Q&A: Chef Dane Baldwin on the impact of his James Beard Award, and the future of Milwaukee’s dining scene

Dane Baldwin, chef and owner of The Diplomat.

Last updated on June 30th, 2022 at 05:28 pm

Earlier this month, Dane Baldwin became one of only five Milwaukee chefs to earn what’s considered among the most prestigious national recognitions of culinary talent: a James Beard Award.

The 40-year-old chef and owner of The Diplomat, a neighborhood restaurant serving modern-American cuisine on East Brady Street in Milwaukee, was named “Best Chef: Midwest,” putting him in a category with the likes of notable Milwaukee chefs Sanford D’Amato, Adam Siegel, Paul Bartolotta and Justin Aprahamian, who was Milwaukee’s most recent Best Chef: Midwest awardee in 2014.

A relatively new establishment, especially considering time lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Diplomat name – and even that of its owner – may not be as well known to local restaurant goers as longtime institutions like Lake Park Bistro, Harbor House or Sanford. The James Beard recognition has been many diners’ first foray into Baldwin’s meticulous but approachable culinary style, and it has The Diplomat almost fully booked at least through mid-July, said Baldwin in an recent interview with BizTimes associate editor Maredithe Meyer.

It’s worth noting that Baldwin and his fellow 2022 James Beard Award winners are part of a new generation of American chefs and restaurateurs – survivors of the pandemic’s devastation and witnesses to a social uprising that shed a brighter light on the industry’s existing shortcomings: low pay, workplace disparities and racism.

Calls for change prompted the James Beard Foundation to pause its award program in 2020 and 2021 as it conducted an audit of its 30-year-old selection process, in an effort to remove bias from the selection process, increase the diversity of the voting body, broaden communication about the awards and how to apply, and make the process more transparent, the foundation said. So, in many ways, this year’s James Beard award selections are a reflection of how the restaurant industry has evolved over the past two years and where it’s headed from here.

Sitting at The Diplomat’s wood-top bar next to his wife and business partner Anna,  Baldwin spoke to Meyer recently about his path to becoming a restaurant owner-operator and, now, a James Beard Award-winning chef, what the honor means to him and the local dining scene, and how he envisions the future of dining and hospitality. The following is a transcript of parts of their conversation:

BizTimes: Looking back, what are some of your career highlights that led you to where you are today?

Baldwin: “I don’t know if it’s just a matter of being present in the moment, but every position I’ve carried in the culinary field has been the next step on the ladder that I needed, and I was able to use the skill sets that I’ve learned in the position prior to help me embrace whatever new position it was. From prep cook to line cook to sous chef and executive chef and so forth, I have had the privilege of working for people who care. My first real kitchen job was at Gil’s Cafe, and that was an owner-operator who was in the business and someone who had some good culinary training, and I was able to learn a great foundation from that. From there I went to Bacchus, which was brand new at the time. I was part of their opening team, so that was an ambitious restaurant at the time. I learned a ton, I had some great teammates there and some great chefs I learned from. After that is when I took a position at Carnevor and really got into the management side of being a chef. … I was 24 when I took that job and I was 30 when I left that group, so that’s a lot of time to spend and some formidable years in one place.

“Coming back to the Bartolotta group at the Harbor House, I had the opportunity to reunite with some people I had the opportunity to work with many years prior. I felt like I was a veteran of the field, so some of the younger cooks that were coming in, I had an opportunity to mentor them and perhaps show them a different way of doing things, reinforcing good habits there. It was not a small restaurant by any means. There’s a lot of moving parts, there’s a lot of personalities, and it really gave me an opportunity to find my place and perhaps management style there. Not to mention that every business is a financial institution, so I had a really thorough training on that part of it. … After a couple  years there, I was offered a position as executive chef at Mr. B’s Steakhouse in Brookfield, which was a huge honor. … There had been people who had been working there since I had graduated high school, so that was something to embrace.

“I was always trying to work more than one job after I left Gills and started at Bacchus. … I thought if I’m not going to leave this city to go to New York or somewhere else, I’m going to just cook as much as I can. And it really did pay off because I was able to feel comfortable in my actions as I moved forward in my career.

