French restaurant blossoms in Fifth Ward

    Over the past two years, Jacques Chaumet has worked to transform his building at 1022 S. First St. in Milwaukee’s Fifth Ward from a warehouse that housed a fish wholesale business and fishing net manufacturer into a restaurant that evokes the French countryside. And while it hasn’t been easy, Chez Jacques is finally finished.

    Earlier this summer, Chaumet finished building a small patio behind his restaurant, which added about 1,800 square feet and seating for 50 customers. A large chestnut tree sits in the middle of the patio area and it is bordered by a small garden.

    “My cook planted herbs, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and onions, all mixed in with the flowers,” Chaumet said. “And we have the beautiful old chestnut tree that gives shade all day long.”

    Chaumet also hired local artist Amanda Aquino to paint a mural on the restaurant’s back exterior wall, which faces the patio. The mural tells his life story, from his birth in the French countryside; his travels to Paris, London and New York; and his arrival in Milwaukee. The skylines of the four areas are blended together along the near-30 foot wall.

    “I wanted to do something (on the patio). People need to be entertained. They need to have something to talk about,” Chaumet said.

    After she finished the mural, Aquino painted the rest of Chez Jacques’ exterior to look like an old-world French café. Some of the paint is designed to look like aged, cracked plaster.

    The exterior paint has, in many ways, finalized Chaumet’s plans for his building. He purchased the warehouse in July 2006, but wasn’t able to open his restaurant until February 2007 because it needed extensive renovating.

    “I spent $250,000 on the building, but another $250,000 to fix it,” he said. “(The building) looked like it had not been painted for 40 years. It’s built like a bunker… It’s a warehouse.”

    However, the warehouse held several gems that made the hard work of converting it into a restaurant worthwhile – several large walk-in coolers and freezers, and a large kitchen area. Installing new walk-in coolers and freezers would likely cost more than the price he paid for the building, Chaumet said.

    Aside from the kitchen and storage areas, where the original cement floor can still be seen, the rest of Chez Jacques does not show its roots as a warehouse. New windows have been added throughout the dining areas, a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system has been installed, and floor coverings, extensive painting and decoration have helped evoke an air of old-world Europe. The café’s Art Deco bar, found in an acquaintance’s garage, became the café’s centerpiece.

    “I said, ‘We’ve got to find things to give it character,'” Chaumet said. “And through the help of some good customers, I was able to find good professionals that helped me design, paint and set up the inside of the restaurant.”

    Chez Jacques

    Address: 1022 S. First St., Milwaukee
    Phone: 414-672-1040
    Web site: www.chezjacques.com

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