If you’ve been to c.1880, you’ve experienced the masterful cooking of Chef Thomas Hauck. And you’ve likely been wowed by his take on modern French cuisine – fresh, seasonal foods thoughtfully escalated by expert technique and intermittent flourishes of molecular gastronomy.
Hauck hails from Port Washington, where he lived with his family until the age of 8. From there, he moved to Stone Mountain, Ga., where he took his first service industry job at a place called The Grill.
"I worked from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays for $50 cash," he told me. "I was dishwasher and bus boy with some other random tasks thrown in."
Hauck did various odd jobs during his teen years. But at 19, after moving to Roanoke, Va., he started working in the restaurant scene again. It was also there, in Roanoke, that the work began to inspire him.
"I stumbled upon ‘The French Laundry’ cookbook, and thought to myself: ‘Holy cow what is this stuff?’" he recalls. "I was 20 years old, at the bookstore, and it was just sitting there, this big beautiful book. I have a strong cookbook addiction to this day."
Hauck says his first cookbook was actually Escoffier’s "Le Guide Culinaire," but at the time he couldn’t make much sense of it.
It wasn’t until he attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., that things started coming together.
"I did my externship at the Ritz Carleton with Fabio Trabocchi," Hauck says. "He was a demanding dude. It was stressful, I got yelled at a lot. But, I got to make beautiful food."
When he graduated from the CIA, Hauck moved to Cincinnati, where he worked with Jean-Robert De Cavel, who assisted him in making a trip to France that would further change his life.
Hauck honed his skills in France, training at the Michelin-rated L'Essentiel in Chambéry, and then in Perpignan, before realizing he’d need a work visa to remain in the country.
"I bought the most expensive plane ticket ever on two days’ notice, and came back to the U.S.." Hauck recalls. "I was broke, sleeping on my sister’s couch, and needed a job. So, I called Citronelle."
Hauck spent four years at Citronelle, French chef Michel Richard's four-star, fine-dining restaurant in Washington, D.C., before deciding it was time to move home and open his own restaurant.
And that, my friends, is where the story of c.1880 begins.
I sat down with Hauck this week to chat about his humble beginnings, his inspiration and the best meal he’s ever eaten.
OnMilwaukee.com: Describe your relationship to food as you were growing up.
Thomas Hauck: My mom was a very good baker, and she still is. She won baking contests and such. But, as far as food, it was… well, I mainly grew up with jolly Green Giant beans in a can. I mean, my mom makes the greatest lasagna in the world, she still does.
But, I don’t have a story about a grandmother and an orchard or beautiful growing tomatoes. Or anything like that.
Once I started working in restaurants and I saw what it could be. That was the inspiration.
OMC: What made you decide you would become a professional cook?
TH: I was the shift manager at a crappy steak house in Virginia. I was in charge of the line, and I thought "it doesn’t get better than this." And I knew it was what I wanted to do.
OMC: Would you do it all over again?
TH: In a heartbeat. I wish I would’ve started younger, though. The French have such a leg up; they can quit school at 15.
Now with the Food Network, it’s become a kind of rock star thing to do, to be a chef. But, we’re just craftsmen. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We practice each day; we hone our craft. And every day should be better than the rest.
I’m glad people don’t look down on the profession now. It makes it easier.
OMC: Who have been your major influences?
TH: Michel Richard and Charlie Trotter. I mean, I absolutely loved Charlie Trotter as a kid. He was a pioneer. He brought us the chef owned restaurant, the vegetarian tasting menu … the idea of cookbooks for the professional chef.
Sarah and I ate there right after we moved back to Milwaukee. They cooked for us for like four and a half hours. His mom came to the table, and it was awesome.
OMC: A ha! So, that’s where you stole the idea to have your mom here at c.1880 greeting tables?
TH: Yeah (smirks). I thought to myself, "My mom is going to wear a smart looking blazer, and walk around and tell funny stories and touch peoples’ tables."
And it’s great because she does. She’s proud and it’s a good thing.
OMC: And how about the food at Trotter’s?
TH: There was a level to the food – such a level – it was almost as though the ultimate emphasis was really on the vegetable, and then the protein was added to it as a secondary matter.
There was a flow to it, and it wasn’t an afterthought. It was just a whole ‘nother level. And then there was the service… the wine.
OMC: Describe the challenges facing today's restaurateurs.
TH: The biggest challenge is that you want to give people a sense of value. You want to give the best thing that you can possibly afford to people. You always fight the battle of "how much can I charge for that?"
There are all sorts of things I’d love to do, but if I can’t sell them, it doesn’t matter. You don’t want to price yourself out of market. It’s hard.
OMC: Do you think that’s particularly difficult here in Milwaukee?
TH: I think you struggle with it everywhere.
But, I would never put a $40 entrée on the menu here; there would be an uprising. So, it’s a balance. If I buy line-caught halibut and it has to be shipped to me overnight on dry ice, I’m going to have to pay for that.
OMC: What advice would you give to aspiring young chefs?
TH: Wherever they are they should work in the best restaurant in that town for a few years. And when they think they’re ready to be a sous, they should wait five more years.
Oh, and they should read every single thing that they can – everything. Any single restaurant that has a book out, you should get it.
I mean, have you seen the new book by Daniel Boulud? It’s a really great book. The "Iconic Sessions" section by Bill Buford. I mean, it’s awesome.
OMC: Speaking of books, what’s your favorite cookbook?
TH: "The French Laundry" holds a sentimental value. But, I’d say Alain Duccase’s "Grand Livre de Cuisine."
I bought it when I was in France and it helped me learn French. I carried it with me in my backpack. We were closed on Sundays in France, and I brought it with me. It traveled with me. It’s actually in the restaurant right now.
OMC: What is your favorite kitchen gadget?
TH: I have a wooden spoon that has a straight edge on it. And I love that thing. My last one cracked and broke. I buried it in the yard, and a dog dug it up… there was so much flavor to it.
OMC: How about your worst kitchen disaster?
TH: Well, there was a French fry incident at Citronelle that was pretty awesome. We did French fries cooked in clarified butter. They take forever to cook, but they were really delicious.
When they were cold, they were still crispy. You’ve had duck fat fries? They have nothing on these.
So, it’s cool if you run out of French fries, but not when you’re holding the ticket. Things went crashing. People were yelling. There was a scene with a girl and a potato masher, and she started crying. It was crazy.
All I know is that the woman who worked garde manger – she threw a potato. Somebody slipped. HR had a field day with it the next day. There were depositions and interviews… I went and hid in pastry for a while that night.
OMC: When you’re at home, what do you like to eat?
TH: Roast chicken. Sundays we usually roast a chicken. We make one big meal on the weekend, and then eat leftovers during the week.
But, aside from that, there’s something I eat almost every day – hard salami, cave aged cheddar on a cracker.
OMC: What is the best meal you’ve ever been served?
TH: We joke about this often, me and Justin Carlisle and Jarvis Williams. There’s a lot of ways to look at it – the best food? The best meal? There are so many ways to go – who were you with when you ate it? What was the situation? It all matters.
There was a meal when my wife and I first started dating. My parents were in town. And we decided to take them to Citronelle. They got the chance to see what I did. And that was literally one of the best meals ever. It’s the little things – the service, the side stories, the people.
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.