Madison's Best New Chefs
What's next in our culinary scene
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The Cutting-Edge Creative: Michael Pruett
Executive chef, Steenbock’s on Orchard
Chefs who are from the Midwest frequently venture to other cities on the coasts to work at innovative or groundbreaking restaurants—and yet, many of them return back to America’s heartland. Such is the case with Michael Pruett, a Minnesota native who for ten years worked in California at the Avenue in Beverly Hills, Casa del Mar in Santa Monica, with SBE Restaurant Group and Wolfgang Catering in Los Angeles. Now Pruett’s immersed in a groundbreaking experience of his own at Steenbock’s, which is housed within the cutting-edge science mecca the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.
You probably worked in some pretty competitive kitchens on the West Coast. How does a chef distinguish himself in that environment?
You have to be flexible and willing to move. You’ve got to learn under other chefs and know as many areas as you can—wine, numbers, pastry, baking. There’s a lot more needed than just cooking—because that’s only set aside for the chef de cuisine or sous chef.
There’s a lot of competition among restaurants. You’re always fighting for your position. It’s a constant push and drive, but it’s good.
So many Madison eateries do the farm-to-table concept now. What’s different about Steenbock’s?
We only use one farm—Fountain Prairie Farm, owned by John and Dorothy Priske. John will grow what I ask him to grow, which includes fava beans and heirloom veggies.
We also do themed dinners. One was serving the Titanic’s last meal. Another was themed around Alexander the Great, and our most recent one was on Leonidas’ last meal. At the Alexander the Great meal we had belly dancers; the Titanic one had waiters in tuxedos; Leonidas [had] a Greek play in the background. They range from seven to eleven courses. When I was in Hawaii I was in a bar and I noticed a guy reading a book called Their Last Suppers. It turns out it was his own book, and he was a historian who wrote about historic meals. So what we serve isn’t exactly from his book—I do my own twists to make the meals a little more modern.
How do you describe Steenbock’s menu?
Contemporary. I use French techniques behind everything. [The menu] is a huge melting pot—Asian, Spanish, French. I like to get the ingredients to shine so I don’t try to do a ton of stuff. I want the food to stand out. Simple is better.
Where do you eat in your downtime?
Sushi Muramoto at Hilldale, and I’ll drink beers at Coopers and Graze. I really like to get out of town, though. I think you have to see what others are doing, so I go to Chicago and Minneapolis.
Steenbock’s is located in an academic setting with the Institutes. How does that fit into what you do?
Well, a trend I see is the science of food. A lot of guys are experimenting with sous-vide, which is a method of cooking. [Sous vide is when food is placed in airtight plastic bags and placed in a water bath that’s at a lower temperature than normal cooking temps and cooked for a longer time.]
What will we see on Steenbock’s fall menu?
Comfort food. Richer dishes and more duck, pasta, shortribs and pork. Probably a pork combo, nose to tail.
Guilty food pleasure?
Kettle chips. Pizza. Some friends came over and laughed at me because all I had in my fridge was Coke, three bottles of wine and beer. I work Monday through Saturday, so on Sundays I go out to eat!
The Comfort King: Nicholas Johnson
Executive chef, 43 North
Nicholas Johnson is lucky he and Shinji Muramoto got along all those years ago at Magnus: “I’ve known Shinji for twelve years, before he opened his own places. I was, at one point, his boss. I like to tell him that. So I always knew I’d come to work for Shinji because he worked for me,” he jokes.
Johnson worked at Magnus for nine years and is now at Shinji Muramoto’s newest restaurant, 43 North. It was an adjustment because the former’s forté was Scandinavian food and the latter serves contemporary American.
“People can look at it as comfort food or something they’ve had before. Like with our game hen, it’s served with gnocchi, wild mushrooms, sorrel and mustard caramel. It’s comfortable and homey.”
Back in 2009 Johnson was even a semi-finalist for a “Best Chef of the Midwest” award from the James Beard Foundation for his work at Magnus. But with positive reviews from diners for the lobster bisque and seafood dishes it’s no surprise Johnson likes his new digs: “I like that I can see everyone here because it’s an open kitchen, which was different than Magnus. I feel like they’re in my home, and they can come and talk to me.”
