and see which Peter likes, and we’ll be testing out a variety of new recipes."
Sandroni says he’s excited about the new partnership.
"I have been really lucky," he admits. "I’m never going to make a boatload of money doing what I do. But, I also want to enjoy what I do. I love it, and I’m looking forward to having a lot of fun at the breakfast place. The more things I can find to help me get more excited about what I’m doing, the better."
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.