Award-winning chef Thomas Peschong was at The Riversite in Mequon for more than two decades. So, it came as something of a surprise when he was announced as the king of the kitchen at the newly reopened Turner Hall Restaurant, 1038 N. 4th St., late last month.
Peschong has certainly got the skills, and it sounds like he hit the ground running, putting together a menu that would be both familiar and new for a place with a long history as a popular Downtown eatery.
"We've created a menu filled with familiar foods that have made Turner popular among Milwaukeeans, while offering some unique new flavors they'll also enjoy," Peschong told OnMilwaukee.com last month. "I think our customers will enjoy the variety of food we are serving amid the wonderful renovations that bring Turner back to life."
We wanted to know more about Peschong and his plans for Turner Hall Restaurant and we thought you would too...
OnMilwaukee.com: Were you a fan of the previous restaurant at Turner Hall?
Thomas Peschong: Old Turner Hall Restaurant was a very neat place. It had the old world charm and the reputation of having a big Friday fish fry. Working in the business, of course, gave me very little time to experience it. I do remember coming here when I was very young with my family and my fondest memory was the crooked floors. They're refinished and lighter now but they're the same old crooked floors.
OMC: What can fans of the legendary fish fry there expect from the new restaurant? Will the menu be similar? More specifically, Are the potato pancakes coming back?
TP: The legendary fish fry will be back but I'm really uncertain how similar it will be. It will be better, I hope. It's hard to tell what the last fish fry was without being familiar with it, but we will try to carry on the tradition of what a good fish fry is all about and most definitely we'll have potato pancakes.
OMC: As a chef does your new position offer some opportunities to try different things than you've done in the past at places like Riversite?
TP: This situation is vastly different than anything I've ever done with the casual aspect and the volume. It will be interesting to do a more casual approach to dining, as long as the food is important. For me it is all about the food. My vision is that this will be a community place so everyone should be made to feel welcome and comfortable.
OMC: What do you like most, and least, about your job?
TP: I like the idea that Turner Hall has such a history and that we have the opportunity to reinvent it without losing the charm of the past. It also appeals to me the fact that everyone is welcome here, because I think it's very affordable and such a "warming" atmosphere. I guess if there is a negative thing, one is that I can't use some of my small connections because of the sheer volume. It's also a bigger place to staff so it's probably going to be harder to keep things in line, but it is a good challenge. Because of the price structure, we'll have to omit some higher end items from the menu. We probably won't be doing to many truffle dinners.
OMC: What are your favorite places to eat out in Milwaukee?
TP: My favorite place to eat out in Milwaukee, actually in Cedarburg, is my backyard. Being in the business, it's nice to be home and have simple dinners with my wife Shiela and son Simon. We like to go to different little family places when we do go out, mainly ethnic places that offer something out of the ordinary. There are a lot of nice niche places around town, and being in the business, I like to support the small establishments who do a good job and are just really nice people and friends. For example, St. Paul's Seafood, Crazy Water and Palermo Villa.
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook?
TP: Julia Child's "Art of French Cooking" – the first real cookbook I ever was impressed with.
OMC: Do you have a favorite TV or celebrity chef?
TP: No. I live it, I don't watch it.
OMC: What's been the biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?
TP: People realizing that they should know their sources, buying local. Not really a big development but very important.
OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?
TP: A microplane – I like to plane all citric fruit and save some and dry the zest, mix it and make citric dust ... great for seasoning.
OMC: What's the next big trend in food?
TP: Casual food and affordable. Not fancy food, but pure food.
OMC: What's the toughest day / night to work in the restaurant biz?
OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?
TP: Foie Gras, truffles, oyster and corn chips.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.