Devour Details About Five 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.
Chef/Owner at Apollon in Appleton
Modesto Santander has been a part of Apollon, the Fox Cities Greek/Mediterranean staple since 2006, when former owner Stavros Kodis “needed someone to help him in the kitchen.”
What began as a job morphed into a mentor/mentee relationship, one built on a shared passion for food and has continued as an ongoing legacy for the restaurant now celebrating its 45th year.
“I think it just came to life… it was destiny. When I got hired at Apollon, I was young and hyper,” Santander remembers fondly. “I fell in love with it, the restaurant and the whole team. My brain was spinning and spinning and creating dishes in my head. It was like a revolution.
“But then I started putting things together and adjusting and it was ‘Oh that didn’t go as planned.’ One of my mentors said there is no perfect recipe, the perfect recipe comes with time.
“There is a philosophy in the way things are done at Apollon and Stavros molded me to that philosophy,” he says. “I was taught that outside the door of the kitchen we are friends, inside the door we’re co-workers, we’re a team. We have to do what we are here to do. Everyone understands and there’s respect and we also joke and have fun. We hit that balance.”
The menu at Apollon is small in focus, Santander explains, and that means they’re able to expertly execute each item.
“We aren’t doing things that aren’t familiar to us,” he says. “We’re making Mediterranean food well.”
Most popular dishes at Apollon: Saganaki (Flaming Cheese), flamed at your table with brandy and lemon. It’s a tradition at every Greek restaurant.
Favorite dish to prepare: Every day is a new day. Perhaps I’ll mention the one I ‘hate,’ Santander laughs. Moussaka! It’s so elaborate. You’ve got to do the vegetables, cook the mat, cook the pasta… put it all together. But as I’m doing it, stirring the Bechamel sauce, smelling all of the aromas, I have fun. I love it. I just like cooking. When I go to friends’ houses they tell me to just sit… and suddenly you’ll see me cooking.
Favorite dish to eat: Burgers. Cheese, bacon, all of it! I am very open to food.
What might surprise readers about what you’re doing at Apollon? We have a vast wine list with wines from the old and the new world. We have wines from Spain, France, Italy, Greece. And then of course it’s our consistency, freshness and simplicity in everything we do. “I thank God for the community and for the opportunity to let us touch their palates.”
First memory being in the kitchen: When I started cooking professionally… I had to learn these two recipes for dressings: A Shallot Vinaigrette and Dijon Mustard Vinaigrette. I didn’t think the flavors could work but after making it over and over I adjusted my palate and I ended up enjoying it.
Yee Lee Vue
Chef and Co-owner of Bowl Ninety-One in Appleton
Yee Lee Vue and her husband, Thong, opened Bowl-Ninety One in Appleton five years ago, but have had a front row seat in the food scene for even longer. She helped her parents start Mai’s Deli as well, starting at the farmers’ market and transitioning onto the brick and mortar corner restaurant.
“Food has always been an important part of my childhood life and also part of our Hmong culture,” Vue says. “That’s why I fell in love with cooking and the traditions. While I was going to college, I was always cooking at home and being my mom’s sous chef.”
Yee went to UW-Madison (she obtained a master’s degree in Library and Information Science that she uses in her full-time position at the Appleton Public Library) and upon moving back to the area, saw an opportunity to bring more diverse food to the Fox Cities.
“I was watching Food Network TV so much,” she remembers. “Paula Deen, Rachel Ray… at the time, there weren’t many chefs that looked like me or that I could identify with. I thought, ‘you know, one day it would be so cool if I had my own Food Network TV show.’ It kind of inspired me. I knew that my love and my passion for food would transfer into my restaurant.
“That’s how we created Bown Ninety-One.”
First memory being in the kitchen: My first memory of really getting in the kitchen to cook was when my sister went off to college. I’m the second oldest so I had to start learning how to cook. I also wanted to impress my boyfriend (now husband).
