Madison Business: Tales From the Kitchen

A day in the life of a restaurateur

David Heide is explaining the difference between ocean farm-raised salmon and quality, wild-caught salmon, and why Liliana’s, his New Orleans–themed restaurant, serves one and not the other.

“There are a lot of regulations on fishing,” he tells me, noting that current regulations are insufficient to keep up with overfishing certain fish types. “Fishers are catching everything they can—so we don’t use marlin, swordfish or anything that’s not sustainable.”

Alaskan salmon is his one exception.

“Farm-raised salmon are born there and have no motivation to bulk up to go upstream. They sit there all of their lives and eat Cheetos and become couch potatoes. They live there until they die. Their food is inches away; they don’t even have to try.

“Wild-caught salmon, like coho and sockeye, are caught upstream; they have to work, so their flesh is that bright orange-reddish hue and much healthier. They’re on a fitness program.”

Heide smiles and takes a breath, satisfied. He’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of food.

And don’t get him started on pork.

“Pork chops used to have marbling, like beef,” He shakes his head, incredulous. “Pork is so much leaner now because it was bred endlessly to become very lean, which isn’t bad, but the flavor now …” Heide trails off, and he and one of his servers proceed to discuss their favorite types of pork.

Not that long ago, most of us wouldn’t care what Heide thinks. But that was before Iron Chef, Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, The Next Food Network Star and countless other reality shows that changed our relationship with “the back of the house” forever. Chefs are the new rock stars, taking the credit they’ve long deserved for backbreaking dedication to their craft. They have that cachet—that sizzle—that makes us want to know their favorite ingredients, opinions on food trends and, yes, even the positive attributes of pork.

“When I started cooking in the seventies and eighties ... it was a misfit profession,” says celebrated author and chef Anthony Bourdain, whom I spoke to in advance of his November visit to Overture Center. “It was for dead-enders. Now there’s a future. If you cook well, your public allows you to cook well. You might be appreciated, gain prestige, you might even make some money! These are relatively good times to be cooking and eating in America. Cooking is a glamour profession now.”

Those in the kitchen trenches working countless-hour days, six days a week might beg to differ on the glam factor. But is it satisfying? You bet.

Meet the Jugglers

“How long is this interview going to take? I’m actually cooking this afternoon,” Anna Alberici, Greenbush Bar proprietor, asks me politely. I assure her it won’t take too much of her time. “OK, because I’m usually the only one in the kitchen doing prep all day.”

A chef’s day isn’t scheduled into tidy segments of e-mail correspondence, staff meetings and power lunches. You might have an oven mishap one minute and a meat purveyor rapping on your door the next. In fact, all of the interviews for this story were halted by various interruptions—because there’s a question about how much squash to chop and someone needs to sign a thank-you card—but it’s to be expected.

Alberici, whose business card should read “owner/chef/kitchen manager,” opened her popular restaurant in the basement of the Italian Workmen’s Club in the heart of the Greenbush neighborhood in 1993. This juggling act is what she has to do, she says, to control costs. “I participate so much myself. I do the majority of the cooking in the daytime. I do everything but the line at night. I’m the kitchen manager. I do some of the work that somebody hires a highly paid person to do.”

Francesco Mangano operates Osteria Papavero, working twelve-plus-hour days in his Wilson Street restaurant that by virtue of its location—in proximity to scores of other tempting eateries—keeps him on his toes.

“Downtown is competitive. When I started here, the people that owned Cocoliquot already owned this space. I worked there at the time, and they asked me if I’d like to take over this space. They gave me six months to come up with an idea, develop the menu and then I could open. But it’s not that easy for everyone. Cocoliquot is closed now. There are new places opening all of the time—Graze, the Underground Kitchen—but it’s for the better. It makes you go to a higher level.”

Greg Frank (left) and Brad Bauer at The Coopers TavernEven the relative heavyweight of Madison eateries, restaurant group Food Fight, has to innovate to keep up with the ever-changing food scene. Founded in 1993 by Monty Schiro, Peder Moren, Joe Krupp, Diana Grove and Connie Maxwell, the eleven-strong conglomerate launched a new location this year, The Coopers Tavern, and revamped another, the former Tex Tubb’s Taco Palace on the west side. At press time, the place was yet-to-be named, but would have “more Tex, less Mex,” according to Food Fight managing partner Brad Bauer.

“It’s a re-brand,” he says. “You look at a restaurant and you say, ‘we’re doing all right, but I think we can do better.’ There’s suddenly a glut of Mexican restaurants on that side of town—and to get ahead of that, we had to shift things a little bit and offer something that six other restaurants aren’t offering.”

Bauer says the overhaul includes a change in menu and décor, a new chef and new signs. “It’s amazing the number of little details—you even have to change the screen savers!”

Food Fight managing partner Greg Frank says their restaurants have been a good bet for investors the last ten years, a quality that now-shuttered places like Market Street Bistro, Kickshaw and Café Montmartre might envy.

The Customer Experience

Talk to any restaurateur and two things are immediately obvious no matter the price of the burger, steak or scallops: profit margins are tight, and the customer is king.

The impression of his future patrons played a huge role in where Heide decided to locate Liliana’s in 2006. He had looked at other spaces nearby on Highway PD but in the end decided to take over the old Happy Wok. KSW Construction led the remodel featuring a new patio, dining room expansion and kitchen renovation. Now the high ceilings and full sunlight exposure exude Southern charm and hospitality.