This fall the restaurant is revamping the menu, which will likely draw in even more diners curious for a taste.
“We had a successful Restaurant Week [held twice a year by Madison Magazine], so we’re going to integrate a $25 tasting menu—an appetizer, entrée and dessert—and the menu will change monthly. We will always have the a la carte menu with signature items, too. So if people want a full experience at a good price, they get to do that here.”
It’s all about getting people in the door, after all, says Johnson.
“I don’t believe in cooking just for yourself, and that can be hard for a cook to accept—like, ‘I worked my way up the ranks, so I should do what I want to do.’ But what’s the point if no one comes? You have to get people in your restaurant.”
Comfort Food Experts Apply Here
Dynamic Deli: Corbin Reynolds and Neil Stalboerger
Co-owners, Stalzy’s Deli
The interior is so perfectly put together, Neil Stalboerger (left) says people have asked him if Stalzy’s Deli is a chain. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad,” he says, puzzled. It’s probably because this five-month-old east side delicatessen has a charmingly cozy look with pockmarked floors, vintage-look chairs and even 1950s greasy-spoon stools found on eBay. But this is no chain—everything is made in-house. Meats are cured, smoked and roasted, brisket is brined, sauerkraut is fermented and potato pancakes pressed.
Amazingly, co-owners Corbin Reynolds and Stalboerger only met two years ago—as next-door neighbors. Reynolds’ background was in hospitality sales and management, so he credits Stalboerger with “the deli vision.”
A Minnesota native, Stalboerger was most recently sous chef at Sardine, was Lombardino’s sous chef and has worked at other area restaurants.
Interestingly, Stalzy’s is making traditional food in a very trendy way: presenting ingredients at their simplest.
“I’ve worked with a lot of different types of food, and we wanted to strip it down. Growing up I made sauerkraut and did pickling and canning with my parents. We prepared everything ourselves, and I wanted to get back to that,” says Stalboerger. “We don’t just put [the product] on bread—we brine the brisket and turkey (and make turkey pastrami and applewood-smoked turkey), and I make the sauerkraut.”
Adds Reynolds: “We romanticized about a time when there was a deli on every corner—people could go to the deli and get what they needed for the day.”
Graze Guru: Christopher Gerster
Chef de cuisine, Graze
Situated next to culinary behemoth L’Etoile is its more casual sibling, Graze. And quietly working alongside executive chef Tory Miller is Graze’s chef de cuisine, Christopher Gerster. A Minnesota native, Gerster started his career in the Twin Cities notably at Restaurant Alma under Alex Roberts and at Cafe Levain under Stewart Woodman. While working in New York City at upper-east-side fine dining establishment The Mark Restaurant by Jean-Georges, he learned about the Graze gig from a Craigslist ad.
“The ad said they were looking for a chef de cuisine for a high-profile opening in Madison—the owners of L’Etoile wanted to open a gastropub at the time. So I sent Tory an e-mail to say hi, and gave a rundown of what I was doing. He gave me a call, we talked back and forth and I got hired. My wife is from Wisconsin, [and] we’d been out east for a number of years and were ready to get back.”
Working next to Miller is influential, yet collaborative, Gerster says: “I’d love to be able to say [Tory] has no influence on Graze’s menu, but that wouldn’t be right. We have a good relationship and we’re able to bounce ideas off each other. I’ll bring him a dish, and he might like it, but then he says something like, ‘The one thing that would knock this out of the park, is X.’ And he’ll come to me about stuff—maybe about a dish at L’Etoile—and say, ‘What do you think about this?’ We try to collaborate.”
The mutual location means similarities on both menus, too.
“I don’t know that it’s planned, [it] just happens. Tory put a pasta dish on L’Etoile’s menu that’s finished with raw duck egg on top. When I put a gnocchi dish on our menu a few days later we were thinking of ways to make it richer, so I thought of
putting a chicken egg yolk on top, so the customer can mix it in.”
Shayna Miller is associate and style editor of Madison Magazine.
Want to read more? Read about a day in the life of a restaurateur from our October 2010 issue!