Chewing the Fat: Two Milwaukee Chefs Share Their Recipes for Success

Restaurant owner Paul Bartolotta and ‘Top Chef’ contestant Dan Jacobs visit MATC and discuss their culinary careers

Mark Feldmann,

April 01, 2024

Top Chefs
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MATC was great to me. I have the fondest memories of being here. It’s the place that opened the doors for the rest of my life.

Paul Bartolotta MATC alumni, award-winning chef

MILWAUKEE – The recipe for savoring success in the restaurant business is short and sweet: Work harder than you have ever worked in your life  and be ready when opportunity knocks.

“You need to be attentive, and when you see a little crack in the door, it’s up to you to run right through it,” said Paul Bartolotta, a Milwaukee Area Technical College alumnus, award-winning chef and proprietor of a sprawling dining empire that includes 17 restaurants. “You have to make the commitment to make the effort.”

“I worked my (butt) off,” agreed Dan Jacobs, a Bay View resident, chef and co-owner of highly regarded Milwaukee restaurants DanDan and EsterEvs. “I read about food all the time. I wrote menus for restaurants that didn’t exist.”

Together, Bartolotta and Jacobs shared their considerable culinary insight, inspiration and experiences with almost 200 MATC students, faculty, staff and visitors Thursday, March 28, at MATC’s Downtown Milwaukee Campus.

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Jacobs is one of 15 contestants on the new season of Bravo Network’s television show “Top Chef.” The show’s 21st season was filmed in Wisconsin and prominently features restaurants in Milwaukee.

Jacobs and his partner, chef Dan Van Rite, were semifinalists for Best Chef Midwest as part of the 2024 James Beard Awards. Bartolotta, who has won the prestigious James Beard Award twice in his 30-year career, served as a guest judge in the show’s season premiere on March 20.

At MATC, the two restaurateurs told the guests how they got into the highly competitive field and how they found success.

Jacobs was working at a restaurant in Door County when he suddenly realized the difference between simply preparing food and being a chef. “I saw cooks who were chefs, and there was something really intoxicating about the environment,” he recalled. “Someone said I should go to culinary school, so I did.”

Bartolotta, a Milwaukee native, grew up around food. He began working in restaurants at the age of 15. He graduated from MATC’s Restaurant and Hotel Management program in 1980. 

“MATC was great to me,” Bartolotta told the crowd. “I have the fondest memories of being here. It’s the place that opened the doors for the rest of my life.”

After graduating, he trained in kitchens in Italy, France, New York and Las Vegas. In the early 1990s, Bartolotta returned to Milwaukee to help launch The Bartolotta Restaurants with his brother, Joe. In 1993, the brothers opened Ristorante Bartolotta dal 1993 and Lake Park Bistro in 1995.

Along with commitment to hard work, Bartolotta and Jacobs said prospective chefs should have the determination to follow their ideas, the imagination to craft dishes that delight guests, a dedication to fresh ingredients, and the capacity to hear constructive criticism.

“Feedback is a gift,” Bartolotta said. “From anyone — from guests, from staff. The moment your ears close, you’ll be finished.”

A great dish starts with great ingredients, and Wisconsin is awash in those, Jacobs said. “We have access to the best agricultural products in the whole world,” he said. “Sustainability shouldn’t be a trend, it should be a reality.”

Bartolotta recalled when he worked in Europe, he drove to the local market each day to select fresh fruits, vegetables, cheese, meats, herbs and spices. “We were directly connected to the sourcing,” he said.

And with fresh ingredients, chefs can keep things uncomplicated. “Simplicity showcases the skill of the farmer and the fisherman,” Bartolotta said. “It takes courage to be simple.”

A delicious dish takes guests on a journey, Bartolotta said. “You start with the yum, but then you need to tell them the story behind it,” he said. “You take them to Italy, take them to France, take them to New England. That’s the journey you can take them on.”

You can also take them to Milwaukee, where the restaurant scene is already special, Jacobs told the crowd. But it could become transcendent in the next decade, he added. 

“I think the city is on the verge of something really, really big,” he said. “And you are going to be the next wave of chefs here. In the next seven to 10 years, you will be the ones we are going to be talking all about.”

Learn more about MATC’s Culinary Arts program

About MATC: Wisconsin’s largest technical college and one of the most diverse two-year institutions in the Midwest, Milwaukee Area Technical College is a key driver of southeastern Wisconsin’s economy and has provided innovative education in the region since 1912. More than 30,000 students per year attend the college’s four campuses and community-based sites or learn online. MATC offers affordable and accessible education and training opportunities that empower and transform lives in the community. The college offers more than 180 academic programs — many that prepare students for jobs immediately upon completion and others that provide transfer options leading to bachelor’s degrees with more than 40 four-year colleges and universities. Overwhelmingly, MATC graduates build careers and businesses in southeastern Wisconsin. The college is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.