“Being an entrepreneur and wanting to own a business was a big part of my dream and understanding that you can choose your path; you play the hand you’re dealt or ask to reshuffle, and that’s what we did. … Being (in Milwaukee) my whole life, I’ve meet a lot of people along the way, and I was not shy about uncovering every stone. … A real estate friend of mine connected me with Josh Jeffers who used to own this building. … Through a few organic conversations, there was a belief that this was the guy who should be here on Brady Street, who’s going to be that owner-operator that has what it takes to make it. … We put together a business plan, sought out some resources and were able to open The Diplomat (in 2017).”

The Diplomat, located at 815 E. Brady St.

BizTimes: Why did you choose to stay in Milwaukee?  

Baldwin: “Well, at one point I had a plan to move to Chicago. But I had gotten a promotion at Carnevor, and it seemed like the right thing to do to stick it out. It was an opportunity for me to kind of see what I got, so to speak. You know, my family is here. Chicago is not that far, but it felt right to stick around. I’ve really been able to be immersed in a career here in a city that has changed tremendously from the hospitality environment to the art world. I’m very happy that I made the decision to stay. I think I still got the curriculum that I needed here in the city, and everyone always says you get out of it what you put into it, and I think that’s true no matter where you are. Seattle, Chicago, San Fransisco or New York – those places are still there. We can go visit, we can still appreciate what they have to offer, but there’s something to be said for staying at home.”

BizTimes: How have you seen Milwaukee’s dining scene evolve over the course of your career?

Baldwin: “There are more owner-operated restaurants now, and I think that the personality of a space is felt a bit more through that. … I think that that’s a big thing: the personality that a diner feels when they walk into the space is more aligned with the owner-operator who is in the space. …

“I feel like there’s such a drive for concept: ‘What’s your concept?’ That’s important because you want to be able to clearly express who you are. And full disclosure, our concept was we’re going to make good food, and we’re going to have a comfortable space, and we’re going to be a neighborhood restaurant. And when you say things like that, most people are like, ‘OK, but what does that mean?’ But I think that the personality behind the plate or what’s in the glass, I think people have more access to, it’s more closely related now than it was when I first started.”

BizTimes: Tell me more about the concept behind The Diplomat and how its reflected in the menu. 

Baldwin: “When we’re putting together dishes, first and foremost, it has to be something that we enjoy. There’s this thought that you cook what you like to eat, and I think that’s naturally true, but there have been times where I’ve had an idea … we’re going through the process and we put it on the plate, and we’re just like, ‘That’s not right.’ I think it’s really important to draw that line and say, ‘You know what? This is still in the works. We can’t serve this, so we should definitely continue to work on this before we put it on the menu.’ There’s a lot of wood shedding that goes on before you would see (the dish), and I think it’s really important that that be one of your (business) tenants – that what you’re presenting you’re very proud of, and I think that’s being honest with oneself and saying, ‘I didn’t hit a home run this time, and I should probably wait.’ And by doing that, by having that check point, what makes it through is represented as good, honest cooking. And that’s really what we do well.”

BizTimes: How do you balance evolving diner preferences and tastes with your style and what you love to cook?

Baldwin: “We absolutely benefit from that (evolution). A diner today borders on sometimes a culinary enthusiast. There’s a ton of information out there; it really is a pastime for a ton of people. There are diners who come in and tell me what they made at home, and I’m like, ‘That’s pretty impressive!’ With all that’s out there and written about, whether it be through social media or television shows, I think it’s easier to present something to someone and have it be well received. There are things that we put on the menu that I don’t know if I have put on the menu 15, 20 years ago, or if we would have sold out of pig ears on a nightly basis.”

BizTimes: You’re selling out of pig ears on a nightly basis?

Baldwin: “It’s not on the menu now, but it’s something we’ve experienced. Or even, I feel like everyone loves octopus these days. That was not the case so many years ago. I think we cover a lot of ground with our quaint menu. We hover around 20 savory items and typically have three desserts. Sometimes its 17 (total items on the menu), sometimes its 21. A creative niche definitely drives that and availability of product drives that, too. For instance, we have our Diplomat Burger, so that’s going to cast a large net. I think a lot of people definitely come back for something like that, and it’s not so avant-garde, but what we do is we hedge our bets with quality. So, we make the bun, we make the pickles, we make the ketchup, we make the mayo, we buy high-quality prime beef. And so if you’re doing those things, I mean it’s a cheeseburger, but when it’s all artisanal quality, that’s the final result.

