By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Jul 13, 2015 at 11:04 AM

Miguel Mayoral is a loyal guy. He’s been working with Brian Zarletti as head chef at Zarletti restaurant Downtown for the past 10 years.

Mayoral says he feels privileged to have worked for so many years with owner Brian Zarletti, and proud of how far he’s come.

"From the beginning I’ve learned from him," Mayoral says. "From tasting things, from him talking about his family’s food. From researching and making new recipes. It’s been a great collaboration."

And learning more about diverse cuisines has been Mayoral’s goal since he immigrated to the U.S. from Vera Cruz, Mexico in 1990.

"It was about the promise of the American dream," he says, when I ask him why he chose Milwaukee. "And I really have it. I have a career, a house, a wife. It has been all I expected."

Although Mayoral had years of experience working in Mexican restaurants under his belt, he says his main goal when seeking out jobs in Milwaukee was to add more diverse experiences to his resume.  So, he started off with his first job at Omega Restaurant on South 27th Street, where he was introduced to Greek cuisine, something he’d never tasted or experienced before.

"The spices in the Greek food really struck me," he says. "The oregano. The lemon and sea salt – they were all things I haven’t really cooked with before. I wasn’t prepared; it was just so outside of my palate."

After learning the ropes at Omega, he moved on to work at The Boulevard Inn in Cudahy Tower.

"I wanted to know more about cooking," he says. "So I jumped into German food at the Boulevard Inn. I got most of my experience there with Dennis Kuhfuss. He taught me all sorts of tricks – for fixing sauces, for fixing dishes that were too salty. He taught me more than just cooking."

In his work with Kuhfuss, Mayoral mastered the art of veal schnitzel and roasted duck with Grande Marnier sauce. And he learned to make other dishes like  hashbrown-crusted salmon with Dijon mustard sauce, which he says was "one of the greatest salmon dishes" he has ever tried.

After Boulevard Inn closed, Mayoral moved on to work with Marc Bianchini at Osterio Del Mondo, where he cut his teeth on homemade ravioli and other Italian pastas and sauces before  joining the Zarletti team in 2005.

These days, Mayoral is busy with yet another new project. He’s taken the helm at Zarletti Mequon, where he’s helping to create new menu items and transition staff after the departure of opening chef, Andrew Miller.

After hearing his story, I sat down with Mayoral to find out a bit more about him and his passion for food. What sparked your interest in food?

Miguel Mayoral: I grew up around food. My mom – she has a tiny little restaurant that offers small things, mostly appetizers. And as I was learning, that’s how I started. I was working for my mother, and then I moved on to other restaurants.  I’m not afraid – to burn myself, cut myself. I’ve tried other things… working in a factory, an office. It wasn’t for me.

My strongest is in Mexican food, but I didn’t want to cook in a Mexican restaurant. I wanted to learn more and find out about other cuisines. I wanted the challenge of working with different types of food. And Italian, that’s one of the greatest.  Thai food is spicy. German is sweet and sour. But, Italian – they have so many contrasts. Sweet, spicy, sour.

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

MM: Let’s see. I think it’s the braised short ribs. It’s really good. There is the contrast of both beer and wine, and it’s a long slow process, so so much goes into it along the ways. We serve them with saffron risotto.

OMC: Do you go out to eat much in Milwaukee?

MM: No, I really don’t. I only go to a restaurant when I feel like they offer something that I can’t do at home. Like smoking and barbeque. I don’t have a smoker at home, so I love really good barbequed ribs.  Really elaborate things that I wouldn’t do at home.

OMC: So you cook frequently at home?

MM: Yes, I cook for my family all the time. I have have two teenage guys, and they really like a variety of food. So, I make things from classic American macaroni and cheese to stir fry.  I’m their personal chef – for my kids, for my family. Whatever they want, I make it. And when I want to do something easy and fast, I make Italian food – because I know that. I do it every day.

OMC: What are some of the dishes you remember most fondly from your time in Mexico?

MM: Because I’m from Vera Cruz, there is a lot of influence from Cuba. And there are so many countries that come into the port at Vera Cruz, and they all leave something there.  So, one of my favorite dishes that my mother always made… we call it puritos – plantains stuffed with fresh melted cheese. I’ve tried to make it, but it never turns out quite the same as when she made it. The trick is, the plantain can’t be too ripe or too green. And she just makes the best ones.

OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook?

MM: I don’t really have one. I use them for reference, but I don’t have any one I go to.  If Brian tells me he wants a dish with red snapper, I go out, do research, determine how I want to make it – if I want to fry it or grill it. And I’ll look at books, but usually all kinds.

OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?

MM: My knife. I can’t live without a knife.

OMC: Does it need to be a special knife?

MM:  No, for me, a knife is a knife.  I use can use the same knife for any kind of work. It might take me longer, but without a knife I can’t do anything.

OMC: What are some ingredients that are always in your refrigerator at home?

MM: Milk, basil, jalapenos, cilantro, onions, tomatoes and bacon.

OMC: When you need to make something fast and easy to eat, what do you make?

MM: Always the same thing – we call it a sincronizada. It’s a quesadilla. My kids love it because it has American cheese, queso fresco, onions, tomato, ham and pickled jalapeno slices.  Oh, it’s so delicious.  The queso fresco isn’t a melting cheese, so it stays firm. But, the American cheese melts right away.  And it’s so good. I guess it’s a little like a ham and cheese sandwich.

OMC: If you could cook for anyone in the world, who would it be?

MM: I would say President Obama.

OMC: And what would you serve?

MM: That’s a good question. I don’t know what he likes to eat. That’s always the challenge for a chef. What does he want to eat?  Maybe he wants KFC?  

But, if it was to be one of my creations, it would be something Mexican. Probably mole poblano; it is really hard to make. It’s a lot of steps and a lot of ingredients – but it’s really really good. One of my special dishes.

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.