There’s no shortage of articles and television shows that showcase the dishes that chefs love to cook at their restaurants. But, what do they love to eat at the end of their exhausting 16 hour days? Or on their days off?
In this series, we ask Milwaukee area chefs to share their favorite dishes -- both from area restaurants and for eating at home. In this edition, we talked with Chef Mia Le Tendre of Strange Town.
"My connection with food was always very strong," notes Mia Le Tendre, executive chef at Strange Town. "Both of my parents were hippie back-to-the-landers. So, I grew up on a farm in Central Wisconsin. My love of food was kindled by planting a garden with my parents, eating wild plums from the trees near our house and foraging for asparagus and berries with my brothers. We grew almost all of our food, and we made our own cheese. It was beautiful, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything…"
Le Tendre’s family also raised a variety of animals, including chickens, pigs and goats.
"I’ve always been a lover of animals," she says. "And I made friends with all the animals that my parents raised. But, it became really difficult to really turn off that connection. It was especially difficult when I befriended Petunia, one of our pigs. She had a really strong personality, and we really bonded. It got to the point that she followed me around like a dog. So when it came time to eat her ... I just couldn’t."
Le Tendre says she was 13 at the time, and it was then that she made the decision to stop eating meat and adopt a plant-based diet. But it wasn’t until recently that she was able to share her passion for plant-based fare with a wider audience.
"Over the course of my career as a chef, I’ve worked mostly in omnivorous restaurants, and wherever I worked – whether I was cooking meat or vegetables – I always approached food with love and intentionality. Strange Town was my first opportunity to work entirely in a plant-based kitchen. And it was the first time I really had my own kitchen. It’s allowed me such creative freedom; it’s a joy to be here and to be able to come up with ideas and share them with people."
Le Tendre says she loves to support area restaurants that create similarly delicious plant-based fare. But when she dines out, she says she loves to eat dishes that she might not take time to make for herself.
"I always look for things that aren’t really practical ... or easy to make at home," she says. "I’m also attracted to really interesting ingredients."
Lunch buffet at Alem Ethiopian Village
"It’s my favorite lunch in town. The buffet has such a wide variety of dishes and showcases so many amazing flavor profiles. They source their spices very particularly and the care they take really makes things taste really wonderful."
For instance, they use berbere seasoning in the misir wot, which is a red lentil dish. It’s delicious and rich and satisfying. I also love the injera. It’s something that’s a little tricky to make at home; there’s fermentation involved, so it’s time consuming. But it’s so good. Also, the Ethiopian take on hummus is so light and creamy; it’s really interesting and completely different from the Middle Eastern version. And I don’t think it’s actually on the regular menu."
"I love that they have a female chef. I’ve eaten Ethiopian food in a lot of different places, but Mula puts such love and flavor into the food she creates. It’s really excellent."
Papaya salad at Elephant Cafe
"I think this is the best papaya salad in town. It’s really fresh, and in this case it’s the little details that count. I’ve worked in Thai restaurants before, and I know the effort it takes to cut the papaya for a salad; it’s not something that’s all that practical to do at home. They also do a beautiful job of creating a salad that’s really balanced. You get the tartness, the spiciness and the crunchiness all in one dish. It’s really well done."
Shaved ice at Fusion Poke
"I’ve been obsessed with Fusion Poke lately, and it’s not for a reason anyone would expect. It’s worth the trip from wherever you are for the shaved ice. It’s so good. I’ve had most of the flavors, and mango is probably among my favorites. It’s mind-blowing. It’s light and fluffy and so flavorful. It’s refreshing and delicious, and it satisfies your sweet tooth without being heavy."
Ultimate comfort food
"Popcorn. If I didn’t have a child to feed, I’d probably eat popcorn for dinner every night. It’s always been a thing for me. I guess it reminds me of childhood. It’s filling and crunchy and nutty and salty. I make it in a big pot with extra virgin coconut oil, nutritional yeast, and pink Himalayan salt that I grind in a mortar and pestle. It goes really well with a glass of wine, especially a nice dry white."
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.