“And then, if you do something that’s kind of interesting, … there’s also this whole other crop of clientele that’s just willing to trust you. That was one of the first things we set out to do when we opened; we had a very small menu, but we focused on the ingredients and sound technique, and we knew if we were going to hang around for a little while, you gain the trust of he clientele, and they’re willing to try something different. Chicken liver mousse just flies out the door, I know that’s a popular item these days, but it’s pretty cool. People are willing to be adventurous. And I think generally speaking, what we do is approachable.”

BizTimes: Let’s talk about your James Beard Award. What does it mean to you and how has it elevated the profile of The Diplomat as people, in some cases, are hearing about the restaurant for the first time? 

Baldwin dons his James Beard medal.

Baldwin: “It means a great deal to me, and I know, Anna, it means a great deal to her. My kids are walking around tall these days, as they usually do, but as to say they’re very proud. So it’s fantastic to know – not in an effort to toot my own horn at all – that a lot of people who I’ve worked with have said, ‘You are one of the hardest working guys that I’ve worked with.’ I do have a certain drive to just keep pushing forward, and it makes you realize that to be recognized for something like this is such an honor, and you know how much work goes into it, there have been early mornings and late nights. And I don’t want that to be confused for a sense of burden at all because we’re entrepreneurs, so it takes a little bit of extra gumption to do anything we do anyway. But to know that it’s being recognized and well received by so many is such a great feeling, it really is. We’re seeing a lot of new faces in the restaurant – it’s so nice to have that kind of exposure. Obviously, we’re in the business of return visits, so hopefully people will learn something new or find a new spot – that’s something we’ve experienced over time anyway, but maybe just a little bit more these days.”

BizTimes: Long term, how do you expect the significance of the James Beard title to impact business and your goals?

Baldwin: “There’s no doubt that it’s going to open doors to other opportunities, whether that means collaborations within the city or outside the city. What it means for The Diplomat is it shines a light on the things that obviously got us to this point, and we’ll look to continue to do those things. We’ve been improving since we opened the doors, and I suppose that this (award) would be a sign of that.

“As far as long-term goals, I mean, we didn’t have window treatments when we first opened, we didn’t have any art on the walls, so there’s a lot of things we’ve done to improve the space. This is like our second home, so I don’t necessarily set an expectation on ‘what does this mean?’ or ‘how can I use it to achieve X,Y or Z,’ but I think honestly we’re just going to appreciate it and try to do our best to do it justice. It’s definitely something that is going to carry with us our whole career long. That’s how it works. It is such an honor, and we’ll see where the spotlight takes us.”

BizTimes: What does having another James Beard winner in town mean for Milwaukee as a dining destination?

Baldwin: “I think we’ll have to see what the economic impact in that way is. I think if someone is a culinary enthusiast and they’re saying, ‘OK, the chef at The Diplomat won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest. I need to travel there and check it out.’ I would make a few days of a trip out of that because there are so many great things happening in the city from a culinary perspective, in all different parts of town. … Clearly, Milwaukee is already on the map. That’s one thing I don’t want to be quoted for. I have heard people inappropriately say they’re going to put Milwaukee on the map – that is not my statement whatsoever. But if someone is coming here for a culinary get-away, or to enjoy a mini vacation, beyond just the restaurants he have on the East Side, Third Ward, Bay View, … What a great city to be able to go out, have a great experience, and you have access to the lake, which is pretty unique for a metropolitan area – nothing beats a Milwaukee summer.”

BizTimes: Care to share some of your favorite restaurants in town?

Baldwin: “Absolutely. I would have to say Strange Town, Goodkind, Wy’east Pizza, Lisa’s Pizzeria, Zaffiro’s Pizza – I eat a little too much pizza. I think Bavette la Boucherie is a fantastic restaurant. I’m looking forward to dining at Lupi & Iris for obvious reasons; I consider (co-owner) Adam Seigel a mentor. I mean, what an undertaking. Hopefully that restaurant is another draw for the city.”

BizTimes: Did Adam reach out after your award was announced?

