Sometimes good things happen when we least expect it.
Just take for instance how Chef Matt Haase, former executive chef at Distil, found his latest gig – pastry chef at Rocket Baby Bakery, 6822 W. North Ave. – by answering an ad he found on Craigslist.
"I met with Geoff (Trenholme) and saw he was super passionate about bread, pastry and local ingredients," Haase recalls. "He gave me a croissant and a Danish to eat. It was great."
Haase says he was always interested in cooking, and knew he would work in restaurants, but he never envisioned himself working in a bakery.
"I knew I wanted to learn pastry, but I didn't envision myself focusing on it more than savory," he admits. "It's a nice surprise especially because I have a family now and it allows for more 'normal' hours ... I'm done in time to pick up my 2-year-old son, Calvin, from day care every day."
Haase has been designing flavorful dishes in various kitchens since he was 18 years old. While working for James Beard Award Winner Lidia Bastianich, Haase went to culinary school in Pittsburgh. Upon graduation, Haase came to Milwaukee to work under Brandon Wolff at Potawatomi's Dream Dance, and later joined the Bartolotta's staff to open Bacchus, where he was promoted to saucier, sous chef and then executive sous chef.
After stints at Chicago's Spring, Blackbird and Boka, Haase took a position as chef de cuisine at the InterContinental. There, he met Kurt Fogle, a colleague with whom he'd develop a solid friendship.
"Kurt made desserts that tasted as good and better than ones I've had in Chicago and New York," Haase recalls. "I didn't think that existed in Milwaukee."
When he was offered the opportunity to open Distil, Haase brought Fogle along to be the corporate pastry chef for SURG. The two struck up a deal – Fogle would teach Haase pastry, while Haase showed Fogle the tricks of the savory side of things.
"When I worked with Kurt he was gracious enough to teach me how to make all the desserts that were on his menus," Haase recollects. "He and I would collaborate together on flavors and textures, then he would show me proper technique."
But, it wasn't until leaving Distil that Haase decided to devote his energies to learning pastry full time. In January 2012, he headed off to The French Pastry School in Chicago, where he learned the trade from some of the greatest pastry chefs and bakers in the world.
"It was like learning to play basketball from Michael Jordan," Haase says. "While I attended, I worked at Vanille, World Pastry Champion Dimitry Fayard's shop. I also staged at Charlie Trotter's and L20."
Haase learned everything from the basics to how to make chocolate and sugar sculptures, macaron, entremets cake and breads.
"I have an obsessive personality so when I do something I tend to jump all in," he says.
So far he's enjoying his time at the bakery, although he admits it's completely different from working in a restaurant kitchen.
"You have to always be thinking ahead, but in a bakery you can't get yourself out of a jam as quickly," he admits. "A lot of our products are multiple-day processes, that are always changing. Breads and croissants wait for no one."
Six days a week, Haase arrives at Rocket Baby at 4 a.m. He puts finishing touches on mousse cakes, displays macarons and makes the day's éclairs and cream puffs before moving on to larger projects, like the development of a new cheese bread that will feature premium Wisconsin cheeses like Sarvecchio Parmesan and Pleasant Ridge Reserve.
"Right now we are testing a lot of new products and looking to upgrade ingredients to use more local stuff whenever possible," he says. "Geoff has encouraged me to be creative, which is all I've ever wanted in a kitchen. It will be slow at first, but we expect to change things with the season, and start to take advantage of the farmers markets."
In addition to looking at new ways to make the most of local ingredients, Haase is also assisting Trenholme in revamping Rocket Baby's sandwich offerings and expanding business with area restaurants like La Merenda, which now offers a daily bread basket containing some of the best breads from the bakery.
As for his working relationship with Trenholme, Haase says he feels like the two are working on the same wavelength.
"He's trying to make our area a better place to eat. He and I both get overly excited and dogmatic about the products we serve. We make a good team ... I love that every day Geoff goes on a rant about what good bread is and should be. I like that every day we try and make ourselves better and are not content being just OK."
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.