The Wisconsin Food Fraternity
A small band of restaurant insiders, all proud of their Wisconsin ties, are making America a better place to eat and drink. They celebrate "Sconnie" style at a party with fantastic cocktails, beer and bratwurst.
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.
Stulman figured that out by virtue of his four years of Sconnie embedment as a bartender at Madison’s now-closed Café Montmartre (the namesake of his French bistro in New York City). “At that bar, I found this ‘Come on in! Let me take your coat! What can I get you to drink?’ attitude,” Stulman says. “As soon as I started bartending there, I knew I wanted to work in restaurants for the rest of my life.”
Meehan, who along with Stulman went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, calls his seven years working in town at every rung of the barroom ladder—climbing from bouncer to bartender to manager—“the equivalent of a Harvard master’s degree in hospitality, food and drink.” These days, he’s the mixology mastermind behind the cocktail bar PDT in New York City, one of the best in the world, and the deputy editor of Food & Wine Cocktails.
Prior to meeting up with them for a cookout with their families and friends, I admit I had some ill will over one point: Neither Stulman nor Meehan are originally from Wisconsin. But once everyone is assembled at chef Joel Chesebro’s house in Cambridge, Wisconsin, a half-hour east of Madison, Stulman and Meehan’s state pride is indistinguishable from that of the native Wisconsinites who join us. They include Bartels, Stulman’s business partner and bar director, and Ryan Huber and Sam Parker, former bartenders who are now partners in the Madison menswear store Context, which sells leather boots and selvedge denim, among other stylish pieces.
Gathering around a makeshift bar set up inside the barn, near a Green Bay Packers cooler stocked with beer—like local favorites from The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. and New Glarus Brewing Co.—the friends tell stories about their early years in Madison; Meehan, Bartels and Huber all served drinks at local pubs and would go hang out at Stulman’s bar on their days off, and vice versa. There was the time Stulman stole a barstool from Paul’s Club, and the bouncer had to chase him down the street. There were Meehan’s particular eating habits: burgers from nearby Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry on Thursdays; chicken and rice from the Nepalese place on Mondays. And there were the Sunday-night parties Stulman threw at Café Montmartre: “There’d be hip-hop and a fun vibe,” Bartels says. “College was like high school, but with an ashtray.”
Back then, they ate their brats the Wisconsin way—like hot dogs, on rolls with sauerkraut and mustard. “Brats are about as Wisconsin as it gets,” Stulman says. But at the cookout, he and Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly, the chef at his restaurants Fedora and Bar Sardine, add a non-Wisconsin twist. Stulman doesn’t soak the brats in beer—a common practice in a place where names like Miller, Schlitz and Pabst feature so prominently—but instead brushes them with a vibrant, lemony parsley sauce.
Meanwhile, Bartels is pressed into duty mixing drinks, and he turns to brandy, a spirit with which Wisconsinites have a historically inexplicable love affair—they use it in place of whiskey in their version of the old-fashioned. Bartels combines both whiskey and brandy with a splash of Grand Marnier: “Otherwise, if it’s all brandy, I can only sip on one—it’s so sweet,” he says.
While waiting for the brats, everyone snacks on grilled hunks of bread with smoked sturgeon spread, a local specialty honoring the sturgeon-filled Great Lakes. Stulman’s version is unusually sweet and spicy, made with both maple syrup and crushed red pepper.
For dessert, there’s kringle, along with a discussion about whether to trust any kringle not made in Racine, the Wisconsin town that claims the largest population of Danish descendants in the country. A kringle is a ring-shaped pastry of Scandinavian extraction (“Like a giant toaster strudel filled with things like nuts, fruits and cheeses,” Stulman says), and it’s an icon in these parts. Although initially met with suspicion, Stulman’s version, a flaky pastry with a brown sugar–walnut filling and a sweet glaze, wins the group’s approval.
After a thunderstorm washes over, the skies clear and beanbags get tossed across the lawn. No matter what one calls this game—cornhole or beanbag toss or just bags—trying to throw a beanbag through a hole 27 feet away is a centerpiece of many Midwest backyard barbecues, and this posse of Wisconsin-proud men face off. “When we get together, we’re always going to find an excuse to be competitive,” Bartels says. “In a friendly way.”
Wisconsinite Toby Cecchini is a co-owner of The Long Island Bar in Brooklyn, NY, and the author of Cosmopolitan: A Bartender’s Life.