Most chef-restaurateurs know that it’s hard work getting a restaurant off the ground, but perhaps no one around here understands it better than chef Zak Groh.
A Milwaukee-area native, Groh got his start at his family’s custard stand before jet-setting all around the world gaining kitchen experience. A few years ago he came back home and in 2013 he launched Whisk Culinary, catering business that specializes in inflight meals for private fliers.
Whisk -- working out of a 3,000-square foot production kitchen in West Allis -- also caters meals for area businesses on the ground, too.
We caught up with him recently to ask about the unique challenges of cooking for airplane passengers, as well as to ask about a few of his favorite things.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell us about your background, where you're from, how you got into cooking, your experience in the kitchen, etc.
Zak Groh: I grew up in and around food. Born in Southeastern Wisconsin, I moved down south to Alabama as a kid, then to Chicago, and back to metro Milwaukee area when I was in school. I started working in our family-owned and operated a frozen custard stand at the age of 11. Mickey's Fresh Frozen Custard in Hartford was a concept brought to life by my parents, we owned and operated it for six years and then it was bought by a longtime employee. It’s still in operation. I owe a ton to my parents them for instilling in me the drive to have high standards for the product you are producing, and busting your ass day and night to build a successful food operation!
After high school I worked in catering, sticking with food as a career path. Chef Jack Fisher of Chef Jack’s Catering encouraged me to complete a culinary program, and I earned a culinary management degree from WCTC in Pewaukee. I spent a little time working in Europe and Hawaii working at hotel properties, and then back to Milwaukee. Locally, I worked for Bartolotta Restaurant Group, and ran the culinary program at Sur La Table before launching Whisk Culinary.
OMC: Give us a little background on Whisk Catering and Whisk In Flight. How did these businesses, ahem, get off the ground?
ZG: I started Whisk Culinary in March 2013, as an in-home culinary event business, focusing on hands-on cooking classes and high-end dinner parties. A year previous to launching I had a client who I worked with doing private cooking lessons. She is a contract flight attendant for private aircraft, and was having trouble finding really well-prepared, excellently presented food, so by default was doing most of the food preparation and cooking for the private jet. Over many sessions she informed me of all the unique quirks of inflight catering and I was completely enamored with the whole concept. I helped her out with a few orders when she was in a jam, she then passed my name around to a few of the flight attendants she worked with, and the business has grown solely by word of mouth.
In October 2013 I leased the kitchen space we are currently in with the intention of focusing on inflight catering and some other food concepts in the pipeline. Whisk Culinary has six awesome team members I demand a lot of them and they really hammer it out. We rock 24/7, work with all the corporate flight groups and charter services at Milwaukee on a daily basis, have clients at Waukesha, Waukegan, Chicago Executive and as far south as Midway that use our services.
This past fall we began offering our Whisk Culinary Express Catering menu providing breakfast and lunch service to businesses in Southeastern Wisconsin. Our food is all about fresh bold flavors, pushing ourselves to offer options that taste great, look great, make you feel good and have fun with our menus.
We package in as much unique and ecofriendly containers as we can. It just makes the presentation that much nicer.
OMC: I'd love to hear more about the in flight business. Who is your typical client and what does (s)he usually ask for in a menu?
ZG: I absolutely love our clients, we get to work with some of the most food-loving, interesting and demanding people on this planet.
Our core client base are corporate flight departments, transporting their business teams across the globe to do manage their industries. We do a lot of breakfast and lunch offerings. A continental breakfast box meal to start their day off might include sliced soft boiled egg and herb roasted tomato on a crumpet, muffin, greek yogurt, house-made granola, and fresh seasonal fruit. It could be chorizo and potato frittata, croissants, and European cheeses. It could be roasted vegetable egg white omelet and fresh raw green juice.
Lunches are a lot of sandwiches and salads. We do a great punchy Thai-inspired salad with grilled chicken fresh mint, basil, cilantro, rice noodles, shaved vegetable and a ginger lime vinaigrette. When entertaining clients on board the menu may be more snacking food: edamame, hummus and crudité, a fresh fruit platter, or artisan cheese display.
The other half of our clients are entertainers, celebrities, billionaires, foreign royalty, sports teams, specialty flights and anyone else that chooses to tool around on their own plane. We get tons of custom requests, dietary requirements and extremely specific and detailed orders from this segment. Requests run the gamut from, literally, toasted cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, multi-course fine dining to be reheated and plated on board by the cabin crew, and specialties from the passenger’s country of origin.
