Devour details about four local culinary artists
Our area restaurant scene is full of multicultural cuisine, fusion dishes and stellar teams made up of eclectic, passionate people. Step behind the scenes and into the kitchens to get to know the humble and hardworking leaders responsible for some of the most sought after food in the Fox Cities.
Head Chef and Owner, Basil Café in Appleton
While Souvannapha Chomsisengphet, “Sue Chom,” has always naturally possessed the combination of a love of cooking and eating with the desire and drive to open her own restaurant, her path to eventually starting Basil Café was a winding one.
“I put my dreams to the side and went to college and got my degree in Marketing,” she says. “I got married shortly after and then came along my two wonderful girls and they became my life and top priority.”
Chomsisengphet’s heart eventually called her back to the culinary world in 2011 when she bought a vacant building in secret, not wanting her parents to worry about the stress and struggle associated with launching a restaurant.
“Throughout the year I worked out my recipes, my concept and developed my skills from being a home cook, to now running my first restaurant,” she says. “When the renovations were finally complete, I surprised my parents for their 40th wedding anniversary and held the event at the newly renovated restaurant… this is how Basil Café was born.”
Chomsisengphet’s goal at Basil Café has always been to introduce a different style and type of Asian cuisine to the area, and that not only has remained in the forefront after ten years in business, but has become even more of a priority.
“As someone who loves food, I always have to try something at least once. I always want to be better and strive for better and I never want to get complacent,” she says. “We’re always working on something (new) here at the restaurant. We recently launched some Lao snack items like Lao style Fried Gizzards and Lao style Chicken Nuggets with our new homemade spicy dipping sauce… we’re hoping to do some wine/beer events in 2022 as well, to try to keep things fun and interesting for our guests and staff.”
Chomsisengphet largely credits the collective hard work and support of her family both inside and outside of Basil Café for the success of the locally cherished restaurant.
“I would not be standing here as strong as I am today without their hard work, unconditional love and support,” she says. “It truly takes a village, and I’m so grateful for the village and support system we have.”
First memory in the kitchen: “Our family came here as refugees in 1983, from Laos. I was 11 years old, and my parents worked a lot to support us. My older sister and I were in charge of house duties and cooking for the family was one of them. So cooking my dad’s lunch for his 12-hour work shifts were my first memorable moments in the kitchen in the U.S.”
Favorite dish to eat: “I really love simple dishes. I love making authentic Lao food to eat personally… what I love to eat and prepare from our menu is definitely our Phó… the key to a good Phó is the broth. We slow simmer our bone broth for 10-12 hours before we serve it daily.”
Philosophy as a chef: “My philosophy with anything you do in life is, ‘If you do it with your heart and soul, and do it out of love, the outcome will shine and be purely rewarding.’”
Executive Chef, TJ’s Highland Steakhouse in Oshkosh
TJ’s Highland Steakhouse at the historic Oshkosh Country Club (now open to the public) is a spacious 6,500–square feet, and that’s just enough space to fit Michael England’s big talent and personality.
The native New Jerseyan has been a part of the restaurant scene since the age of 13, first helping in his family’s Italian pizzeria.
“I started as a dishwasher and one day I remember someone throwing 200 pounds of onions on the table in front of me. I was like, ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’ They said, ‘Clean ‘em up and chop ‘em’ so I did.”
The abrupt push into food prep and cooking paired perfectly with being inspired by his grandmother at home.
“My grandmother was the best cook you could ever imagine. I watched her. I kind of emulated her. It was the biggest thing for me. I still use her recipe for my Chicken Parmigiana.”
However, England’s family inspiration only goes so far until his culinary experience and education takes over.
“Oh my grandmother used to beat the crap out of our steaks!” he laughs. “The first time I ever had a steak or burger that wasn’t well done I was 24 or 25 when I was a sous chef at The Palm.”
After spending 15 years at the iconic restaurant in New York City, England was recruited by Oshkosh-native TJ Rodgers, owner of TJ’s Highland Steakhouse, TJ’s Harbor and Ardy & Ed’s Drive In.
“His passion for putting money back into Oshkosh is what drew me,” England says.
TJ’s Highland Steakhouse has its own 3,000-square foot greenhouse in nearby Eldorado for fresh herbs and spices, and uses local ingredients as much as possible. The menu is updated every four months but always includes some classics and unique twists.
“A lot of my stuff in the steakhouse is Asian fusion. One of the key ones is the Steakhouse Roll. I take a New York strip and pound it really, really thin. We put vegetables like scallions, red peppers, carrots, sauce inside, roll it and then we pan fry it. We cut it and it looks like sushi.”
He’s also offering classics like Beef Wellington, using only the highest-quality ingredients.
“People come from all over for it because they can’t get it anywhere else,” he says. “I like doing that stuff too. Bringing some of the classics back but with my twist on it. Everything has my twist on it—it’s not straight out of a recipe book or something like that.
“There are steakhouses everywhere… but we’re bringing something different to this area and the Fox Valley, not the normal supper club type stuff. And it only gets better because we’ll have a structure, a 300-person wedding venue on the property starting in June 2022.”
Favorite food to eat: “American Chinese Food. It’s my go-to. You don’t get this physique from eating healthy!”
Favorite dish to prepare: “Nothing is better than a perfectly cooked steak. Our steaks are very simple. It’s blended oil and salt, finished with a salted parsley butter.”
Philosophy as a chef: “Anything that I do is going to be with a twist, not boring… I’m definitely not a clipboard chef, I work on the line.”
