By Drew Olson Special to Published Oct 31, 2006 at 5:15 AM

In Part 2 of our Milwaukee Talks interview with Chef Sandy D’Amato, we talk about the inspiration for menus and changes in the restaurant industry. We hope you enjoy this edition of Milwaukee Talks:

OMC: Where do you get ideas for dishes?

SD: The food that we do is a combination of inspiration from different places. I read everything I get my hands on and we travel and get ideas there, but basically, it’s inspiration from product. You see great product and you want to do something with it. Stylistically, I do what I do from my upbringing and my training. It’s a combination of my family and what I was brought up eating. I’m Sicilian on my father’s side and my mother’s side was very German. A lot of inspiration from our food comes from that and my mentors -- like Peter Von Erp (from the Culinary Institute of America).

A lot of times, food I’m doing seems like it’s coming out of left field, but it’s basically really grounded in that. What his feeling was, as we were working. He’d say ‘We’re going to do a cold cucumber soup. You go do some research and find five or six different areas that do cold cucumber soup and what you like and don’t like.’ We’d be at the library, working this out. I’d find one from Turkey, where they do a cold cucumber soup with yogurt and decide to garnish it with shaved ice and walnuts. Then there was one from a different area that might use pomegranates. Another one might be from India, where they are using yogurt and something more spicy. That’s where the food came from. That’s been my philosophy of food that is really ethnically inspired, but it always has roots in the soil. I don’t cross-culturalize my food. I think that things that grow in the soil together go together. Pomegranates and yogurt and walnuts may sound like strange ingredients they work well together. They’re growing in the same area and they taste good. They’re from the same area.

That’s how I do a menu. I don’t look at menus. I look at ingredients. I’ll say ‘I want to do something Turkish.’ And, I’ll take a whole list of Turkish ingredients and put a menu together.

OMC: Cooking seems almost like composing music. Just about everything has been done and everything we think of as "new" has echoes to something that already has been done.

SD: If you know food history, everything has been done at one time or another. Even things that seem so radically different at this time, like infusion oils, have been done. That was 15th century Florence. It’s all there. There are very few original cooks in this country.

OMC: So, where do the ideas come from?

SD: I try to look at something my grandfather may have done. We went to an Italian restaurant about 20 years ago and they had a squid salad on the menu. I had my mind set on what this was going to be -- grilled squid with some nice greens and maybe a real tart dressing. What they ended up serving was little fried squid pieces on top of iceberg lettuce. When I got back to the restaurant, I put on the squid salad I was thinking about. I did a Jalapeno lime vinaigrette and served it with fresh avocado and mango. That was inspired by that dish. But, it wasn’t a dish that I had seen anywhere.

I think that’s where a lot of the best food comes from. The best food I see and the best ideas are, a lot of times, as a chef you see them and say ‘Geez, it was right there. Why didn’t I think of it? It’s so simple. It’s brilliant.’

OMC: You mix a lot of styles in your cooking -- French, Italian, Mediterranean, etc. -- what does American cuisine mean to you?

SD: Years ago, people were trying to define what American cuisine was. People couldn’t. It was really this amalgamation of products and techniques that really made no sense. What it has become is chefs using techniques of what they’ve learned. If they’re smart and if they’re good, they’re using the one thing that they have that is personal to them. That’s their experiences from growing up. That’s the best food that I’ve made.

OMC: A lot of people are talking about "comfort food," meaning variations on things like meat loaf, pot roast, macaroni and cheese and things that remind them of childhood. Is that trend going to last?

SD: (Coquette) is the ultimate comfort food restaurant. You take any dish off this menu and it will translate to a Midwestern dinner: roast chicken, meat loaf, steak and fries. It’s what someone would cook for a Sunday dinner if their mother or grandmother happens to be French. It’s pot roast. It’s braised items. It’s the comfort level that people coming in here don’t have to feel that they have to order an entrée. They can sit at the bar or come in and have a salad and split a sandwich.

