By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Jul 05, 2013 at 11:02 AM

Mario Giuliani started off at UW-Milwaukee, majoring in engineering. He knew it didn’t feel right, but like so many guys his age, he wasn’t exactly sure what to do.

"I needed a job, so I got a job at Z-Teca," he says. "Then I cooked at the Oakland Trattoria and Flannery's. If I had it all to do over again, I probably would have gone to culinary school. But I didn’t."

Nonetheless, Giuliani stood out in the crowd. Almost five years ago, he landed a position at Carnevor and hasn’t looked back.

It’s a Friday afternoon and he’s lounging on a bar stool in the dining room at Carnevor in his chef jacket. He appears quiet, unassuming. His smile is slightly sly. But his eyes are focused. What do you wish you had known when you took your first sous chef position?

Mario Giuliani: Being expected to have the answer for everything. I did know there would be a lot more on my plate, but there was a lot to learn.

OMC: Do you like that? The learning?

MG: Yeah, actually I do.

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

MG: I’d say probably just making sure that everything is taken care of, that it runs as it would, even when (Chef) Jarvis (Williams) is gone.  The food has to meet his standards.

OMC: Characterize the kitchen here at Carnevor for me. What’s it like back there?

MG: It’s a fun kitchen, but at the same time you have to have everything ready … you have to meet the demand.  It’s a good environment; everyone knows their roles.  On a busy night we have probably seven people plus two dishwashers.

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

MG: There are a lot of very late nights with VIP’s coming in and all that. I’ve met sports stars. Charles Woodson, Donald Driver … a lot of the Packers and Brewers.  It’s cool, but the expectations are high; they can be demanding. Sometimes they ask for things that aren’t on the menu. It can be stressful, especially in the middle of a busy Saturday night … all of a sudden, you’re shredding potatoes for hash browns.

OMC: Do you guys tend to cater to that?

MG: Yes.

OMC: What’s the craziest request you’ve ever had?

MG:  This guy brought in his own marinated steak. I have no idea where it came from. It was just a bag with a steak in it.  Jarvis said, "Don’t ask any questions. Just cook it."

OMC: So when you bring in your own steak, do you get charged full price for it?

MG: Oh, yeah. So, not only did he buy and marinate it, but he paid us to cook it for him.  Yeah, people do it all the time … someone brought in morels for us to cook the other day.

OMC: So, it sounds like you’re enjoying your work here. What’s the best part of your job?

MG:  When people – friends and family – have an amazing experience. I had some friends in last week who were here for the first time. They were in from out of town, and they loved everything.

It’s great just knowing that the job is well done. Not having to sit behind a desk. There’s always something new.

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

MG: Actually, I’m a good leader; I never really thought of myself as that. When I first started I was overwhelmed by what they were doing. I started on Valentine’s Day. It was a lot thrown at me at once, but I think I handled it pretty well.  Being adaptable is definitely a skill I’ve learned.

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

MG: Jarvis Williams, for sure. He was really patient with me and let me learn on my own. From a fine dining standpoint, he’s pretty much exposed me to everything – from butchery, to cooking, to building flavors.  He’s fun, but strict… much like the kitchen. He’s a great teacher, and he’s always learning and reading more and passing along that knowledge to everyone else. If you come in early, he’s willing to spend time teaching.

OMC: How would you describe your cooking style or philosophy about food?

MG: I think it’s still a work in progress. I’ve gone through a few ideas in my head as far as what I’d like to do later, and it’s always evolving.  I love working with fresh new stuff – different ingredients I’ve never seen before. Applying new techniques and presentations to ordinary food.

I like playing with curing techniques for pork. We get Mangalitsas in from Mike Polaski’s farm as needed, and then we make sausages. We have meats hanging to use in specials, soups.

My grandparents are from Italy. I have family there, and they always raise a pig, and they have a cellar where they hang things to cure. Last time I was there I was 16. I always wish I knew then what I know now.

OMC: What’s one thing you’d like people to know about sous chefs.

MG: It’s really nice to be recognized.

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

MG: That kind of goes along with my philosophy. It’s always evolving. I really enjoy gardening. If I had enough money saved up to open a little place and grow my own vegetables and herbs. Probably a greenhouse here in Wisconsin.

But, ask me a year from now, it might be something completely different. There’s still a lot I can learn and get better at.

OMC: You mention gardening. What kind of gardening do you do?

MG: My roommate and I built a garden in our backyard. We have tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, celery root, broccoli. We planted hops a few years back.

I started planting my own stuff maybe 10 years ago. My dad always had a garden when I was growing up. I’m figuring out what works for me and what doesn’t … strawberries don’t work for me. They start to ripen and they’re just gone the next day. Lettuce gets eaten. We have possums and rabbits.

OMC: If you could call the shots on the menu, what would you cook?

MG: I’d like to try more Italian foods – gnocchi, farro – I think of just really fresh, big family gatherings. 

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.