Head Chef, SALT Fine Dining in Kaukauna
Growing up in El Paso, Texas, Manny Gandara attributes part of his interest in the culinary arts to his father, and has been turning heads in the kitchen since he was 10 years old. Granted, it was in his childhood home and the heads belonged to his siblings, but it’s a memory he won’t forget.
“I think what drew me to the culinary world was the fact that my father raised 6 kids alone, with the help of my grandmother, so sometimes we had to cook for ourselves,” he says. “I would make my siblings jealous with my great sandwich making skills, the only skill I had at 10 years old.”
Gandara has come a long way and gained impressive experience since then, having attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin and completed an internship at Walt Disney World in Florida. When he moved back to Lubbock, Texas, he worked at an array of establishments—country clubs, hotels and dive bars—before landing in a retirement community that helped him focus on his goal of changing eating habits and plate presentation.
“Instead of just serving mushy purees on a plate, I would make sure the old phrase ‘We eat with our eyes’ was key,” he says. “I worked in memory care units and learned that the color of the plates play a big part in residents’ diets.
“I would make breakfast for residents in the dining room to stimulate their sense of smell. It was at a retirement community that we started ‘Cooking with Manny’… I would demonstrate different recipes that they wanted to learn. It is a fun and interactive experience and something that I carried with me to Wisconsin.”
Gandara has been the head chef at SALT Fine Dining in Kaukauna from the construction phase to present.
“We have weekly features and a menu that changes with the season,” he says. “Our talented bartenders will whip up craft cocktails including our popular Old Fashioneds. We work with seafood companies to get fresh, quality seafood, use prime cuts of beef and source from a local cheese company. We also use Himalayan salt blocks to grill our steaks to enhance the flavor of these quality foods.
“Operating a restaurant during the pandemic is difficult. Like so many businesses, not only is the restaurant industry struggling with staffing shortages, but also with supply and demand… Ross, Jacob, Kyla, Michelle, Dana, Esme, Brittany and the rest of our great staff are helping to make SALT successful… it takes a great group of people to make it work and I couldn’t do it without them.”
Favorite food to eat: “Southern and Mexican cuisine are always my go-to foods; a Texas shaped waffle, tamales, tacos and fried chicken.”
Favorite dishes to prepare: “A few of my favorite dishes to make are BBQ pulled pork, grilled New York strip with chimichurri, Mexican roasted corn, guacamole and queso blanco.”
First memory in the kitchen: “I have so many memories… however, sitting at the kitchen table picking through pinto beans with my abuelita has to be one of my favorites. After picking pebbles, sticks and the occasional shriveled-looking bean, the cleaned beans then became breakfast, lunch and dinner for anyone (who) visited her house.”
Philosophy as a chef: “I always try to live by ‘Remember who you are, where you came from, and who you represent.’ That being said, there is always going to be a little southern flare in my cooking.”
Executive Chef, Pullmans at Trolley Square and Good Company in Appleton
Timothy Hansen’s viral food creations have been celebrated nationally if not worldwide, but his culinary journey was more spur of the moment than planned course.
“I kind of got thrown (into the kitchen). I was working at a golf course as a greenskeeper,” he remembers. “They needed a position filled… I did a good job and I ended up taking it over. I don’t let things fail, so I succeeded in the kitchen too.”
It catapulted a career that began at Pullmans at Trolley Square and Good Company in 2010, and during a break included a stint with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers where he developed the media-loving “Big Mother Funnel Burger,” a one pound burger sandwiched between funnel cakes with mozzarella cheese and bacon. ESPN immediately took notice so he created another viral sensation: the “Grilled Cheese Bacon Cheeseburger.”
“My phone was going crazy the whole time,” he says. “But it was a lot, I got burnt out.”
He returned as the Executive Chef of Pullmans at Trolley Square and Good Company in 2019, splitting time between the two but focusing largely on the latter.
“I feel like I’m home for the first time in a long time,” he says. “I’ve been looking for a landing spot for a while.”
Not to say he’ll be stagnant. Hansen says he’s determined to change the food culture at Pullmans by consistently offering fresh, delicious dishes they’re known for doing well.
“Customers love our fish here,” he says. “We do tons of walleye and haddock—broiled, beer battered—lots of shrimp. We also do a lot of salads. I would stand behind our Blackened Salmon Caesar Salad anywhere in the world. It’s so good. It’s probably my favorite thing here.”
The fast casual restaurant also offers burgers and other unique concoctions like their popular “Pizzalad,” pizza crust with pesto, five-cheese blend, diced chicken and tomatoes and a caesar salad on top.
Hansen is always learning—and teaching—in the kitchen.
“We have three culinary interns with us from the tech’s culinary program. I’m working on giving them different experiences to help them realize what they want to do,” he explains. “I have to be a mentor. That’s what I signed on for. I give them challenges but they’re helping me grow too. We teach each other.”
Favorite food to eat: “Pizza. I made a different pizza crust every single day for an entire summer and documented what I did and tweaked it. I tried to make it better every single time.”
Favorite dish to prepare: “I’m a comfort food kind of person. I like to do banquet meals, I like cooking for a lot of people. I made a meal this past Thanksgiving for 4,000 people… 1,250 pounds of turkey, over 1,000 pounds of mashed potatoes… over 1,200 pounds of green beans. I wanted to experience it and now I’m going to do it every year.”
Philosophy in the kitchen: “I take things in stride. I just want a chill kitchen. I hate drama. I treat people how I expect to be treated. I give respect to people because it’s reciprocal. I understand how important my staff is and how important their role is.”