Dan Sidner grew up in Kearney, Neb., but gumbo runs in his veins. Buy him a plane ticket to New Orleans, put a drink in his hand when he gets there, and he is one happy man.
Fortunately, Sidner co-owns Maxie's Southern Comfort, the popular Milwaukee restaurant that specializes in the Cajun and Creole cooking of Louisiana as well as the food of the Carolinas "low country." He can simmer in jambalaya and sate his crawfish craving year round.
Last fall, Sidner and his business partner, Maxie's executive chef Joseph Muench, took 15 members of the restaurant's staff to New Orleans for a weekend of historical tours, a visit to the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, and of course, dining. The group ate five meals a day.
Sidner and Muench rented a house so everyone could stay together, and they spent a lot of time away from the French Quarter. "So many people think the French Quarter is what New Orleans is. There is so much more to the city and culture than that," Sidner recently said.
Everyone on the trip had worked at Maxie's for at least two years, and it was a thank you perk for what the co-owner said was the core of the crew, "the people who have made our restaurant a success." But there was another purpose for the adventure.
"We want our people to be able to tell the story behind the food," Sidner said. "We want them to be able to give the customer the why behind the what. We want to be able to serve our food with confidence."
The Maxie's staff will be displaying its New Orleans savviness at Lundi Gras festivities tonight and Mardi Gras tomorrow at the restaurant. The standard menu is being suspended for the two days in favor of a Big Easy lineup of sharable plates.
"We aren't calling them small plates because some are bigger than that," Sidner said of the temporary menu items. "But they are meant to be shared."
The expected New Orleans fare is on the list -- jambalaya ($16.95), crawfish etouffee ($12.95), muffuletta ($9.95) and oyster po' boys ($12.95). But there are also some exotic items on the special menu -- alligator pork sausage ($10.95), coconut voodoo shrimp with mango mustard ($10.95), fried chicken livers with pepper jelly and pickled okra ($7.95), and duck gumbo ($12.95).
The desserts include strawberry beignets with custard sauce, warm bread pudding with vanilla ice cream and bourbon caramel sauce, key lime pie, and pecan pralines. All desserts are $6 except for the pralines, which are $3.95. At the bar, Hurricanes with real passion fruit juice are $5.
Beads and masks will be available, and live music will be featured both nights. The Polyester Playboys play traditional New Orleans jazz from 5:30 to 9:30 tonight.
Maxie's will open early at 2 tomorrow afternoon with the Owls, a Chicago band that specializes in New Orleans-style street jazz. The local Uptown Savages will take over from them at 5:30.
A heated tent will accommodate the overflow crowd. Customers can take a whack at a pinata filled with mini liquor bottles and participate in the King Cake celebration.
Maxie's is also providing the food at Radio Milwaukee's Mardi Gras Party with Mucca Pazza at Turner Hall tomorrow night. The goodies will include Milwaukee's largest King Cake.
Sidner explained why he so enthusiastically embraces New Orleans. "You have to work pretty hard to have a bad meal there. The culinary culture is totally embedded, like nowhere else in the country,
"Regardless of your socio-economic status, food is celebrated. But the specialness of New Orleans is not just about food.
"The culture of the city is unique. There is a melting pot there unlike anywhere else."
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.