OMC: That brings up a good question: Are people less intimidated by the idea of fine dining today than they were 15 years ago?

SD: There is less of it. People are much more food-savvy now. They know a lot more about the idea of food. But, they don’t necessarily have a deeper knowledge of what they’re eating. They recognize ingredients. Before the Wine Spectator, you’d go to California. We used to go out there from 1980 to 1990, when I was at John Byron’s, we’d do a wine dinner and I‘d go out there and try the wines they were bringing in so I could do a menu with them. Every time we’d go there, we’d find two or three wineries just from driving around or trying something. You can’t discover anything anymore. Everything has been written about. You might have missed it, but the information is out there.

That’s what’s happened with food and it’s good and bad. The good part is that people really have to have the technique and the know-how to make great food. Great product is there. Everyone talks about getting great product. The question is what are you going to do with it?

Am I going to sit here and take a great tomato and slice it up and serve it to you and then charge you for it? You can go to the market and get that same tomato. There has to be some technique involved with doing it, like pairing it with great cheese or an artisan bread. That’s why we started making our own bread. You are doing something with it that makes it a package that you can’t do at home.

The bad part of it is, people think that because they’ve read about something thinking that they know it. It’s like a chef reading about a dish and making it and saying ‘Yes, I’m making pasta carbonara now. I read about it and I’m making it.’ Well, until you’ve eaten great pasta carbonara, you can’t make it. You don’t know what it is. You can make something that is very good. But, it’s not necessarily going to be that dish. The first time we went over to Rome, I was talking to Paul Bartolotta and asked is there someplace I should go. He told me ‘You have to go to Il Moro and have the Pasta Il Moro, it’s the best.’ I went over there and I had it. Now I understand what carbonara is. I’ve had good and I’ve had bad. But, this is what the dish is about.

OMC: How would you describe your philosophy?

SD: The food has to be good. My theory is that I don’t have an ego in this. If you don’t like what I’m making you, I’m not doing my job. If someone comes in and says ‘I want my steak well-done,’ then I’m going to make you the best well-done steak you’ve ever had. That’s what I do. I’m not here to tell you ‘No, I’m sorry, this is ruining the meat.’

My uncle came into Sanford and ordered his steak well-done and afterward he was apologizing to me. He said ‘I’m really sorry I did that. I know how it is for a chef to cook like that, but when I was growing up, my mother always served well-done beef. Any time I’d go somewhere and see that blood, I couldn’t eat it. It would make me physically sick.’ People have so many things from when they grew up and personal preferences, who am I to tell them this is wrong, that this is the way to eat? We’re in the business to make people happy and comfortable. Any way we can do that, we don’t compromise. If somebody comes in and says ‘I want this and make it with this and this and that,’ I might say "You might not like it. I’ve never made this before.’ But, I’ll try it and a lot of times, they’ll be happy with it.

We had a guy come in wanted baked potato with a really good meat gravy. I made him a baked potato. He said it’s the best baked potato with gravy he’d ever had. Other people would look at it and go ‘I’m not going to do that. This is stupid.’ That’s always been our philosophy about food. You can take the ego out of it. People are coming in and they’re not on my time, they’re on their time. There are restaurants you go into where you are on the chef’s time. They’re going to tell you what to eat and how to eat it. If that’s something you want to do, great. If it’s not, it’s a bad dining experience. That’s where you lose them coming back.

OMC: What dishes do you like to have when you go out?

SD: I like duck. I like lamb. I like squab. I like game birds. That’s something that I’ll usually order if it’s on the menu. I like crab cakes. I’m always looking for the perfect crab cake. I can eat a mediocre crab cake and be happy. I love soft shell crabs.

