By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Aug 31, 2015 at 1:02 PM Photography: Sarah Laux

Jonathan Manyo, chef and owner of Morel restaurant in Walker’s Point, says he has always been thoughtful about food.

"I turned vegetarian before I went to college." says Manyo. "I didn’t really have a reason other than I didn’t really like the quality of meat that was out there, that was available."

Manyo, who went to UW-Platteville for his undergraduate degree, says it was a tough time to be a vegetarian in Wisconsin. Options for vegetarians at restaurants were slim, so he began cooking more and more at home, a practice for which he soon realized he had a passion. By the time he enrolled in culinary school at the California Culinary Academy, he’d decided to be vegan. But, the decision didn’t stick.

"I was in class, and this guy brought in 20 of the world’s best cheeses, perfectly ripened," he recalls. "And that pretty much ended my veganism."

But, when he gave up veganism, Manyo didn’t give up being thoughtful about food. Instead, his focus turned to another aspect of eating: finding what was local and what was best in any given location.  

"The first non-seafood meat I actually ate after being vegan was snails," he says. "And that was while I was abroad in Burgundy, France after culinary school. I was there, I was drinking Burgundy wine, and that was the perfect pairing."

Manyo says experiences like that began to reshape the way he thought about food.

"That was where I really learned about the true meaning of terroir," he says. "And right now I’m really trying to find that here in Wisconsin. What makes Wisconsin food Wisconsin food? And why does it taste different than something grown in Oregon?"

They’re all questions that Manyo says help to shape not only his perspective, but also the food he serves at Morel.

We were intrigued. So, we caught up with Manyo this summer to talk with him a bit more about his career, his influences and his guiltiest dining pleasures.

You spent a decent amount of your recent career in Portland. What made you move back to Milwaukee?

I’d decided I really wanted to open a restaurant. My aunt and uncle, who invested in Morel, really wanted me to open it in Oregon.  But, I feel like I was so west coast oriented that it would’ve just ended up being another restaurant like all the others. Talking with friends from high school and family, I realized what a support network I’d have if I moved back home. And, that combined with the fact that I thought I could bring Milwaukee something different, made me move home.

How have your impressions of the scene changed since moving back?

It’s really great to see that so many great chefs are here and coming back here. You’re starting to see chefs branching off, doing their own thing and experimenting.  The restaurants are getting to be actual expressions of those chefs, and that creates such a great diversity in restaurants.

It’s great. People no longer have to go down to Chicago or the coasts to work in good restaurants, get experience.  There are people doing some really awesome things here.  And there’s plenty of competition. People think that’s not great, and that it’s too difficult. But, I think that’s a really great thing. People can try so many different things.

What's your favorite thing on the menu right now?

The lamb dish is really something I love, and that’s why it stays on the menu.

We bring in a whole lamb every week...We’ll cure and smoke the belly and make it into lamb bacon. The rib and loin chops, or the steak becomes another component of the dish. And then the shoulders go into the Merguez sausage.  The neck and leg go into the sugo.  So, it’s the entire animal in one dish.

The only thing that we really change is what the lamb is paired with -- and that’s seasonal. We’ve done everything from baby eggplant with hot smoked paprika to burdock puree with butter braised radishes, turnips and turnip greens.

The gnudi is the other one. For a while, we were buying premade ricotta, and we couldn’t get the moisture out of it, so we were adding a lot of flour. But, more recently, we started making our own with Sassy Cow milk and cream. We use the whey to make the sauce and then use the ricotta for the dish. We’re using less flour, less eggs.  And now everybody’s really ramped up about it.

What are your favorite places to eat out in Milwaukee?

On my list of restaurants I love, probably 75% of them are chef owned.

For fine dining, it’s probably Wolf Peach. Sunday brunch is Goodkind. Drunken food would be Vanguard. As far as a lunch spot, would probably be Phan’s Garden. I order D-2. They call it grilled beef, and that’s as detailed as they get. But, it’s sesame seared beef, and then you make your own spring rolls. I love that. And I could probably name more. I respect so many chefs in this city.

Who have been your biggest influences along the way?

I would have to say Betrand Bouquin. I worked with him both at Club XIX in Pebble Beach, CA. and at the Maisonette in Cincinnati.

He was one of Daniel Boulud’s senior sous chefs; he opened Daniel and worked with him for a long time.  So, he was influenced heavily by Boulud.  He brought me around to this super clean style of French cooking. There was always a specific way of working and you also had to be extremely self-motivated.  He could make you feel small in an instant, but if he knew you were giving it your all, he gave you credit; if you weren’t, he’d ride you until you were or until you ran out with your tail between your legs.

It shaped the way I am in the kitchen. I don’t yell. But, if something is wrong, I can just shoot someone a look and they know.  It’s that mentality -- if you’re self-motivated and you care, it’s good.

Chef Jenn Louis also influenced me a lot, especially with daily menu changes and finding what’s fresh and local. So, say you get in one ingredient, I can’t always guarantee how long I’ll have it before it’s gone. I could run out halfway through dinner, and then I have to come up with something new. So, that skill -- paying attention to the flavor profiles and matching components of the main dish with the flavors of the vegetables -- that’s what she really taught me.

The celebrity chef I follow most is Sean Brock. He’s taking his region, doing all the research and reviving all the traditional kinds of livestock and plants… things that are historically grown there.  I find that really inspirational. I’d love to start doing that work...

Do you have a favorite cookbook? 

Right now it’s probably Sean Brock’s cookbook, Heritage.  I also like going through the Settlement Cookbook.  You can find it in every thrift store everywhere, so I have like three or four copies from different publishing dates. And I love going back through them to find old school ideas to bring them back to life here.  That’s kind of like my guilty pleasure fun read.

As far as you’re concerned, what's been the biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?

I would just say the consciousness of what true farm to table means.  It’s about how much we’re pushing forward in that realm. Just look at Dan Barber. He’s moved so far ahead of farm-to-table…. developing this new plate of food that tells the story of how the earth is set up to feed us, and what’s the lowest impact on the earth.  What he’s doing is going to be commonplace in the next five years, and then someone else will have to come along to push it forward.

It’s easy for Californians to talk about seasonality because they have a 12 month growing season. It’s harder for people in Wisconsin to talk about eating local food when you have winter and so many months with so little.

What kitchen utensil can't you live without?

I would totally be a candidate to do the nude chef thing with my VitaPrep. It’s such a powerful machine. It makes pureeing so much easier and better. Just an amazing tool.

What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?

Probably just gorging myself on seafood. Going over to the St. Paul fish market and ordering clams and mussels and oysters and crab claws.  We’re doing all farm to table here, so we do lake food, but not ocean food.

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.