27 July - Serving as Sous Chef at My Favorite Restaurant, La Merenda

I always wondered how executive chefs of my favorite restaurants do it. How do they consistently plate tasty dishes to indulge? What is their philosophy? What is their management style which keeps the same servers happy day in and out, and the same line cooks behind-the-scenes? So I asked the executive chef of one of my favorite restaurants if he would mind me shadowing him for a day and play sous chef. Peter Sandroni of La Merenda in Milwaukee, owns a tapas restaurant boasting international cuisine. What draws me to this restaurant time and again is enjoying high quality food in an unpretentious atmosphere. It is, in a nutshell, Peter. His philosophy, humility and integrity come through in his food. The flavors are gutsy, intelligent, fun and diverse. The cultures represented range from Italian, Indonesian, Puerto Rican, Filipino to Argentinian and Moroccan, among others. I asked if we could create some twist and use the evening as a community service opportunity as well. We created specials based on traditional Filipino cuisine and made it into a food drive for Hunger Task Force.

We promoted the dinner on two local affiliates which was a completely new experience for me, The Morning Blend and Fox WakeUp. It was a nice trip down memory lane to my broadcast classes back in Madison, but I felt like a child awaiting the first day of school. My husband asked, "You're nervous? Good. It means you are being challenged." I walked in to one of the stations that morning, shook the producer's hand, was told a guest canceled and had to get miked straightaway. No time for primping. C'est la vie. I saw the bubble of hair in the monitor and chuckled inside. I couldn't quite pat it down while talking to the beautiful and ever calming Kim Murphy. I cannot say enough about the hosts of both the shows. They were professional and make their guests feel so very comfortable.

Afterwards, I headed to the restaurant. Peter and I reviewed his typical day:

10am review checklist of what to order and prep
10:45 off to stores
12:30 back at restaurant to start prepping
lunch hour in-progress
4:00 waitstaff meeting to review specials and how they are prepared
5:00 dinner service

I looked at the clock: 10:50. After reviewing what we needed, we were on our way to El Rey. I learned that Peter's educational and professional background actually began in political science. When his aunt and uncle asked for his help in opening a restaurant, this quickly turned into a love for cooking. He joined Chicago's famous restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (Scoozi, Cafe Babareeba, Tru, Nacional 27, etc.) Shortly thereafter, Peter moved to the KDK Restaurants which include the likes of Marche and Red Light in the West Loop. This is where he met his current employee, but soon-to-be-boss, Jennifer Aranas, a Filipina chef. When she opened the nationally-acclaimed Rambutan, she asked Peter to join her team. Studying under Jennifer for a few years shaped and refined Peter's style of cooking and vision of his restaurant.

"She thought the only way for people to try a wide variety of food is to force them into it. The small plating of tapas makes people order a few plates at a time. What a fun way to dine. Every culture has their own version, so I thought why don't we put that all together."

After purchasing plantains and treats for the line cooks, Peter led us to the next destination and search: Asian Mart for Japanese eggplants. We walked into one of his favorite Asian marts, where the shy Thai owners and their daughters joke and welcome Peter. He loves supporting all the local small business grocers. What we found instead were the perfect alternate that looked like mini watermelons. They were beautiful in color; a nice complement to the braised ox tail dish, Kare Kare.

11:45. Back to the restaurant and ahead of schedule. The boxes of produce arrived, which came from the local markets. Peter is a huge proponent of helping local farmers, even if "local" may mean 1 1/2 hours away. We went through boxes of fingerling potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, pea pods and beans, and tasted berries upon berries... His manager Mary asked, "What are you going to do with the berries?" His response was, "I don't know yet but look at that color." He orders his chicken from Springdale Farms, which he would butcher and use in one of our specials. It seemed Peter downplays his support for local farmers. "I feel like I'm using them to market myself. It doesn't feel right. It sounds elitist. I help them in other ways." Very interesting philosophy since it indeed would be a draw knowing he orders the majority of his produce and proteins from local farms. He goes about it humbly without it stamped across every aspect of his restaurant. As we were talking, he figured out what to do with the berries: add them to the creme brulee. Yum.

We prepped and cooked together. I trimmed the ox tail and chatted of how my mom was in the kitchen 24/7 growing up. She had seven kids, the wife of a doctor, no cleaning lady and somehow prepared 3-4 dishes every night. Boy, I have no idea how she did it. The memory of coming down the stairs and seeing the solo dining room light came to mind. The smell of pandesal, freshly baked Filipino bread, would permeate the house and bring me out of bed to see Mom kneading the dough. Just then, some patrons came to dine and pay their respects....so did Peter. "Everything I do, you do today. Greeting the customers is one thing. Follow me." This is also what we love about Peter, we see him personally thanking the guests as often as he can, shaking their hands, learning their names, asking about their families.

4:00. Dinner service was to begin in an hour. My friend Amy set up the Hunger Task Force display to help greet people as they walked in. We set up the menu cards, which read:

"In the Philippines, food and cooking is more than a means of sustenance. It is a labor of love and a way to show concern, gratitude and hospitality. It provides a sense of community. It is our culture. Tonight's event was merely to bring us all together under one roof, to give back and perhaps -- in keeping with the blog -- to try something new. Filipino food is heavily influenced by the Spanish and Chinese cultures. Though there were so many dishes we wanted to make, we chose a few classics and added a La Merenda twist. These dishes have been created exclusively for you. Thank you for joining us. Please enjoy." The menu items were: chicken adobo (chicken in soy, garlic and vinegar), kare kare, (braised ox tail in peanut butter sauce), peter's twist (coriander-crusted beef), pancit (Asian noodles), gulay at gata (vegetables and coconut with mashed potatoes), lumpia (egg rolls) and halo halo (sweetened beans and fresh fruit with ice cream, leche flan and ube, purple yam.)

Peter talked with his staff to debrief them on the overall concept of the dishes and how they are prepared. They joked and he commended them on how well they work under pressure. He told them he anticipated doubling the typical guest list. The bar and dining area began to fill as guests from all across my history began to enter the room. The parents of my childhood friend arrived; dear Paul Counsell, my former boss from Cramer-Krasselt and BIG foodie arrived; friends and former co-workers from Chicago, Madison and far north; and all friends in between. My husband and I felt it was like our wedding reception relived.

5:00 In full swing. I worked the front of the house while guests arrived. And continued to arrive. The beautiful thing is people were still calling to try to dine and the only option left was at 5 or 9:30. A good and bad problem to have. I watched in the kitchen as the orders and delivery were constant. Such is the nature of a tapas restaurant. The flow continued until 10:00. We stayed talking with our guests from Madison, which included Peter's sister Ginny.

I learned in one day some of what makes his operation successful. It's a combination of leadership and management -- he inspires his team with passion for his art. He imparts his knowledge but is open to suggestions. And when the stress hits behind-the-scenes, he is efficient and jokes around to keep things moving. I am grateful for my experience and with 175 full bellies, over 300 pounds of food and monetary donations for Hunger Task Force, twas a good night indeed. Thank you to all who came to support and to Peter and his staff.

If you would like to support La Merenda, please follow this link to the Urban Spoon website and vote: http://www.urbanspoon.com/lb/43/best-restaurants-Milwaukee

To find out more about La Merenda, please visit http://www.lamerenda125.com/.

To find out more about Hunger Task Force, please visit http://www.hungertaskforce.org/.