You can look at the orders that are being loaded in our delivery vehicles, and there might be two crew meals for the pilots on an organ transport flight, packed in next to an order including a CEO’s favorite fruit tart for her birthday, and both packed on top of an order for a hip-hop mogul blasting off to the next concert.
OMC: What are some of the unique challenges of catering flights?
ZG: Taste. At altitude food doesn’t taste as full-flavored as it does when you are just enjoying at your favorite restaurant. Perception of saltiness and sweetness is affected at high altitude. We balance a fine line of having our flavors being really bold and fresh, but not over seasoned.
Reheating. Hot foods need to be warmed in small ovens or microwaves, foods need to be cooked just right, usually a bit under to compensate for this. And, of course, not all foods will work for this style of service.
Packaging and presentation. Our food is presented beautifully, but needs to be packaged properly so that it stays that way through handling, delivery, loading, unpacking, flight operations, etc.
OMC: How do you overcome these issues?
ZG: We do a lot of controlled trial and error. If we are considering a new menu item or presentation, we might sample it out to a regular client, and then follow up for feedback, take notes, make adjustments, trial it at the kitchen and continue the process until we get it right, and record what we learn, and apply it.
OMC: What's the best meal you've ever had on a flight?
ZG: I think most people don’t expect to get good food served by the commercial airlines, so a lot of airports have filled that need by having great food available in restaurants or stores. I have been a firm believer of creating your own meals to take on board with you after you’re through security.
When travelling in Europe with my wife Karin, we treated duty-free and airport shops like a grocery store. Halfway through the flight the guy next to you is unwrapping his $14 inflight sandwich consisting of wilted lettuce, an ounce of processed deli meat on a smashed roll. We were befriending the cabin crew so we can borrow their wine key to open a half bottle, cracking open some cheese and charcuterie, and then trying to figure what color macaron to eat first!
OMC: On the rare occasion when an airline serves you a meal these days, what do you think when it arrives? Does it give you ideas for Whisk -- things to do, things to not do, etc.?
ZG: Man, I don’t remember the last time having a meal on a plane … I do, of course, always try and figure out what’s good, what’s bad, how could it be made better.
OMC: What do you like most, and least, about your job?
ZG: I love the subjective nature, and no-rules attitude you can have when working with food. Hammering all day long and producing delicious amazing food is the most satisfying part of this craft. What you put into it is what you get out. There is nothing I don’t like about my business, every experience can be learned from, I cant wait for new problems to pop up!
OMC: What are favorite restaurants in Milwaukee?
ZG: Le Reve, Bavette, Ristorante Bartolotta, Botanas.
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook?
ZG: I like "The Flavor Bible" by Karen Page, "Fäviken" by Magnus Nilsson, "Bouchon Bakery" by Thomas Keller and "White Heat" by Marco Pierre White.
OMC: Do you have a favorite TV or celebrity chef?
ZG: No, I don’t get much into cooking shows.
OMC: What's been the biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?
ZG: I think the biggest development is the educated diner. The general public pays way more attention to their food, what’s in it, how it was prepared, where it was sourced, ethnic influences, nutritional value. The wool of fancy menu writing can no longer be pulled over people’s eyes. It’s great for chefs, because people are hungry for knowledge, it forces us into the dining room. In turn people get to see the passion coming through culinary professionals. It helps to build relationships and good business.
OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?
ZG: A good microplane, I’m a citrus fiend and am always trying to blow up a dish with touches of acidity here and there.
OMC: What's the next big trend in food?
ZG: Locally sourced foods and food products have cemented themselves on all styles of menus menus over the last few years. Its no doubt that this will continue. What I see is more demand for quality, and globally sourced niche ingredients popping up. People are always looking to be wowed, and, no doubt, small quantity heirloom produce, rarities and foreign delicacies have a tendency to do that.
OMC: What's the toughest day / night to work in the restaurant biz?
ZG: The slow day. That’s when mistakes happen, timing is off, there’s no flow or energy.
OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?
ZG: Recently, I’ve been doing doing fish and chips at home. I like a good beer batter, I add fresh yeast to the batter. When the dipped fish hits the hot oil it the batter portion goes foooom and triples in volume. You get this beautifully cooked fish enrobed by this crisp light batter. Lump a spoon of homemade tartar on top, your set! What’s the guilty part? Flicking the leftover batter into the fry oil ‘til you get these little popcorn-size crunchies. Toss in some salt and vinegar; that’s a luxurious feeling of guilt right there!
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.