Featured chef: Rock and roll pastry chef Julie Thorsen
If you've ever had the pleasure of being behind the scenes at The Pabst and Riverside Theaters and Turner Hall Ballroom, you know they do right by visiting performers.
Backstage at The Pabst, for example, there are video games, a turntable with vinyl, drinks, comfy seating and a chef – no less than Kevin Sloan (the man behind The Social) – helping to ensure artists are in the right frame of mind to put on a great show.
The venues also have what might be described as a secret weapon. That's pastry chef Julie Thorsen, whose creations – like her Muppets cake pops for Sufjan Stevens – are so welcomed that she's getting more and more onstage props. So don't expect her to be a secret for long.
According to Pabst/Turner/Riverside media man Andrew Nelson, Thorsen – who also works at The Spice House – was once an engineer at WE Energies, who, he says, "she decided to chase her dream and went to pastry school in London. She now gives a beyond personal touch for every artist that comes through Milwaukee."
We asked Thorsen about her background, her experiences as Milwaukee's rock star pastry chef and a few of her favorite things.
OnMilwaukee.com: What kind of experience and training brought you to your current position as pastry chef with The Pabst/Turner Hall/Riverside?
Julie Thorsen: I've had a few career changes. I worked as a mechanical engineer for several years and when my company went through a restructure, my position was eliminated. So I decided to pursue something I always loved – I was accepted into the pastry program at Le Cordon Bleu – London.
I had heard that the Pabst/Riverside was revamping their hospitality department and was hoping to get a job, really in any capacity. During the interview, Susan Witt asked me what my ideal job would be. I told her that I just wanted to make desserts. She said that she could make that happen. I will always appreciate that gesture.
OMC: Did you ever think you'd become a rock and roll pastry chef? I assume it's led to some
pretty cool moments.
JT: There have been so many incredible moments...
When Bill Cosby played the Riverside last year, he asked me what was my favorite
dessert and where I had it. Two weeks later, a Fed Ex package arrived at my house with
a dozen assorted macaroons from Laduree in New York.
Jim James, lead singer of My Morning Jacket, thanked me from the BMO Harris stage at
Summerfest for making the band a care package of treats.
Trading recipes with Emmylou Harris.
There have been so many artists that have come into the kitchen to compliment our chefs
and say that our catering is the best on the tour.
OMC: Do you approach cooking for bands coming through town differently than you would in a restaurant setting or are the basics the same in any setting?
JT: I don't have restaurant experience. Our basics are very basic, although we have commercial restaurant equipment. We have one stove. So it can be challenging for our chefs Kevin Sloan, LouLou Griffin, and Paul Zerkel.
OMC: Who has had the best response to your creations at the venues and what was it that you'd made that got the response?
JT: Diana Krall dedicated a song to the piece of chocolate cake she had for dessert that night.
OMC: On the other side, have you worked really hard on something only to have someone come in and turn up their nose?
JT: Oh yes, I was huge fan of the band Asia in the '80s. I really wanted my desserts to be great. Needless to say, there were a few that ended up in the trash, because they just weren't as good as I wanted them to be. I made cheesecakes, tarts and a decorated cake. Carl Palmer wanted cookies and pretty much snubbed everything. But when he came back to perform with the Carl Palmer does ELP, I made his favorite cookies and all was well.
OMC: Is there a band or musician you'd most love to be able to bake for? What would you make them?
JT: That's a tough one. I would like to bake for Bob Dylan. Something simple – apple pie.
OMC: What do you like most, and least, about your job?
JT: There are many things I love about my job. The people I work with. They are so talented and work hard. We all get along – at least I think so – really well. I have the opportunity to try foods that I have never eaten before. And of course, the opportunity to meet such great performers and see some incredible shows.
What I am not so crazy about is all the various dietary restrictions. Sugar and dairy are my mainstays. The vegan, gluten free, no processed sugar diets can be extremely challenging.
OMC: What are your favorite places to eat out in Milwaukee?
JT: To be honest, I don't go out that much. I do like Sobelman's and La Merenda.
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook?
JT: I like "The Settlement Cookbook." My mom used it when I was growing up.
OMC: Do you have a favorite TV or celebrity chef?
JT: Bobby Flay.
OMC: What's been the biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?
JT: I think the growing popularity of the Food Network and Top Chef programs.
OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?
JT: The scale.
OMC: What's the toughest day / night to work in the restaurant biz?
JT: For us, days when we need to cook for multiple venues (Pabst, Riverside and/or Turner Hall).
OMC: What's your guilty dining pleasure?
JT: A large glass of Merlot.
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