Chefs Jesus Gonzalez & Paul Bartolotta speak on the evolution of Milwaukee's food community
Good things are brewing in Milwaukee, and VISIT Milwaukee has launched a new TV series to share these stories of positivity. Good Things Brewing shows what makes Milwaukee a great place to live through the eyes of the city’s most interesting residents.
Each episode features guests that show its host, David Caruso, some of their favorite places to visit that demonstrate Milwaukee’s rich culture and communities. Lake Effect is partnering with VISIT Milwaukee to feature some of the guests of Good Things Brewing and go a bit beyond the episodes.
The first episode features Paul Bartolotta, chef and co-founder of The Bartolotta Restaurants, & Jesus Gonzalez, chef and co-owner of Zócalo Food Truck Park.
They explore the Milwaukee River, beer gardens, the Pabst theater and more before meeting each other at the Three Brothers Restaurant. However, it turns out that Good Things Brewing wasn't their very first meeting.
"The first time I met Chef Bartolotta was at the Culinary Institute of America ... This was when I was like 18 years-old, and as soon as I heard your name that you were a guest judge, I was like, 'This is amazing!' Growing up and hearing [about] the Bartolottas in Milwaukee was a big deal, and the fact that he was the closest thing that I would get to Milwaukee being out there and just being homesick, it was awesome," recalls Gonzalez.
After leaving Milwaukee as a teenager to go to culinary school and work abroad, Gonzalez says those experiences helped him realize how special his hometown was and was eager to come back.
"Milwaukee is very unique, it definitely provides a platform for storytellers and our medium is food. We tell stories through our food," he says.
"My father said when we were growing up, you know, 'Home is not a place to run away from, it's a place to come home to.' And my father encouraged all of the kids to leave — Milwaukee will be here, go see the world, see where you're happy, and then maybe you'll think about where you grew up and then come home," says Bartolotta.
Throughout his career, Bartolotta spent time cooking in Italy, France, opened a restaurant in New York, took over a restaurant in Chicago, and then in 1993 his brother Joe asked him to help start restaurants in Milwaukee, which was "a dream come true." For 30 years the Bartolottas have developed restaurants locally, and Bartolotta has since adjusted to having a more forward-facing role in the company and continuing his brother Joe's legacy, who passed away in 2019.
"We've just watched Milwaukee grow ... There's an energy around the various neighborhoods in Milwaukee and the cuisine," notes Bartolotta.
From fine dining restaurants to food trucks, Bartolotta and Gonzalez agree that key components remain universal: the environment, food and drinks, and hospitality and relationship building not just for the customers, but your staff and vendors.
"We've been able to see the evolution of these food entrepreneurs from idea to execution to growth, which is probably what motivates us the most to keep doing it," notes Gonzalez.
As for the wider food and restaurant community, Gonzalez and Bartolotta share the common connect of understanding the amount of sacrifice, determination, and resiliency of the community that brings them together.
"I couldn't be more proud [of Milwaukee], so when they talked about including food guys on Good Things Brewing, to me it was an honor because I think restaurants are much more than just a place to go eat — I think they actually create community," says Bartolotta.