Filling time while devouring a plate of crêpes at Bradbury’s, a sliver of a coffee shop in Madison, Wisconsin, I eavesdrop on the couple next to me. He works at Frankies Spuntino, a trendsetting Italian restaurant in Brooklyn; she’s on staff at Forequarter, Madison’s restaurant of the moment, featuring mounted animal heads and artisanal everything. I am a touch jealous of those two as they talk about their bicoastal life, splitting time between the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and Madison’s Lake Mendota.
I’m back in Madison, where I grew up, to meet with a prodigal trio of Wisconsin-bred men who have become luminaries in New York City: restaurateur Gabriel Stulman and mixologists Jim Meehan and Brian Bartels. The three have worked together and separately in both Madison and New York City, and have come back to visit their old cohorts—at least the few they didn’t take to the East Coast with them.
A canny solution to the daunting task of staffing a restaurant in New York City is to stock it with all the dependable friends you worked with for years in Madison. That’s what the perspicacious Mr. Stulman does, tapping Midwestern talent to run his six establishments—he even once named his restaurant group Little Wisco. While it may be folly to generalize about an entire state’s populace, Wisconsinites, with their ironclad Midwestern work ethic, remain deeply square, comically polite and tenaciously hardworking, which makes them perfect for the relentless demands of a serious New York City restaurant or bar.