For the seventh straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by the restaurants of Potawatomi. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2013.
Missy Harkey was in her third year of studying psychology at UW-Madison when she realized she hated what she was doing.
"It wasn’t me," she says. "So I decided to stop."
She dropped out and took stock of her life.
One of the first things Harkey thought about, when she considered things she really loved to do, was making Christmas cookies.
"My mom would always take me out of school the week before Christmas and we’d make cookies and candies," she says. "And I loved that. My mom and grandma are really good cooks. It’s sounds so cliché, but I’m Italian so food was always a really big part of my life."
So, Harkey enrolled in the culinary arts program at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (CHIC). During her externship, she decided she’d like to work in Italy, so she moved there and worked at Mami Camilla's, a family-run bed and breakfast in Sorrento near the Amalfi Coast.
"Pretty much everyone knows everyone," she recalls. "And Biagio Longo, the owner of the bed and breakfast, connected me up with Il Bucco, where I worked for a month … I learned a ton. All the chefs I worked with there were concerned with passing along the craft, so they shared their passion and it really rubbed off."
Harkey says she came back to the states in 2008, full of inspiration but completely broke. The first job she landed was an assistant pastry chef position at Watts Tea Shop. There, she concentrated on the art of pastry, and eventually earned the role of pastry chef.
"I was there when they won the James Beard Award," she says. "Exciting times."
While she worked at Watts, she met Erick Fischer, now head sous chef at Blue’s Egg. He’s the one who opened the door for her to join the team at Blue’s. She began as a pastry chef, but has since been promoted to sous chef, working under Erick Fischer.
Her days at Blue’s start early, and she spends them making monkey bread, English muffins, and the full complement of pastry offerings at Blue’s. But, she also has a hand in just about every other aspect of the food that comes out of the kitchen.
"I still do all the pastries, but now I have someone assisting me in doing the grunt work," she tells me. "I’m more involved with every aspect of the food."
I was interested in how she felt about her current role, so we sat down and talked about her position at Blues, her passion for cooking, and where she sees herself in the next 10 years.
OnMilwaukee.com: What do you wish you had known when you took your first sous chef position?
Missy Harkey: How to manage my time better. I thought I could get into that a lot easier. But it’s crazy sometimes. I’m still doing the pastry, and now with my other responsibilities."
Despite the crazy, Harkey says she loves what she’s doing.
OMC: What’s the most challenging part of your job?
MH: Being a girl working with men … and being above them, it can be difficult. It’s a boys’ club, and I think it’s probably rising above the attitudes and asserting authority to get things done.
OMC: What’s the best part?
MH: Being able to have lots of creative freedom. Joe and Dan are really great about that. Here’s a bunch of pork, think of something cool to do.
OMC: What have you learned most about yourself while working in the kitchen?
MH: Mmm, I don’t know. A lot of the time I think I’m really spastic, but no one knows that. I seem to maintain a keep my cool most of the time.
OMC: Of the chefs you’ve worked for, from whom did you learn the most? Why?
MH: I would probably say Biagio. He was originally from Sicily and moved to Naples to study. He's probably the biggest man I've seen in my life -- around 6'5" and easily pushing the heavier side of 300 pounds.
He also had huge hands, which was a problem sometimes for us students studying there because he was very old school. All his recipes used handfuls instead of measuring cups. So an average sized handful was about a fourth of a Biagio handful.
His recipes were very traditional with a slight twist on some American ones, he loved cheeseburgers and that was one of the first dishes I had by him being there. But a cheeseburger wasn't just a cheeseburger with him... even the simplest things were amazing. He had a certain finesse, everything was delicious. The students staying there were lucky enough to study with him in the kitchen on occasion and then eat his meals at night.
He taught me that doing the small things correctly really counts. It’s the details that contribute to the whole – and it’s amazing when they’re done the right way. For me, that’s what Italian cuisine is about.
I loved food, but I don’t think I really had a passion for it until I moved to Italy.
OMC: How would you describe your cooking style or philosophy about food?
MH: I like to take classics and put a spin on them. I feel like it’s good to give people a point of reference, rather than giving them something completely new. I really like tinkering.
OMC: What’s the one thing you wish people knew about sous chefs?
MH: I don’t know… I guess the crazy hours we put in. A lot of people glamorize it – and it is awesome – but it’s hard, and I work crazy hours. I lift 50 pound bags of flour…
OMC: Where do you envision yourself five, 10 years from now?
MH: Everyone says they want to own their own place, and I would love that. I can envision a café with lots of pastries and simple dishes.
OMC: If you could call the shots on the menu, what would you cook?
MH: I feel like we don’t do a lot of Asian-influenced dishes. And that’s not really my forte, but I’d love to introduce some dishes like that – maybe dishes from Korea.
OMC: What’s your impression of the Milwaukee food scene?
MH: I think it’s catching up. Probably the past five years, lots of restaurants are popping up that are really legit.
OMC: How do you spend your free time outside the restaurant?
MH: I do cook a lot. I do a lot of experimenting at home; you can take your time and really get things right. I also read. I like the Classics. I’m a Jane Austin and Jane Eyre girl. "Pride & Prejudice" with Colin Firth is untouchable. He’s been my crush for over a decade.
I also work out a lot because I eat so much here; I have to balance it out.
Lori Fredrich (Lo) is an eater, writer, wonderer, bon vivante, traveler, cook, gardener and girlwonder. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, she has tried to leave many times, but seems to be drawn to this quirky city that smells of beer and alewives.
Some might say that she is a little obsessed with food. Lo would say she is A LOT obsessed with food. After all, she has been cooking, eating and enjoying food for decades and has no plans to retire anytime soon.
Lo's recipes and writing have been featured in a variety of publications including GO: Airtran Inflight Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Cooking Light, Edible Milwaukee, Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as on the blog Go Bold with Butter, the web site Wisconsin Cheese Talk, and in the quarterly online magazine Grate. Pair. Share.