October is the third annual Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delicious features, chef profiles, unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2009."
Café LuLu and its younger sibling in Wauwatosa, Juniper 61, are so closely linked to owners Cam Roberts and Sarah Jonas, that it might seem daunting to step in to helm the kitchens at these beloved eateries.
But that's just what Ramses Alvarez has done at Juniper 61, 6030 W. North Ave.
Alvarez responded to a blind ad on craigslist and aced his audition, says Roberts.
"He served us the juniper pork that is currently on the menu and we loved it," she recalls.
Although Roberts and Jonas have the final word on what makes the menu, Alvarez is a key player on the team.
"It's a collaborative effort," she says, "but mostly he comes up with the seed ideas."
We asked Alvarez about his background and about working at Juniper 61.
OMC: Tell us a bit about yourself. Are you a Milwaukee native?
Ramses Alvarez: No, I was born and raised in Mexico City. I came to the U.S. in 1999.
OMC: What kind of experience and training brought you to Juniper 61?
RA: I came to Milwaukee to gain more experience and better training. I had started the culinary program at the University of Mexico City. However, I did not finish. I started searching for places to train in the USA and Europe, sending out letters and resumes.
I was eventually given an opportunity by chef Sanford D'Amato that I couldn't pass up. I came to Milwaukee and worked for him at Coquette Café and Sanford for a few years.
I picked up additional experience at Lake Park Bistro during that time, too. Around 2004, I left those places and became executive chef at The Social.
OMC: Do you have a signature dish?
RA: Not specifically. I love working with seafood the most and I really enjoy incorporating ethnic ingredients and techniques into my cooking.
OMC: What do you like most, and least, about your job?
RA: I don't really care for the hours! What I like most is the day- to-day challenge of culinary creation and reinvention.
OMC: What are your favorite places to eat out in Milwaukee?
RA: Definitely Conejitos, Coquette Cafe, La Merenda, and, of course, Cafe LuLu!
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook? What do you like about it?
RA: That would have to be "Alain Ducasse's Culinary Encyclopedia: Grand Livre de Cuisine." I love the precision of the recipes, the application of ingredients and his overall understanding of food.
OMC: Do you have a favorite TV or celebrity chef?
RA: I don't have a favorite celebrity chef. But I do love to watch "Iron Chef." It's the real deal in professional kitchen techniques and showing people the way that things are -- the science behind food preparation, the interaction of ingredients and processes, and why things happen the way they do in the kitchen.
OMC: What's been the biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?
RA: The study of food from a scientific perspective. The development of molecular gastronomy with its deconstruction of ingredients and manipulation of food's forms, flavors and textures is fascinating to me. I think that takes cooking to a whole new level.
OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?
OMC: What's the next big trend in food?
RA: With the rise of a new generation of multicultural young chefs, I believe it's going to be the combinations that arise from the blending of ethnic foods and cuisines. Fusion is amazing.
OMC: What's the toughest day or night to work in the restaurant biz?
RA: It's no secret that weekends are the toughest. Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday brunch. But that's the sacrifice we in this business make to make people happy. And when the people are happy, I'm happy.
OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?
RA: Mexican bakery and the pastries from "Le Reve" in Wauwatosa.
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.