A.J. Dixon grew up in Bay View. In high school, she had a job working at the Bay View Bowl. As a student in the ROTC program, she had her sights set on going into the navy and – ultimately – becoming a lawyer.
But, alongside her humble South Side beginnings, Dixon – who is opening Lazy Susan, at 2378 S. Howell Ave., in Bay View soon – says that food was always a central element in her life, even if it seemed to be in the background at the time.
"My mother, Susan, loved to cook," she tells me. "And she was good at it. She exposed us to all sorts of new things. And I might have been the only Bay View fourth grader to have a mom who regularly did things like make me a four-tiered cake for Valentine’s Day."
In the end, her mom would be the reason for Dixon’s decision to pursue a career as a chef.
"She passed away when I was a freshman in high school," she tells me. "And that changed me. I knew I needed to switch gears. So, I dropped out of ROTC. When I graduated from high school I went on to complete the culinary program at MATC."
A mother with a troubled past – who was taken all too soon – became the inspiration for a career that would soon consume Dixon’s world. And, although she didn’t know it at the time, her mother would also provide a sort of supernatural fodder for the restaurant she’d open in 2014.
"Finding the name was hard," she admits. "Ultimately, my husband came up with it. We had this huge list of options, and we kept going over them and going over them. But, we kept coming back to Lazy Susan."
Dixon, whose cooking experience includes positions at County Clare, Café Lulu and Jean Pierre, says her work in restaurants has included both front and back-of-the house positions, giving her a wide range of skill and awareness of the industry.
"I was the first kitchen manager at Café Lulu," she says. "And after the birth of my first child, I worked a number of odd jobs, including being a server at Watts Tea Shop."
But, it wasn’t until she saw an ad on Craigslist looking for someone to help open a "sustainable neighborhood café" that she got a taste – both good and bad -- for what it was like to run an entire restaurant operation.
"The ad turned out to be for The National Café," she says. "I opened the café, designed the menu and got a lot of good experience. Then, I helped Mike Engel open Pastiche."
Dixon says her time at Pastiche gave her the opportunity to beef up her knowledge of wine, as well as work with some "really great people." From there, she moved on to work at Centro Café, where she started as a line cook, but quickly moved up to head chef.
"I call Centro the ‘restaurant utopia’," she says. "There is absolutely no other place like it. They are sincere, caring. There’s no drama. Everyone does their jobs and … it just works."
But, despite ideal working conditions, Dixon couldn’t shake her desire to own her own place.
"I’ve been dreaming of doing my own thing for my whole life," she says. "So I had to go for it. When I found a spot in Bay View, I knew it was right."
The space needed a ton of work to make it fit to house the restaurant, Dixon tells me, and construction has been slow moving. However, she hopes to be able to open by the end of March if all goes well.
As for what diners can expect, Dixon says the vision is coming together more and more each day.
"Everything for this restaurant has been used, found or made," she says, "With the exception of my refrigeration and a few pieces of equipment."
The look, she says, will evoke a retro vibe with plenty of kitsch touches like hand-made lazy susans which her father-in-law built from re-purposed floor boards, and a collection of old random salt and pepper shaker sets which Dixon says will have a place of honor at every table.
"Somebody went to Texas and brought back one of the pairs," she says. "And one is a wrought iron tree with hanging acorns. Somebody’s life, somebody’s story, will be on each table – and I think that’s really cool."
Dixon’s father-in-law also built all of the tables for the restaurant, and her husband is building the bar from recycled barn boards. Seating will include salvaged church pews and chairs re-purposed from the Café Lulu remodel this past year. And hanging mason jar lighting will keep things bright, but homey.
"It will definitely be eclectic," Dixon says. "But very homey, comfortable, warming. The walls are painted in bright yellow, turquoise and brown. And there are lots of windows. It’s beautiful and bright."
Dixon’s food will also reflect an eclectic feel with globally inspired cuisine like b’stilla (Moroccan style phyllo pie with poultry, nuts and herbs), Cambodian stuffed chicken wings and arroz con gondulas with shrimp.
Tourtieres, French-Canadian meat pies, will also appear on the menu closer to the holidays.
"My family is French Canadian," she says, "And at Christmas we always had tourtieres. My great grandmother made them every year. And my aunt showed me how to make them."
The menu – which Dixon says will cater to diners of all stripes, including customers with dietary restrictions and food allergies – will feature shareable plates priced between $6 and $18.
"I like all food, and I like taking great ingredients and utilizing them in ways that are best suited for them," Dixon says. "I want to feature game – buffalo, venison, pigeons – but I also want it to be affordable for people. So, it will be a balancing act. Hence the idea of shared plates. Sharing is encouraged, but not required."
Homey dishes like corned buffalo brisket, served with Brussels sprouts, potatoes and a fried egg, fish and chips, and desserts like "pie fries" – pie crust served with jams and preserves as a dipping sauce, will also be included.
"A lot of the menu is inspired by places that I’ve worked at," Dixon says. "The theme is kind of ‘Who we came to be today’ – so it includes things from childhood, things from places we’ve been."
The bar will feature riffs on classic cocktails, Dixon tells me. And some will feature house-made bitters --like coffee blueberry made with Nekisse coffee from Anodyne and cherry hazelnut, a flavor Dixon envisions will comprise one of the ingredients in a champagne cocktail. The bar will also serve a selection of wine and craft beers.
Dixon says her mind is overflowing with ideas, so she hopes to present a menu that changes monthly and features new things all the time.
"There are so many things out there, and so many things that I want to do," she says. "I want everyone in the kitchen to learn and grow together and do thing that we’ve never done. I want to be the place where you can come and be appreciated in my kitchen."
When it opens, Dixon says Lazy Susan will serve Tuesday through Thursday from 4 to 10 p.m. and from 4 to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Once they’re settled in, she says they will also open on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for brunch service.
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.