By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Oct 27, 2014 at 11:02 AM

For the eighth straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by Locavore, the newest restaurant at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. 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 2014."

What are you doing on Nov. 2?

Planning to attend Serve Taste Give, I hope.

The event, which takes place from noon to 4 p.m. at Milwaukee Rail Hall, 131 W. Seeboth St., sounds like it’s going to be an afternoon of raucous fun, especially if the competing chefs have anything to say about it.

Last year's event stirred up quite a bit of competition between the participating chefs, whose mission was to create delicious restaurant-quality dishes from food pantry staples like boxed cake, dried pasta and bananas.

But, this year, the chefs are even more determined than last year to make the competition count.

"It feels good to go into competition this year, knowing that I have what it takes to win," says reigning champion, Matt Kerley of Blue Jacket. "I will have an element of confidence, and yet I will also be wary knowing that those guys are gonna have it out for me."

And it seems like Kerley’s wariness is probably warranted.

After all, chefs like Cole Ersel of Wolf Peach, who is participating for the first time, doesn’t seem phased by Kerley’s prowess.

"I mean, c’mon, he's a California dream boat," Ersel says when I ask him how he feels about being pitted against Kerley. "From what I can see he's been spending most of his time in the weight room and on the TV, so maybe his skills are getting a little rusty."

And other competitors seem to agree that looks aren’t everything when it comes to performance in the kitchen.

"Kerley is good but this isn't an arm wrestling competition," underscores Paul Zerkel of Goodkind.

And Daniel Jacobs of Odd Duck, last year's "Peoples' Choice" winner, concurs. "Kerley’s no threat. He’ll be too busy doing squats and push-ups."

Kerley doesn’t seem intimidated by their jabs; but, he admits he might be at a disadvantage if his opponents don’t play fairly.

"I will have a different team this year, so I won't be able to cheat so easily..." he notes. "So, I think it's just a matter of staying fluid and being open to adapt to anything that comes your way, including Paul Zerkel’s tendency toward sabotage."

Sabotage?
Well, Zerkel actually didn’t mention anything about underhanded tactics when I asked him what he was planning for the competition. But, he did say that he’s mentally preparing for the challenge, especially from newcomer Joe Muench of Maxies, Blue’s Egg and Story Hill BKC.

"He’ll be the toughest to beat, probably," Zerkel tells me. "Breakfast is really a strong suit for him. Plus, he's raised like 17 kids, so he knows how to put that shit out fast."

But Zerkel says the other competitors -- including Jacobs, Ersel and Dan Van Rite from Hinterland -- should be fairly easy to quash.

"Jacobs is just too reliant on his microwave skills," Zerkel says, referring to a microwaved cake Jacobs served at the competition last year. "And Van Rite? Let's be honest, he really can't move that fast. And unless Cole is bringing his wood oven, he's pretty much got nothing."

But Ersel disagrees. In fact, he figures his youthful energy is a factor that will give him an edge.

"My plan is to distract my competitors with my stunning good looks," he says. "I have a new haircut, young skin, a strong build...."

When I asked him if he felt intimidated at all by Zerkel, who has a number of years of experience on him, he just shrugged.

"Is his age in question at all here? And what if there's a shortage of ace bandage for his wrists…?"

So, I moved on and asked him about Van Rite, another senior competitor. But, even then, Ersel didn’t blink.

"Those Hinterland folk don't fare too well with Sunday work," he responds. "For example when they work their ONE Sunday brunch a year during Beer Week, they have to close on Monday so everyone can recuperate."

And I’m not sure he’s wrong. After all, when I called Van Rite on a Sunday afternoon to ask him how he felt about the jabs he was getting from the competition, he didn’t even answer his phone. Maybe he was sleeping?

Interestingly, Ersel also seemed nonchalant about Jacobs, with whom he worked for a number of years at both Roots and Wolf Peach. In fact, he seemed to suggest that his mentor might be running out of the sort of creativity that would make him a real threat.

"I feel like the statute of limitations on Bistro Campagne dishes has to be running out… right?" he says with a devilish smirk.

Interestingly, Jacobs’ wasn’t fazed in the slightest when I asked him about Ersel. In fact, he indicated that he really wasn’t intimidated by any of his opponents.

"I’m really in my prime right now," he says, puffing out his chest. "These duds got nothing."

Included in the "duds," he throws a jab at the outdoorsy Ersel, who he says will likely be "crushing Capastrami sandwiches and hiking a trail somewhere….brah," and his former colleague, Zerkel, who he describes as "old and hobbled… and always complaining that his shoulder hurts."

Meanwhile, Joe Muench, is nothing but cool, calm, collected, and mature in his response.

"I've got over 25 years of cooking experience," he notes. "And I hope somewhere in lying deep in those years I can find the right combination of connecting the food presented to use and the food I prepare."

He admits he really doesn’t know enough about Kerley to feel particularly threatened.

"I know he's talented," Muench notes, "But so are the rest of the chefs. It will be fun to compete as well as a challenge."

Meanwhile, Kerley says he’s going to be on guard against the entire group of competing chefs.

"But, I'll have eyes out, especially for Cole," he says. "He's that young buck hotshot that's got something to prove. Besides, I know what I was doing when I was his age… winning, that's what."

Will Kerley win? Or will his competition prove too difficult to beat? 

Find out by attending Serve Taste Give on Nov. 2.

General admission tickets for Serve Taste Give are $60 and include samples of signature dishes from Skyline Catering, Mr. B's-A Bartolotta Steakhouse, Maxie's, Blue's Egg, Morel Restaurant, The Vanguard, Zak's Cafe and Classy Girl Cupcakes. Meanwhile, $100 VIP ticket-holders will have the opportunity to taste the chefs' dishes and vote in a "Peoples' Choice" category.

Purchase tickets at servetastegive.com or by calling (414) 389-9906. Can’t make the event? Consider making a donation online. All proceeds will support the missions and programming of both non-profits, SERVE 60 and Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin.

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.