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In Dining

Bill DeLind might be best known for his place in the art community, but his passion for food nearly equals his love for art. (PHOTO: Sarah Laux)

8 questions for foodie Bill DeLind

Milwaukee is filled with amazing people. And some of those people are wild about food. 8 Questions is a series that focuses on food lovers in our midst. They aren't chefs. They don't work in the food industry. But, they know a thing or two about eating. And that's part of what makes them awesome.

If you're into art, you probably know Bill DeLind. After all, he has owned nine gallery locations in Milwaukee over the past 46 years, and he's been one of the city's most notable custodian of Dennis Pearson's famous Beasties.

But, DeLind is also a foodie's foodie, and his dining adventures – which include wine-rich dinners and unapologetic foie gras feasts – inspired me to catch up with him to chat about some of his favorite foods and food memories.

But first, a little background.

DeLind isn't a Milwaukee native; but, as he says "he's lived here longer than most." He was born and raised in Michigan, where he remained to pursue a degree in marketing at Michigan State. He landed in Milwaukee after graduation, when he was offered a job with Libbey Owens Ford Glass Company (LOF) and transferred to the Milwaukee office.

DeLind says he always loved art, but never had any delusions that he would be an artist. However, he figures he must have talked about art enough that when TC Esser acquired the Bressler Art Gallery in 1969 (at the time on Milwaukee Street), they hired him to run it. Unfortunately, it was a short-lived gig; the owners sold the gallery to a fellow who was more interested in starting a frame shop than maintaining a gallery.

So, DeLind took matters into his own hands, opening his first gallery at his Wauwatosa home in 1971. When he outgrew that space, he moved offsite, eventually ending up downtown where he had nine locations over the course of 46 years. His most recent move landed him in the space next to the Watts Tea Shop in 2010.

"What I was attracted to, and built my business around, were antique French posters and 19th century French paintings from the Barbizon," says DeLind. "They were the original en plein air painters and included names like Pissarro, Renoir, Monet and Russeau."

Over the years, DeLind traveled and visited the village of Barbison, steeping himself with the surroundings so thoroughly that he says he can often tell where a specific painting was painted.

DeLind also became notable for carrying Beasties, the fanciful, amorphous, make-believe animals created by Dennis Pearson. When Pearson moved to New Zealand in 2000, DeLind became the conduit for maintaining the artist's Milwaukee legacy. He set up the "Beastie Beat" (Beasties on the street) in 2002 and 2004 for the Milwaukee Symphony, as well as selling Beasties in his gallery.

"He's going on 80," says DeLind, "And when I got the big shipment of Beasties in last summer, it was apparently everything he had left. But, after we sold more than half of the sculptures in 48 hours, he was so energized by the enthusiasm for his work that that he made more. So, he just shipped me 17 more."

Although DeLind closed his gallery earlier this year, he still maintains space in the Watts Building for his appraisal business, DeLind Fine Art Appraisals, LLC. It's work he's been doing for years, but is now able to focus more intently upon the work ... when he isn't eating, that is.

OnMilwaukee.com: What inspired your love of food?

Bill DeLind: I had been a very finicky eater growing up, with parents who were products of the depression. And the food on the table was pretty much overcooked, flavorless; hearty but not interesting, even though a good percentage of it came from my father's garden.

My father was of Dutch descent, so occasionally we would have calf brains with scrambled eggs. And I did eat those.

Of all things – and a lot of people would chuckle at this – but I learned to love food while I was 17 in the army. For the first time in my life, I was starving and I ate spaghetti. It's something I'd never eaten at home. Once there was an oyster stew … and sauerkraut, and I ate all those things that I'd never eaten before. Even SOS (shit on a shingle).

I started cooking for myself at university, so by the time I moved to Milwaukee, I was cooking for myself. My wife was a good cook, but I always wanted to help. Eventually, I ended up doing most of the cooking. As a treat one year she enrolled me in a class at La Varenne.

OMC: When you cook, what are some of your favorite things to make?

BD: One of my all time simple comfort food favorites is wild mushroom risotto. With a bit more time and planning, I really love making pork rillettes. You can make a bunch and share little pots with friends.