“Any restaurant that had a bad reputation before, our ability to improve that would’ve been that much harder,” explains Heide. “There would have been nothing we could do, and we wouldn’t have had our own identity; it would’ve been ‘the old so-and-so place.’ Plus if people have one bad experience, even fifteen years ago, they won’t go back.” Heide’s instincts were right on: most people don’t remember the building’s former inhabitant.

Frank says hospitality is so important to Food Fight because of co-founder Monty Schiro’s experience at a sandwich shop; Schiro bought some food and then asked for a whole tomato, and the counter help and manager wouldn’t sell it to him. Disappointed in the customer service, he hired a “secret shopper” to come into each Food Fight restaurant, order takeout and then ask for a tomato. At every last one someone sold the customer a tomato.

“Monty felt wonderful about this,” says Frank. “We want to make sure when people walk out the door they say, ‘That was amazing; I want to come back.’”

She doesn’t have any tomato anecdotes, but Alberici feels just as strongly. “We have very loyal customers. We always have a hostess, and we take good care of our customers. We try really hard to make the food right every time. And if we don’t for some reason, we’ll make it up to you.”

Mangano’s restaurant concept is in many ways an ode to the customer. In his native Bologna, Italy, an “osteria” is a tavern, one that fosters camaraderie by virtue of its smaller space and focus on simplicity. Quality over quantity.

“You need to have an identity when you open. Too many restaurants open with too many ideas. Our menu is Italian regional food from Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, the food I grew up with.”

Money Matters

Like the artist who can’t balance a checkbook, chefs know how to cook, not run a business, right? For Heide, Mangano and Alberici, this couldn’t be further from the truth—all three are the executive chefs and keep a close eye on the books. Alberici is the only one who handles the day-to-day accounting. Mangano did for a while but he quickly outsourced that duty.

“You need someone to tell you what you’re doing wrong, and how to do it better,” says Mangano. “You look at your margins, if you’re left with a loss at the end of the month, it’s like, everybody’s working, but no one knows why you’re not making money.”

Food Fight, while more “corporate” than the single-location restaurants, uses a food costing system at all locations.

“Food costs move. Right now bacon has been really high. And people love bacon,” says Bauer. “So you have to be clever in your purchasing and pricing to make up for that. In the summer, produce goes down and chicken goes up. There are natural cycles.

“And stuff will spike. We get our prices updated once a week and say garlic is $28 one week, then goes up to $58. If you’re not paying attention, you just bought two cases and dropped an extra $60. That’s what your chef needs to be really good at, watching the prices,” says Bauer, who served as executive chef at Hubbard Avenue Diner for five years.

Speaking of food costs, buying local is a major expense for Madison restaurants. Alberici says she’ll buy from any farmer willing to deliver. She also shops at Willy Street Co-op and buys Italian imports from Greco and Sons in Milwaukee. Mangano names Sprouting Acres, Pecatonica Valley, Fountain Prairie and Black Earth Valley as meat and produce vendors.

“A lot of Madison restaurants charge a lot when they buy local,” says Mangano. “Our entrees are under twenty dollars, and that’s on purpose. I don’t want people to [think] they can only come to my restaurant for special occasions. I want them to come here weekly, not monthly or just once a year.”

Mangano admits that affordable meals for patrons means lower margins at the end of the month. “But I can accept less of a profit,” he says, “because it means that people can come in more. It’s a gamble, but it depends. You can charge more and people will probably come in very seldom.”

Food waste is another enemy of a restaurant: order too much perishable product and if it’s not used, it gets tossed.

“A lot of restaurants believe in over- stocking so then you’re never out of something,” says Heide. “If I go to a restaurant and they’re out of a special, I’m OK with that. We only stock ten percent more than we think we’ll sell.”

Future Food

With the buy-local movement deeply entrenched, Mangano says it’s time for the next big thing.

“I’d love to see more communal dinners, eating together. I’ve been pushing for that.” And succeeding. In July Osteria Papavero and next-door neighbor Restaurant Magnus hosted a special dinner together, preceded by two events with Shinji Muramoto (Sushi Muramoto, Muramoto, The Haze) and one with Tory Miller (L’Etoile, Graze).

While Mangano also would like to see more ethnic eateries—restaurateurs sharing the foods they grew up cooking and eating, like he did—Heide is impressed with the city’s adventurous streak. Since he opened, people are more willing to try new food, like head-on prawns and the sweetbreads he served last New Year’s Eve. “If I had opened this restaurant in the eighties, it would’ve failed,” he says.

“The Food Network and chef Emeril Lagasse helped. You’ve got to get people out of their comfort zone.”

If all goes well Food Fight will continue to conquer the local food landscape with the ability to open one new restaurant a year. “We’re working on a major project right now, but we don’t have anything to announce at this point,” Frank says. “Opening new restaurants is fun though—it’s a kick.” While we’re talking, Frank gets a text from Peter McKelvanna, his general manager at The Coopers Tavern.

“It says, ‘Specialty beer tasting today, 4–8 at Overture. We can order beer for next week at cheaper rates. Want to go?’” he laughs. “I love my job.”

Shayna Miller is associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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