Table Chat: Wendy Wagner
Wendy Wagner’s culinary career has taken her around the country, and after running her own restaurant for five years, she’s found her way back to what first got her into the food business: catering and events.
In 2018, she was looking for new challenges and landed in Milwaukee as opening executive sous chef at the Fiserv Forum. Now, the native of Shelby Township, Mich., is the new executive chef overseeing the kitchens at Harley-Davidson Museum’s Motor Restaurant, 400 W. Canal St., along with 1903 Events. The rebranded events and catering operation includes indoor and outdoor spaces for private meetings, weddings and private events.
Working on the Harley-Davidson Museum campus also brings Wagner’s thoughts back to her family’s local roots and the path that brought her back to the town where her grandfather worked at another well-known institution: Pabst Brewing.
When she’s not working, Wagner can be found fishing or checking out local coffee shops with her husband, Scott Forreider.
Question: Where did you grow up and start cooking?
Answer: I got started cooking in college, attending Northern Michigan University in Marquette. As a student I worked for a small catering company and loved it. Through my college career I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. I dabbled in different majors, eventually realized culinary was where it was at. It encompassed everything I was interested in: creative, scientific, marketable. I left Northern and went to Pennsylvania Culinary Institute.
Q: What brought you to Milwaukee?
A: I do have ties here. My father is a Milwaukee native, graduated from Marshall High School. My grandparents were from Milwaukee. My grandfather worked for Pabst and he was a manager for a slaughterhouse that is no longer in operation. My grandfather was the state champion chicken plucker at the Wisconsin State Fair for 10 years. It was really serendipitous to get here. We were in northern Michigan and I was looking for the next path, the next challenge. I started researching arenas and large-scale operations for entertainment, which is how I came to Milwaukee and opened Fiserv Forum as their exec sous chef. It was the best year of my career, a great introduction to the Milwaukee area.
Q: What was the first thing you learned to make when cooking for others?
A: I learned how to make quiche, and to this day it is my favorite thing in the whole world to make.
Q: What is the thing about the rebrand to 1903 that you’re most excited about?
A: We’re not just limited to the Harley enthusiast. We have a great campus, a great events coordinating team, staff, and the operation as a whole lends itself to so many banquet and event opportunities. We’re capable of doing small events and large scale.
Q: Had you ever ridden a motorcycle before taking this position at Motor?
A: I’m in the training wheels phase. When I got my position here last summer, my husband got me a scooter. That’s my intro to the next purchase, if you will. I do want to have that Harley experience.
Q: What’s a common thread in your cooking? Is there an ingredient you can’t live without?
A: My favorite thing is seafood. I love fabricating fish, cooking seafood. I’m a fisherman. It is something I like to enjoy in my free time. It is also something I want to see us have a little more of on the menu. It is so reflective of the area. Not just reflective of seafood and ocean fish, but local species like bluegill, walleye and trout. That’s something I always try to get as much as I can. My husband and I have fished the Milwaukee River several times, and we’re looking forward to getting to Port Washington and possibly getting some salmon and lake trout as well.
Q: What’s a typical start to your day?
A: Coffee. But the true reflection of your cooking technique is in how you prepare an egg. I’ve always said my absolute favorite thing to do on the line is egg cookery on a busy Sunday morning. It is like an obstacle course. I love to do breakfasts and play with the sweet and savory on a plate. We don’t do a lot of breakfast here yet, but I’d like to see us expand that on weekends and introduce some new brunch possibilities.
Q: What’s your drink of choice?
A: Coffee! We’ve got long days and I’m not getting any younger. That is one thing that is really neat about the Milwaukee area, we’ve got some great coffee roasters and coffee houses. One of the things I grew a great appreciation for when I was in the Florida Keys was a Cuban coffee. The other thing I like to make in winter is Mexican mocha, with hot chocolate and coffee seasoned with vanilla, chipotle powder, cinnamon and nutmeg. It is so good.
Q: Do you have a mentor in the kitchen?
A: My mentor is definitely my dad. My father was a football coach. I grew up on the sidelines. Being a chef is not just about your food, but the team you build. I had a wonderful opportunity to see my dad build some great teams.
Q: What would you want people to consider when thinking about Midwestern food and restaurants today?
A: One of the things that is exciting is that the Midwest is the quintessential farm to table. Midwestern cuisine has just been a melting pot. We see a lot of extraordinary chefs and content coming out of the Midwest. We’re becoming a leader with food trends right now, because we have some outstanding movement not just in Chicago but also places like Milwaukee. We’re getting on the map, we’ve got a lot of innovation and we’re close to all of those food sources.