I have many foodie friends in Madison, and I wouldn't say it's competitive, but we're always willing to experiment. One of the fun ones were when my friend Jim made up a batch of dough and each of us made up our own pizzas taking from about 30 ingredients that he had available. My pizza was fresh spring asparagus and morel mushrooms.

My other specialty is large morel mushrooms stuffed with foie gras. We did a game of thrones dinner recently where I stuffed quail with foie gras. And we all came dressed as characters from the show.

OMC: Do you have a favorite food city?

BD: Oh, golly. I've had so many outstanding meals in so many cities. I don't know if

I never have bad food in New York. Obviously, there is incredible food in Paris … mmm. I've had outstanding food in the Napa Valley. I've eaten at the Culinary School of America.

OMC: Do you have a most memorable dish of those you've eaten abroad?

BD: I've been able to replicate a lot of them. But, there was a town in the heart of Bordeaux country where I ate a meal ... It was a baby chicken dish that sort of melted in your mouth. And that I've not been able to replicate. The chickens here are all factory made, plus people here would likely take issue with eating a baby chicken.

As you know, I'm not apologetic for my tastes. I love foie gras.

Speaking of which … I had an unmitigated cooking disaster just before the going out of business sale started. My refrigerator downstairs went out, and I didn't know. I had five racks of lamb in there, two whole foie gras and a dozen quail. And they all wound up in the dumpster, smelling to high heaven. I think the seagulls had a great meal that day.

OMC: What's your favorite Milwaukee restaurant?

BD: I think probably my new number one is David's Chef's Table – it's more a dining experience than a restaurant. Right up there, though, is Crazy Water. Peggy [Magister] has become a friend. It's been my favorite place to go forever, and she never disappoints.

I love MOVIDA for brunch. And I haven't been to Morel, but it's on my list of places I'm sure I'll enjoy.

In Madison, I love to eat at Heritage Tavern. And there was one point where I took some of my Masonic brethren there when we were in Madison for Grand Lodge. And I called ahead and Chef Dan Fox prepared a whole pig's head for us.

OMC: What about your interest in wine?

BD: Way back when the world was young and I had my first taste of champagne. I was probably under age, and it was probably something you could buy for $1.90. And I though "OK, I like this." Then someone did me the service of serving me champagne that was probably $3. And I saw a huge difference. So, from there it was about drinking a better one and a better one.

Once I moved to Milwaukee, I was guided by one of the old wine guys, a guru at the time in this town. And he increased my taste a lot. But, it wasn't really until I started cooking with a vengeance that I realized that even if you have a great wine – sometimes expensive – it doesn't always match with the food.

You could have four different Pinot Noirs and one might be drop dead great with chocolate, and another drop dead great with lamb. So, it's an adventure. You can never know it all. It's continuous learning. Which is why I love being part of the food and wine societies. There are a variety of members who are distributors, and they're experts at pairing wines with food. Its' quite exciting to engage in the continual experience. I can come into a dinner, enjoy what's there, and then buy some of the wines for myself.

OMC: What's your favorite guilty pleasure?

BD: One of my Masonic organizations meets at the Wisconsin Club each month.

They put out an onion dip and Fritos. And it's just so good. So, once a month I overindulge, and that's one of the guiltiest pleasures I have.

OMC: Tell me about your most memorable food adventure.

BD: I think that going to Daniel in New York. I was celebrating my 10th anniversary with Lori Skelton. It was a blowout dinner. It was the white truffle dinner with paired wines. It was such a memorable evening. Every time you'd be served a dish, he'd bring out a little glass plate with a white napkin folded into it. And nestled into it was a large white truffle. He'd come over and lift the top, and a fellow waiter would pick the truffle up with a white glove and shave the truffle over the food. It was such a presentation. That was probably one of the more memorable.

I've also eaten at Alinea twice. And their 21 or 22 course meals are so memorable. They once brought a little pillow filled with smoke that they set down and, as it deflates, it fills the atmosphere with an odor. Really every course is memorable that way.

Talkbacks

Photodavie | July 22, 2015 at 8:56 a.m. (report)

"I took some of my Masonic brethren there... I called ahead and Chef Dan Fox prepared a whole pig's head for us." I'm sure OMC readers can totally relate to this. I take my Masonic brethren out for special pig head dinners all the time.

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