Other than that, I basically like the product that is in season. We just came back from Italy and Spain. Over in Italy, it’s porcini. Every place you go to has porcini pasta, roasted porcini, porcini popsicles, scallops with porcini. It’s really the right way to eat. The season is so short. You eat so much of it that you’re ready for porcinis to be gone. And when they come back again, you’re ready to eat them.

That’s the way I look at it here. In the summer, I eat all the tomatoes and corn I can stuff down. That’s what you should be eating. Then, when it’s gone, you don’t miss it as much. You don’t say ‘Oh, I only had tomatoes once this year. Now I can’t get good ones until next year.’

OMC: When you’re home, what restaurants do you like to visit?

SD: The place we go to most frequently is Izumi’s. We’ve been going there for years. I know a lot of people have different opinions about Japanese food. I like the cold tofu.

We eat out a out for lunch. We go to Water Street (Brewery). I think over the years it’s been consistently good sandwiches. One of our favorite places to go is Stefano’s. I really like his food. I like to go to Bartolotta’s on half-price wine night. That was a good deal. I like Speed Queen. That was the first place we went when we came back (from Italy).

OMC: When you think about the Milwaukee restaurant landscape, what is lacking?

SD: I think more independents doing good, honest food. I think that’s happening. There aren’t a huge amount of fine dining places in the city, but I don’t know if the city can support that many. If you are looking at a restaurant plan, what is the best restaurant to open in this city? I don’t know if fine dining is the answer.

OMC: It is a pretty casual city.

SD: Sanford is much more casual than it was. We never had a dress code. It just begot that. People came in dressed up. We’ve seen that change completely over the years. That’s really what we wanted. We wanted a place that people come in and feel comfortable in. That type of high-end, stuffy-waiter fine dining place; I don’t think there ever really was room for that. I worked in places in New York that were like that.

In New York, it’s not a money thing. People do not (avoid) a restaurant because of the cost. A lot of time in Milwaukee, that is a factor. They’ll say ‘I’ll spend that money for my anniversary, but not for going out to dinner tonight.’ That’s not what happens in New York.

OMC: What is the next wave in restaurants? What’s the next big trend?

SD: When I first moved back to Milwaukee, every time the farmer’s market opened, I’d be there -- every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. I’d never see any chefs there. That has changed over the years. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about getting the best local product you can when it’s around. The best food we’ve had in our restaurants is when the market is going on. That’s the only time in Milwaukee that you can go out and pick product. We have great suppliers, but we’re still at the mercy of what comes in and what it’s going to be. 

We have the ability to change our menu daily. If it’s something that isn’t good, we’ll change it that night. That’s what the future of the restaurant is -- more casual. I think there is always room for fine dining, but people are going to get over this reverence. People have always had it. I remember at John Byron’s, someone coming in and saying ‘Do you realize what this is and what you are doing here? This is great art.’ This is food! This is meant to be consumed. That’s all it is. It should be great. It’s a craft. If you want to think of it as art, I think of food as a craft. I’m a craftsman. I want to be the best I can at that. It’s all about working with your hands and being able to translate what’s in your head to your hands. Being able to make your hands work the way you want them to. If you can’t do that, you can’t cook. You can know what you want to do, but you have to make your hands do it.

OMC: What is the Milwaukee restaurant scene like? Is it competitive? Is it supportive? Do people "steal" employees?

SD: It’s mostly supportive. If somebody here wants to leave and want to do something else, I’m all for that. I’m not going to tell them ‘You’re not getting a recommendation from me.’ We like people to stay for awhile. At Sanford it’s a good two years before you understand what the technique of the food is. If something comes in, say we get a product like braised veal breast and we’re going to do it with some oranges and black olives and arugula and make a little salad. They can understand. They’re learning techniques, not recipes. It’s not that we don’t work from recipes. But, if you don’t know the technique of putting them together, it’s not going to work. 

The philosophy we try to get across to people working for us is that every dish has to be like that. It can’t be just OK. It has to be special. 

Drew Olson Special to

Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.