Featured chef: Von Trier's Christian Schroeder
When John and Cindy Sidoff – who own Hooligan's – bought Von Trier, they promised to keep it much the same but with improvements.
Stop in today and you'll see the same Von Trier you've always known but with a new sheen. A big part of the upgrade is the addition of small plates. And rather than half-step in, the Sidoffs hired Chef Christian Schroeder to work some magic from a small kitchen above the back room.
A Florida native, Schroeder has spent most of his life in the Milwaukee area, honing his skills.
"Seasonal French/American cuisine is my 'go-to' style of cooking," he says, "but I'm proficient and have a love for authentic Spanish cuisine, as well. If one would ask me about some Polish or Serbian dish, chances are I may have no idea of what you are talking about, and I'm not afraid to admit that. But being a chef is about constantly learning and in turn being a mentor and passing this knowledge on."
The result of Schroeder's open mind is an interesting selection of tapas to enjoy while checking out Von Trier's respected array of international brews.
We caught up with Schroeder to ask about his background and a few of his favorite things.
OMC: Tell us a bit about yourself. Are you a Milwaukee native?
Christian Schroeder: I am originally from the Pensacola, Fla., area. My parents moved my sister and me to Wisconsin at a young age. Both of my parents were born and raised in the area, so coming back to Milwaukee meant coming home to them.
I grew up in the Brookfield/New Berlin area and attended Wisconsin Lutheran High School. After high school, I attended Wisconsin Lutheran College on an athletic scholarship.
At age 19, I moved to the lower East Side and for the most part have resided in the area ever since. I love Milwaukee and don't plan on ever leaving.
OMC: What kind of experience and training brought you to Von Trier?
CS: As a teenager, I humbly began busing tables at Tivola in Brookfield, a high-end French/American restaurant at the time. I worked my way into the kitchen, where I slowly began cooking and met my mentor. She took me under her wing as she saw my passion for fine food developing. Working here well into my 20s gave me a great foundation for the road I would find myself traveling.
In the mid-'90s, I attended culinary school while working in the kitchen full time, and absolutely hated it. I already knew how to make soup and bake cakes, and I eventually left. I realize this sounds a bit cocky, but what the majority of people don't realize is that 15 to 20 years ago, culinary schooling in the area left a lot to be desired. In the last decade, these programs have really stepped up their game and are a great asset to aspiring culinarians.
Working in numerous chef positions for Stevens Management, The Ambassador Hotel and a respected catering firm over the last 10 years has brought me to Von Trier, to answer your question.
OMC: Did you take this job in part because Von Trier is such a blank slate? It's been around forever and is well-known, of course, ut not for food.
CS: That's a great question. Yes, that's exactly why I took this job. "Blank slate" is an understatement. The owners of Von Trier, John and Cindy Sidoff, are amazing people who have put a great deal of trust in me to implement our changing menu and take Von Trier to a dining destination.
What people don't realize is that our kitchen is not a full-service kitchen, and has limitations. Walking into this job, I very soon realized that I was responsible for purchasing everything from silverware and plating to kitchen equipment. This has been a very satisfying experience for me and building something great with John Sidoff out of nothing will always stick with me. Challenging, yes, but very gratifying.
Initially, Von Trier's history and warm fortress-like appeal drew me in. it's the perfect venue for my style of cooking. Our staff is great and our food is second to none. Expansion is in our future, and has me salivating for what's on our horizon. This blank slate is a blessing and gives me the opportunity to make our customers happy.
OMC: What is your goal for the Von Trier menu? Will you stick to small plates or are you thinking of expanding the menu at some point?
CS: For now, I will stick with the small plate offerings using mainly locally sourced product. Large plate options will be available in the future. Something people should know is that my small plate dishes aren't that small. I love to feed people and portion control is a struggle for me at times. Good for our diners, but bad for John. (Laughs)
I'm just kidding of course, but my food is substantial and never lacking in flavor or substance.
OMC: Are there challenges in taking a respected, popular tavern into a destination for diners?
CS: Absolutely. The first couple of months were the most challenging. Arranging tastings and showing our loyal customer base our food has been the key to our growing success. People didn't obviously correlate Von Trier with food and that was a definite obstacle which we are gradually overcoming. We haven't really done any advertising, so everything has been word of mouth up to this point. We are building a strong reputation for food from the ground up, which is very cool.
OMC: Do you have signature dish?
CS: I've had many dishes I'm very proud of over my career. I don't really have a signature dish right now at Von Trier. The dish I currently love right now I just recently put on my menu: duck confit with blueberry parmesan risotto and portobello cream. It's just amazing and has been well received. I've always had a love affair with cooking duck, and will probably always be on our menu in some capacity.
OMC: What do you like most and least about your job?
CS: The thing I like most is being creative and cooking under pressure. The thing I like least would probably be the long hours and stress. Working as a chef in a full-service, busy kitchen definitely isn't for everyone.
OMC: What are your favorite places to eat out in Milwaukee?
CS: I've recently enjoyed going to Parkside 23 in Brookfield with family and friends on a few occasions. Their menu is simple, yet very good and cooked properly. My biggest frustration is ordering food and having it not cooked properly or lacking in flavor. These people get it right. If I'm in the mood for sushi, which I pretty much always am, I love Takara in Elm Grove. If I'm in the mood for steak, Carnivore or Eddie Martini's.
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook?
CS: I will always love José Audré's tapas cookbook ("Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America"). It brings authentic Spanish cooking and its roots to the masses and shows how simplistic amazing food can truly be.
OMC: Do you have a favorite TV Celebrity Chef?
CS: No, not really. I respect any chef who loves what he or she does, is good at what he or she does, and kicks ass doing it.
OMC: What's the biggest development in culinary arts over the last 10 years?
CS: The two things that immediately pop in my head is that charcuterie has become mainstream to an extent, and that everyone and their grandma are sous vide cooking. Sous vide cooking has been around in excess of 40 years. It's an amazing way to prepare food consistently, but was basically a tool chefs would use to mass produce amazing food. It has become the norm and I feel it qualifies as a development even though it is far from it.
OMC: Which kitchen utensil can you not live without?
CS: Cryovac machine and cutlery, obviously.
OMC: What's the next big trend in food?
CS: We are currently seeing many trends in food which I feel will keep progressing in coming years. Locally sourced produce has taken center stage in my opinion, which is great. The whole high-end gastropub theme will continue to gain in popularity, which is also great. People are expecting much more from their dining experience these days and it pushes chefs and restaurants to raise the bar.
The surgence of Peruvian cuisine has peaked its head out at times, but I feel with its flavor profile, it will rapidly gain in popularity in the future. Not just L.A. and New York.
OMC: What's the toughest day or night to work in the restaurant business?
CS: For me, it would be Christmas and New Year's from the standpoint of "missing out" with family and friends.
OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?
CS: That's easy. My mother's comfort food and baked goods. Phenomenal! Hope I don't sound like a Mama's boy (laughs).
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