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In Dining

Ryan Whitman eats a slider at Catch 22 on Milwaukee Street.

In Dining

"It's an old beast" Whitman fondly says of the 1985 Step Van he converted into a food truck.

Featured chef: Ryan Whitman of Red Truck Sliders and Catch 22

Along with robins, tulips and opening day at Miller Park, a new harbinger of spring exists in Milwaukee. Food trucks return to the streets.

The fleet of kitchens on wheels has been growing the last couple of years, and it reached a critical mass last summer, with new vendors offering everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to pierogies. You could eat Italian, Mexican, vegetarian, Chinese, Asian fusion and plain old American from trucks and trailers parked at curbs.

Among the folks frying, baking and sauteing on board the vehicles is a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, which has one of the most prestigious culinary schools in the country. Ryan Whitman has been executive chef at the high end caterer Gracious Events and Wauwatosa restaurants Bjonda and Firefly Urban Bar & Grill. He is the kitchen consultant behind and general manager of Catch 22, a popular Milwaukee Street lounge and eatery.

But Whitman is also the owner and operator of Red Truck Sliders, a business with a self-explanatory name. Four varieties of sliders – the basic hamburger, a cheeseburger, a bacon burger and a blackened bacon burger with Gorgonzola cheese and creole sauce – were sold in pairs for six bucks last year. Cajun-seasoned fries with a choice of dipping sauces were $3.

Why would a chef with a degree from Johnson & Wales be making sliders on a truck? "I had it in the back of my head before the (food truck) fad broke out," Whitman said last week. "I had always wanted to do something besides the standard restaurant.

"I'm an entrepreneur at heart, and I wanted to do something for fun, not as a full time job. Unlike a bricks and mortar place, a food truck is easy to turn on and turn off.

"I love being outside, and I love talking to people, things you can't do in a restaurant kitchen."

And why sliders? "I was doing them way back at Bjonda, before the fad hit. I called them micro-burgers," he explained.

Whitman spent his early childhood in a Chicago suburb, and he moved with his family to Cedarburg when he was a teenager. He got a job as a dishwasher at the old Boder's on the River in Mequon, and his career path was set.

A string of cooking jobs included Highland House, The Knick and the old Club Forest. While in college Whitman did an internship at Wolfgang Puck's Chicago Spago outlet.

The chef and his wife Marija owned Berkeley's and its successor restaurant, El Guapo, in Whitefish Bay, but those were star-crossed ventures. A promised bank loan fell through when the great recession of 2008 struck, leaving the business under-capitalized, and street construction made customer access to the location difficult. Berkeley's interior designer was killed in an accident before he could execute the job.

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