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In Dining Commentary

Holiday dinners are all about traditions, even for Milwaukee's top chefs.

Stirring up memories: Milwaukee chefs reflect on favorite holiday traditions

Nothing warms the spirit as effectively as a holiday tradition.

Whether it's baking sugar cookies with grandma, lighting the candles of the menorah, or singing carols around the Christmas tree, it's the rituals and customs we observe that become emblazoned on our memories and written upon our souls.

I recently asked a host of Milwaukee area chefs and restaurateurs about their fondest holiday food memories – their favorite dishes, and the traditions they love. Not surprisingly, their recollections centered on the bond of family, the power of memories, and the presence of a whole lot of love.

Jan Kelly, owner and executive chef of Meritage, couldn't help but smile when she recollected the memories caught up in her favorite holiday dishes, the cinnamon pecan rolls that her mother only made for Christmas morning and her dad's special ham.

"He would inject it with a secret mixture of liquors over five days and then slow cook it with a glaze and he would garnish the top with candied fruits he did himself," she explained.

She grew up in a household where both of her parents were chefs, so there were always fellow restaurateurs, winemakers and others in the industry that would stop by their house during the holiday season. As a result, Christmas Day was always memorably filled with great food, wine, family and friends.

Among her best holiday memories she includes last year, when she actually had the chance to travel home to California to spend Christmas with her family.

"My husband and I have lived here (in Milwaukee) for 16 years now and going home for the holidays is difficult when you work in this business," Kelly explains, "but last year I had the chance to go for five days ... and it was wonderful ... all my favorite foods and the chance to cook with my parents and my brother, who still owns and operates my parents' first restaurant that was opened in 1972!"

Chef Kelly still makes cinnamon pecan rolls during the holidays and thinks about her mother. But, she leaves the holiday ham to her father.

"Maybe someday I will master it," she says, "but I think I enjoy the thought of having it only with the whole family."

Although Joe Muench, executive chef at Maxie's Southern Comfort, grew up observing what he calls a "pretty typical Christmas," his own family traditions have morphed into an ever-changing collage of activity.

"Over the years our Christmas traditions have converted from the 'big' traditional meal to eating what we are really hungry for. Along with changing the look of our Christmas tree each year with different colored lights and other trimmings, we are always eating something different. It usually comes down to what my kids are hungry for in the weeks leading up to Christmas," he says.

"One year we had build-your-own homemade pizzas, another we made a massive Chicago-style hot dog bar feast and some years we have fired up the grill cooking steak dinners or other summertime foods."

But, despite their ever-changing appetites, there is at least one dish that appears every year without fail. "Sticky caramel pecan rolls rule the oven each Christmas morning," Muench confesses.

"They are prepped before I go to bed on Christmas Eve and are proofed in the oven overnight. I set the oven on auto along with the coffee maker and 'shazam,' when we wake up the air is filled with a rich yeast and toasted caramel aroma along with the smell of coffee. There is nowhere I have been that can compete with a morning greeting such as this." Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)

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