Baldwin: “With congratulations, yeah. I think he’s proud. I mean, I think a lot of people are proud. You get all these congratulations and you realize how many people it takes to shape a career. From mentors to colleagues, people that you’ve mentored.”

BizTimes: You’ve been fully reopened for almost a year. How are you navigating the lingering impacts of COVID-19, from exacerbated staffing shortages to supply chain issues and inflation?

Baldwin: “With rising costs, the reality is that’s something that’s been a problem for years and years. Costs of goods have gone up. The labor dollar has gone up, and that’s going to happen. What I got paid when I first started cooking would be criminal by today’s standards. … So that’s something that’s been a challenge in this field before we started talking about supply chain and rising gas prices and things of that nature – that part is still playing out. I think a lot of clientele are probably privy to things costing a little bit more. There’s a lot of restaurants that have increased their prices or put on a surge charge for COVID relief or quality of life, so how that topic is addressed is very different from restaurant to restaurant.

“I think we’re still in the middle of figuring out what all this is going to mean. … When we’re talking about the challenges of labor, gas prices and the cost of goods going up – and the conjunction of all those things and what it means for business – the outlook on that is still a question mark. In the moment, it’s not pleasant, it’s a challenge, and we can plan for it, but we really won’t know what it means until quarter four is done and we hit January, and then we’ll see what’s important to the consumer. Is it going out and enjoying themselves or is it staying home and cooking ramen? I don’t know.” 

BizTimes: What does staffing look like right now at The Diplomat?

Baldwin: “We have 10 employees currently, and we’re looking to add to that. We’d like to open another revenue day. I think the makeup of a staff is less traditional than it used to be. When I was coming up through kitchens, cross-training was a very important thing. I think it’s extremely important now, but one thing we have here, too, is that I’m still cooking on the line. I’m physically able to do it, that’s my treat. You work all day so you can go cook your food, that’s what I’m into.

“I would love to see servers cross-train behind the bar, that’s something we’re working toward. I want to make sure people are cross-training on our stations in back, or that people feel comfortable helping out the expediter when that person is offline running food and things of that nature. Today, there are blurred lined between the positions you hold in a restaurant – it can mean you’re doing more than just one thing, but we have to be reasonable, too.”

BizTimes: Do you think the award could help from a talent attraction standpoint?

Baldwin: “I would think that (the award) would encourage someone to take a look at us for employment, but again, it’s so new that we’ll have to see. The city has so many owner-operators that there’s a direct connection with the employee. I know there is a lot of strong talent in the city who could go work anywhere else they wanted in the U.S. – or the world for that matter – but they stay where they are because they do have that camaraderie and bond with their current employer.”

BizTimes: Considering all the ongoing challenges and shifts across the service and hospitality industry, what’s your ideal vision for the future of Milwaukee’s dining scene? 

Baldwin: “As a responsible business owner, I really should be paying attention to what’s happening within our four walls. The matter of resources is completely different from restaurant to restaurant. You’re going to have a 30-seat restaurant that is doing food at a moderate price point, is going to be able to support so many labor dollars, and then maybe their rent structure is a little different or maybe where they’re deciding to source things is heartfelt, so that dollar needs to be passed on to the guest. Is the guest going to recognize the fact that this person is sourcing responsibly and that’s part of what they’re paying for? There are a lot of boxes that need to be checked for us to fix all of those problems.

“As far as paying people, I know there’s been a lot of talk about that in recent years and there’s been a lot of different solutions to that problem. The system isn’t perfect but that doesn’t land just on the restaurant industry. I think if you’re running a business with some dignity and you’re honest about your ability to pay someone or giving that person an opportunity to earn more, that’s really important, and acknowledging that. You have to be somewhat of an open book … we can’t pay people six figures, but I would love to. But it’s unreasonable. So, how do we get to a point where everyone is making what they feel like they should be making and enjoying the work at the same time? I think you have to grow into that.”

Dane Baldwin
Maredithe has covered retail, restaurants, entertainment and tourism since 2018. Her duties as associate editor include copy editing, page proofing and managing work flow. Meyer earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University and still enjoys attending men’s basketball games to cheer on the Golden Eagles. Also in her free time, Meyer coaches high school field hockey and loves trying out new restaurants in Milwaukee.

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