Definitions and the Occasional Odd Duck

This post will be a bit longer and more esoteric than many of our posts as we attempt to lay-out a fundamental problem at the very core of our efforts here. A recent video discussion between Kyle Cherek and Ardent’s chef/owner Justin Carlisle was featured here recently as something of a raison d’être for this website – simply, to create a name for an emerging cuisine and thereby promote it. In our view, this is not just a local food movement, this is not just a comfort food movement, this is an outgrowth of an ethno-culinary tradition being re-imagined and re-invented by a number of highly creative and innovative chefs in the Great Lakes region.

We began with the very clear belief that just as the phrases “Napa Cuisine”, “Tex-Mex Food”, or “Southern Cooking” conjure a basic understanding of what food is being discussed, the phrase “Great Lakes Cuisine” can capture an idea, a method, an ethos by which we can come to understand something about this food, and the chefs as the creative force behind it. But definitions inherently create problems, particularly when we are attempting to categorize a movement predicated on originality and creativity. And so I come to the problem of the Odd Duck.

Ducks

For those of you unaware, Odd Duck is a tiny, wonderful little gem of a restaurant in Milwaukee operated by Melissa Buchholz & chef Ross Bachhuber.  Here are some tidbits to set the stage, selectively pulled directly from their website:

“People often ask, “What kind of food do you serve?” It is hard for us to be specific about our menu, because we view this not just as a project or a business – but as a way of life, a journey that includes our staff and all of you, as well!

Our food and cocktails are inspired by things as varied as the smell of grass in the spring and street food in Turkey. The goofy creativity of the kids in our lives, the summer farmer’s market at South Shore Park, the memory of the perfect popsicle when we were children.

That said, Ross Bachhuber (Executive Chef and Owner) has had a long career in the restaurants of Milwaukee… His roots are based in classic French cuisine, but he also draws heavily on the flavors of Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, along with Southern Asia, India, and Japan.”

Now, the creativity and collaboration has led to dishes such as Kale Salad, Dried Cranberries, Roasted Pear, Maple Vinaigrette, Pecans, Aged Cheddar Mornay or perhaps you would prefer Chicken Schnitzel, Handmade Bratwurst, Cheesy Pork Belly, Spätzle, with Brussels Sprout Sauerkraut. Their cheese selection includes many of my local Wisconsin favorites such as Hook’s Cheddar, Carr Valley Mobay, and Saxon Creamery Big Ed’s Gouda. The charcuteries selection features Underground Meat Company (a true favorite here) as well as house-made options. All clear examples of local traditions being re-invented and re-imagined leading to, based on my recent dining experience, truly wonderful results. This is Great Lakes Cuisine.

And yet Chef Bachhuber and his crew have no hesitation to include dishes like Indian Seafood Saag with mussels, octopus, and scallops in a coconut curry or berbere rubbed lamb loin with Ethiopian butternut squash and lentil stew or Hong Kong tofu with a sweet chili glaze. They just as successfully pull of the global forays as they do the local features.

    Ducks

So here is our “definitional” existential question: Is the Odd Duck restaurant an example of Great Lakes Cuisine?

We could simply say it features occasional dishes which represent Great Lakes Cuisine. We took exactly that approach with Harbor House in Milwaukee, which clearly defines itself as a coastal seafood restaurant, but served this fantastic version of a local favorite. It is possible the fish was from Canada, the cabbage from Napa, and the spaetzle imported (though I really doubt it). The dish, from a compositional and flavor profile, was clearly referencing a local tradition of the fish fry in a new and delicious way – a fine example of Great Lakes Cuisine from a restaurant which we can comfortably say would not fit the definition.

Or we could say Odd Duck is a Great Lakes Restaurant like we did with Balzac Wine Bar.  On a recent dinner menu, Balzac featured dishes such as Potted Pork with House-made Apple Sauerkraut or Grilled Trout with Brussels Sprout Slaw. Good examples of our Great Lakes Cuisine. Yet at its core, Balzac is a French bistro made uniquely Milwaukee by great owners and a great staff. They often feature local sausages and unique takes on local flavors; often enough, we felt, to warrant being defined as Great Lakes Cuisine.

This issue arises only when you care to define the cuisine. Many loyal patrons and dynamic chefs will have no interest in this very academic affair. Witness once more, Justin Carlisle’s reaction on the clip mentioned at the outset. Yet there is a compelling reason to define this cuisine – by oversimplifying our message we can cut through in an over-communicated society. This idea was expounded by Jack Trout and Al Reis in their seminal work on advertising called “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind”, in which they detail ways in which companies, people, and even countries have had to clearly define themselves in order to gain a firm hold in the mind of the consumer. The key marketing idea is to narrowly define the idea down to its essence.

This in the end is our aim – To clearly capture and promote the idea of an emergent cuisine, to thereby capture the imagination and appreciation of a wider audience.

Ducks

And the offerings of the Odd Duck spark imagination, so it cannot be excluded without losing some of the essence of Great Lakes Cuisine. Our solution: Odd Duck will be added to the Restaurant section with a small additional line indicating some of the breadth of their offerings.  The same is added to Balzac. These sort of “qualifiers” will be used in the hope of clarifying the selection, rather than confusing our readers.  Let us know your thoughts by comment below or e-mail, because this effort echoes the thoughts from the folks at Odd Duck – “this not just as a project or a business – but as a way of life, a journey that includes our staff and all of you, as well!”

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