The professionals

Culinary job market booms as Wisconsin gains dining fame

Braise interior

Tory Miller’s advice for today’s culinary graduates in Wisconsin: Leave Wisconsin… and come back. As chef-owner of four Madison restaurants – L’Etoile, Graze, Sujeo and Estrellón – the James Beard Award-winning chef (“Best Chef-Midwest” in 2012) sees participating in other environments to learn about culinary trends beyond the Dairy State as the best resume booster.

Tory Miller, chef-owner of four Madison restaurants
Tory Miller, chef-owner of four Madison restaurants

While the cost of travel can be a financial barrier for many people, “nothing informs more than traveling,” said Miller, and “if you’re 19- to 21-years old coming out of culinary school, you can still search out internships abroad. It’s an investment. If you go to regular undergrad, you’re in there for five years.” Most culinary programs last two or three years.

Taking time to travel and work in other cities can lead to a higher paying job back in Wisconsin, and even the ability for sous chef positions, according to Miller.

“A lot of culinary grads haven’t traveled,” he said, “…to Chicago, California or New York City for the culinary meccas.”

Miller, who grew up in Racine, knows firsthand how valuable leaving the state is. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America’s Hyde Park, N.Y., campus he planned to return to Wisconsin, but at the advice of others spent five years working in a New York City restaurant. This sweetened his resume when he finally returned to Wisconsin, a state that’s now a hotbed for James Beard Award nominees, as well as restaurants gaining national traction.

In 2014, The New York Times published a travel story about where to eat in the Walker’s Point neighborhood of Milwaukee, and that same year a Conde Nast Traveler story chatted up Madison’s best restaurants.

“We are the capital of the farm-to-table movement,” said Paul Short, program chair of the culinary arts program at Madison Area Technical College (MATC). “That is a big deal with chefs around the country.”

This tradition is anchored, he said, by chefs shopping at the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison, which is the country’s largest. And Wisconsin ranks second only to California in its number of organic farms.

The program has more than its share of grads who are James Beard Award-nominated chefs including; Justin Carlisle (Ardent in Milwaukee), Nick Johnson (43 North and Restaurant Magnus in Madison) and Francesco Mangano (Osterio Papavero in Madison).

Careers beyond the back of the house

Short encourages students to look beyond the restaurant scene, however. Every year he takes students on a field trip to Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers, for a taste of what it’s like to cook in an unconventional setting, and where one of his former students is the sous chef.

“We’re now seeing places like retirement homes, large companies like Epic and UW-Madison, offering really great jobs with good pay and benefits,” he says, adding that these are ideal for those who prefer daytime work or fewer hours. “It’s a paradigm shift, to work at those companies, for a 40-hour work week, a living wage and benefits.”

Still, for those who yearn to cook in a restaurant, there’s never been a better time.

“With dining styles changing (to favor small plates), kitchen structures have adapted, allowing a more collaborative approach compared to the older French brigade system,” says chef-owner Dave Swanson of Braise in Milwaukee, himself a 2016 James Beard Award semi-finalist. “This has shortened a cook’s learning curve, allowing them to go out on their own much sooner.”

Because of this collaborative approach, cooks need to include pastries, bread-making, butchering and wine knowledge in their repertoire, says Swanson.

Job seekers should also explore opportunities in the front of the house. There’s a need, Miller says, for restaurant professionals “… to be passionate about restaurants but not be in the kitchen.” This concept has been overlooked in every city, he says, except for New York City, where a host, hostess or dining room manager stays in that same position for many years and treats it like a career.

“We have to run the floor every night,” says Miller. “We can’t just rely on college students.”

Short agrees. “There’s just not enough help out there. We have more opportunities for our graduates than ever before,” he says.

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