What is Bowl Ninety-One known for? Crab Rangoons, Happy Belly Buns, Bulgogi Kimchi Fries and of course our Japanese Ramen. That’s how the vision was brought to life, not because we were eating a lot of packaged ramen in college, but because we wanted to introduce ramen to Appleton… more that it’s actually an art and a culture, not a packaged food. It takes a lot of time and labor—from the broth to the marinated eggs to the marinated meat to all the toppings. We don’t take any shortcuts.
“We actually went to a ramen school,” Vue says. “We had to go learn and we had to go taste and eat a lot of ramen… from the East to the West Coast to down South… just to experience what all the different ramen tastes like in order for us to educate ourselves to be able to bring ramen to Appleton.
“We continue to be inspired by all the food trends that are happening in the world by our travels,” she says. “If we go somewhere and it’s a perfect match, we can add it to our menu or bring it to our restaurant… we recreate the dish and we bring it to our restaurant.”
Favorite dish to prepare and eat: “We love to make burgers at home!” Vue laughs. “My kids are spoiled with good, homemade Thai and Vietnamese food so it’s fun to make American food.”
Head Chef/Kitchen Manager at Greene’s Pour House in Neenah
Nearing the ten-year mark at Greene’s Pour House, now Head Chef Nikki Dessart first arrived at “the friendly neighborhood meeting place” in Neenah after her father was hired and called her to be his sous chef.
And it’s not the first time her restaurant experience involved the family connection. In fact, the industry is all she’s known in terms of her career path.
“I started out hostessing at my parents’ restaurant (Nauts Landing in Menasha) when I was 14,” she says. “I then got trained as a busser and then at 15 started cooking. I worked there ‘til I was 20 (when) I moved with my now husband to Arizona where I worked at a sports bar as a cocktail waitress and bartender. At age 23 we moved back and I went back to Nauts. When Nauts closed I went to Bon Appetit at Lawrence before I started at Greene’s.
“Growing up in the industry, it was just a part of my life… I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Described as “pretty chill,” Dessert likes adding a bit of flair to classic dishes, but she knows what works best and where. As a vegetarian, she’s also using her memory to remember what meat tastes like and knowing what complements and pairs best with protein.
“Know your audience,” she says. Don’t try to serve fine dining to people who want burgers and fries. The same goes for the reverse. Learn what your customers like and then you can play with flavors in that realm. I like to push them outside of their comfort zone little by little, introducing new ingredients, but always within the realm of what they’re comfortable with.”
Most popular dishes at Greene’s Pour House: Fish Tacos, Mac and Cheese, Loaded Tot Burger, Honey Jack Chicken Sandwich or Wrap and Cheesecake.
First memory being in the kitchen: Making Christmas cookies as a child, which we still do as a family every year.
Favorite dish to prepare and favorite dish to eat: I really enjoy making pasta dishes. There’s so many ways to add your own flair to a pasta dish, make it your own. I can’t say I have a favorite dish (to eat). There are too many choices! Some of my favorite types of food are Ethiopian, Indian and Italian.
What’s to come in 2024: I just rolled out a new winter menu. I thrive in organized chaos!
Executive Chef at Stone Arch Brewpub in Appleton + Stone Arch Tied House in Little Chute
Ben Harper was visiting his brother in Appleton from Arizona when he fell in love with Wisconsin in spring.
“It was in May and it was rainy… it wasn’t really cold but it wasn’t warm. It was the perfect time of year. (My wife and I) utterly fell in love with how everything looked in that season.”
So much so that when Harper returned to Arizona, he applied at Stone Arch Brewpub and moved to the Appleton area in July of 2022 all within a 3-week timespan.
The Executive Chef is now head-in-command at the Appleton eatery and also its sister restaurant, Stone Arch Tied House, in Little Chute. His experience is such that he’s equipped to handle both as a lover of chaos, something necessary in his role.
“July is their busiest time of year, with the outdoor patio and EAA, then Mile of Music,” Harper says. “So I just got here and hit the ground running.”
