Featured chef: Wild Earth Cucina's Audrey Vandenburgh
For the sixth straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by Concordia University. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2012."
Barely a month ago, Potawatomi Bingo Casino opened Wild Earth Cucina, a new Italian restaurant concept.
The restaurant, located in an upstairs space that had briefly been home to a restaurant called simply Wild Earth, is led by Chef Audrey Vandenburgh, who has earned her stripes working in kitchens at a number of respected area restaurants.
When it opened Vandenburgh told OnMilwaukee.com that Wild Earth Cucina would be based on familiar Italian favorites but would add some other elements, too.
"It was important for my team and me to create an Italian menu that was familiar but still exciting," Vandenburgh said.
"Fresh, local ingredients will play a big role in establishing the menu items on our seasonal menu. For instance, heirloom tomatoes were incorporated into the caprese salad. We also use sustainable seafood such as Laughing Bird Shrimp and Alaskan Halibut and Salmon."
Now that the restaurant has been open a few weeks, we asked Vandenburgh about her experience, her plans for the Cucina and some of her favorite things...
OnMilwaukee.com: What kind of experience and training brought you to your current position?
Audrey Vandenburgh: While pursuing my English degree at the University of Northern Iowa I worked as the kitchen manager at a local restaurant and fell in love with cooking. After graduation, I went on to earn a second degree in Culinary Arts from Kendall College in Chicago, where I was classically trained in French cooking techniques.
Wild Earth Cucina Italiana is the fifth restaurant I've helped open. Prior to this role, I worked as sous chef at Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro and executive sous chef at The Pfister Hotel. I helped open Mason Street Grill and Potawatomi Bingo Casino's Woodland Dreams Ballroom and Expo Center. Most recently I worked as chef at Spin Milwaukee, helping open it in 2010.
OMC: Tell us a bit about Wild Earth. Does the half-English, half-Italian name suggest a similarly multifaceted menu?
AV: The inspiration behind the menu at Wild Earth Cucina Italiana is a mix of traditional Italian dishes and more contemporary interpretations of them. We are working off an opening menu right now and are getting feedback from guests about what they'd like to see offered.
Our fall menu will delve further into the regional Italian cuisine to pull inspiration and traditional ingredients.
OMC: It looks like the focus at Wild Earth is more traditional Italian-American cuisine than regional Italian cuisine; is that a response to what guests have asked for?
AV: Right now I'm putting together my seasonal fall menu, which will continue to incorporate sustainable and local products. The menu will have traditional Italian-American favorites, but will also incorporate more unique regional options.
OMC: Are there unique challenges to running a restaurant within a property like a casino?
AV: As with all large operations, we have our own policies and procedures. For instance, we have a regimented ordering and delivery schedule because of the casino's high volume.
That being said, the challenges are greatly overshadowed by the benefits of being a part of a larger food and beverage program; such as having access to a vast pool of talented chefs that I can pull experiences and ideas from.
OMC: What do you like most, and least, about your job?
AV: Each recipe has its own personal story, just like the unique combination of ingredients that create it. I find it fascinating to dig into the history and the background of each recipe.
I suppose it relates back to my background in English, but I enjoy researching the culture and cooking techniques of the people who put each recipe together and the reasoning behind their choice of ingredients.
My least favorite part of my job is the paperwork. As a chef, I want to spend as much time as possible in the kitchen.
OMC: What are your favorite places to eat out in Milwaukee?
AV: Two of my favorite restaurants are Triskele's in the Fifth Ward and Pastiche in Bay View.
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook?
AV: "The Way to Cook" by Julia Child. I enjoy that she is unpretentious and down-to-earth.
OMC: Do you have a favorite TV or celebrity chef?
AV: My favorite celebrity chef is Jacques Pepin.
OMC: What's been the biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?
AV: Molecular cooking has been a big movement.
OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?
AV: My chef's knife is my favorite utensil because of its versatility. It does everything that all those fancy little kitchen gadgets can do.
OMC: What's the next big trend in food?
AV: Bringing it back to basics. Chefs are putting together simpler dishes, allowing the flavors of fresh, quality ingredients shine through.
OMC: What's the toughest day / night to work in the restaurant biz?
AV: For me, it has always been Sunday. It's difficult for me to wind down after a busy weekend. My ideal Sunday would be spent relaxing at home with family.
OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?
AV: Poutine from Red Dot on Milwaukee's East Side. If you haven't had the opportunity to enjoy it, poutine is French fries with cheese curds and gravy on top. Delicious.
...one of the best chefs and coolest people in the city. bravo Audrey.
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