Harper began his career working in a pizzeria in Phoenix, and moved on to a fine dining establishment where “everything clicked” when it came to cooking.
I’m a very hands-on learner, I like to dive right in… I fell in love with the different ways to manipulate food into different flavors, textures, fragrances, all that stuff.”
After fine-tuning his craft under a James Beard-award winner and foraying into fine dining, Harper’s ability to identify and pair different flavor profiles was mastered, although he’s still learning and playing in the kitchen.
“Whether it is sweet, sour, salty, bitter—what flavor is this and how can we manipulate it and change it or add something to accompany that to make this ingredient shine?”
He pairs this expert engineering with inspiration from the community to create new dishes at Stone Arch Brewpub and Stone Arch Tied House while maintaining the high-quality staples for which the restaurants are known.
“I like to take influence from the community, influence from the environment around us, influence from my own past, things that I’ve seen and done, practiced and everything,” he says. “I also really like to allow my staff to really hone their own skills… I like letting people develop their own palette, develop their own sense of taste.”
Stone Arch prides itself on sourcing local ingredients: from vegetables to cheese to beef.
Most popular dishes at Stone Arch Brewpub: Cheese Curds, Bison or Elk Burger, Filet Mignon, Tuna Poke.
Most popular dishes at Stone Arch Tied House: Pot Roast.
First memory being in the kitchen: Gosh, I was probably 6 or 7… I remember seeing on the TV this ‘everything’ pan called the Turbo Chef or the Turbo Cooker or something. I remember seeing on there that you could make a cake with soda. I saw that infomercial and I begged my parents to get that pan!
Favorite food to prepare: Probably steak. There was a tradition for my dad to go outside and grill a steak, so now that I have my own grill and my own family I like to make steak at home.
Favorite food to eat: Oysters. There’s just something about them, that salty brininess that you get from them… from the vinegar and shallot mixture on there to just a simple squeeze of lemon juice.
Head Chef at The Taqueria in Oshkosh
The Taqueria opened in Oshkosh in June of 2022, Javier Macario leading the way since the beginning. The Head Chef began his journey with the authentic Mexican restaurant at its sister establishment (La Taqueria) in Wausau about a year and a half earlier, with a stint at a Chinese restaurant and experience cooking at home preceding his professional career.
It all started for Macario when, in middle school, culinary classes were offered. He was interested immediately.
“I (then) learned to cook by trial and error,” he says. “The first time I cooked something with confidence was when I was 14. It was Beef Stew. I fed my whole family and I was surprised because they enjoyed it!
“But there was a time when I prepared breaded chicken for my family and I had to remake the whole meal because I didn’t measure the salt correctly. I found out it was too salty when it was too late.”
The days of “error” are long gone. Macario has mastered authentic dishes like Quesabirria, street tacos and more at The Taqueria.
“The number one goal is to satisfy the customer and be the best I can,” he says. “I need to be constantly improving… no one is perfect, but as a chef, I need the kitchen and myself to strive for perfection.
“I believe that we have some of the best food and some of the best flavor in Oshkosh, especially when it comes to Mexican food.”
Most popular dishes at The Taqueria: Menudo, a traditional Mexican soup, and Quesabirria. (Due to its labor-intensive preparation and popularity, Quesabirria is only available on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.)
“People are very picky when it comes to Menudo (a traditional Mexican soup)… everybody has their own opinion: mom and dad, grandma,” Macario shares. “All of our recipes are from Luis’ (owner of the Wausau restaurant) family. Customers say they’ll come back just to eat it.”
Favorite food to prepare: Quessabirria, the most labor-intensive one. It’s kind of methodical, it’s a process. We’ve got to be patient with the food.
Favorite food to eat: I like it all!
What might surprise readers about what you’re doing at The Taqueria? The effort that’s put in… the time and the effort that’s invested in the food and in the kitchen itself. We like to get creative when it comes to preparing food.
What’s to come in 2024: New menu items with flavors specific to Jalisco, Mexico… the Guadalajara region. Anybody who knows that area will be excited.