Get to know five area chefs as they offer a glimpse into back-of-the-house life
Photography by Kacie Mischler Bass
Chef & Owner, Becket’s in Oshkosh
Chef Mike Buckarma’s career has been in the kitchen from day one. He got his first restaurant job at age 16 and never looked back.
“I needed a job and fell in love with the kitchen,” he says. “I enjoyed the busyness and the challenge.”
Since then, the Fox Valley Technical College Culinary School graduate has worked in kitchens around the state and has had the opportunity to cook for some high profile guests – U.S. presidents, famous comedians and celebrities attending EAA AirVenture.
Buckarma partnered with Kris Larson in 2008 to open their restaurant, Becket’s, in Oshkosh’s City Center. The modern American restaurant serves a menu focused on updated classics and local ingredients. Simple, high-quality proteins and produce are Buckarma’s chef weakness.
“My favorite thing to play with is most seafood because it’s so adaptive,” he says. “I like the potential to do so many great things with it.”
At home, Buckarma generally keeps his cooking uncomplicated, although he admits to concocting seven-course dinners for friends at Christmas and hosting various culinary contests throughout the year. His annual cocktail competition is a favorite with friends.
These days Buckarma splits his time between Becket’s and Wagner Market, the restaurant’s sister market which opened in 2014. Balancing the needs of the restaurant and the market requires Buckarma to not only be a chef, but a team motivator.
“Years ago in the kitchen, it was very structured and chefs were taught to be arrogant jerks, but employees don’t respond to that in my experience,” Buckarma says. “Now you have to lead with a very different style. You have to show employees you are willing to do it all and show them by actually doing it.”
Buckarma’s “lead by example” philosophy has gotten recognition. He won the Wisconsin Restaurant Association Education Foundation’s 2016 Salute to Excellence Award which honors industry professionals who are dedicated to foodservice education. He was also named an American Culinary Federation Chef of the Year in 2011.
Working in the food industry is demanding during normal times, but the last year was especially tough. The toll that COVID-19 has taken on the industry has been large, but ultimately Buckarma sees it as another challenge to overcome.
“We’ve always taken on challenges and this is just another one,” he says. “We opened Becket’s in 2008 during a horrible economy. You meet the challenges head on and go for it.”
Chef & Owner, Field & Fire Kitchen in Greenville
From washing dishes at a supper club to winning a national cooking competition on the Food Network, Ryan Sherman’s culinary career has been a little bit rags to riches.
He started out as a teenager washing dishes at The Dugout in Hortonville, before working front of the house at a burger chain and eventually becoming the sous chef at Black & Tan Grille in Green Bay. He spent years as a chef at Spats in Appleton and in 2016 appeared on The Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen, hosted by Alton Brown.
Despite the efforts of the other contestants, who can buy disadvantages to sabotage each other during cooking challenges, Sherman came out victorious and the experience provided a career-altering confidence boost.
“I thought there was no way an overweight kid from Wisconsin without a [culinary] degree would get on the show,” Sherman says. “It was reassuring that my skills stacked up.”
Armed with that reassurance, Sherman opened his Greenville restaurant, Field & Fire Kitchen, with co-owner Jordan Hereford in 2018. With an open kitchen and small footprint, Field & Fire offers an intimate dining experience with scratch-made food and cocktail offerings.
Food has been important to Sherman throughout his life. One of his earliest food memories is attending Thanksgiving dinner at his grandparents’ house. “They would always applewood smoke the turkey, so I have a deep emotional connection to anything applewood smoked,” he says. “It brings me back to that moment.”
Food and emotions are deeply intertwined, Sherman says, and he strives to make meaningful connections with guests through the food he makes. Whether it’s cooking or eating, Sherman is a fan of the classics.
“My favorite dish, if I was on my deathbed or for my last meal, would be a perfectly roasted chicken,” he says. “There’s something perfectly divine about a salted, roast chicken with crispy skin and roast potatoes and vegetables. It’s so technique driven that it’s a hard dish to execute.”
Kitchen work is physically and mentally exhausting, in addition to the unseen work of owning a restaurant like product pricing, paperwork and managing employees. Sherman’s message to friends and family of overworked chefs: don’t be intimidated to cook for them.
“One of the best meals we will have is one that someone else cooks for us,” he says. “I don’t care if it’s chili that’s been in the slow cooker or leftover taco meat. We spend our day giving, so a simple meal prepared for us is the best one.”
Chef & Owner, Author’s Kitchen + Bar in Appleton
Wanderlust and a passion for food intersect in Matias Whittingslow’s culinary career.
“I always knew I wanted to travel and see the world cooking,” the Argentina native says.
Whittingslow was born in a small town outside Buenos Aires. After high school, he attended the Argentine Institute of Gastronomy and worked in Spain before relocating to Miami for a job in a hotel kitchen. He continued traveling and cooking in locations such as Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado and Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago. Each new experience has helped shape him as a chef.
“You learn different people and cultures. I met a lot of people from so many countries,” Whittingslow says. “You get influenced by all these people and what they eat.”
Whittingslow has appreciated cooking from a young age. His great grandmother was a culinary instructor who passed down her knowledge to each new generation. One of Whittingslow’s earliest memories is making pasta with his grandmother and mother.
“In Argentina, there is a big Italian influence because of lots of Italian immigrants,” he says. “We eat a lot of pasta and we are very influenced by the Italian, Spanish and German people who moved there.”
Fox Valley diners will see many of these global influences on the menu at Author’s Kitchen + Bar, the restaurant Whittingslow opened last year with co-owner Josh Sickler. The partners had operated Author’s previously in a location that was destroyed by fire in 2019.
Opening (and reopening) the restaurant has produced some of the hardest, yet proudest moments of Whittingslow’s career.
“The first day we opened and put that first dish on a plate for a paying customer, it really seemed like an impossible thing to do, especially the way we did it with no investors,” he said. “We had been cooking so long for other people and now that it’s yours it’s, like, game on.”
At home, Whittingslow continues his family tradition of pasta making with his three children. Soups are another family favorite that are in heavy rotation.
Whittingslow echoes what many chefs cite as the hardest part of their jobs – the long hours that typically fall while others are off in the evening and on weekends.
“The hardest part is being away from my family and coming home when my kids are sleeping,” he says. “We are putting in so much effort and hours and sacrificing our personal lives to fulfill this dream.”
Chef & Owner, Zuppas Market, Cafe & Catering in Neenah
In many ways, Peter Kuenzi has been a culinary trailblazer in the Fox Cities. The Oshkosh native attended Fox Valley Technical College Culinary School and continued his studies at Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He worked at fine dining restaurants in Florida and Chicago before returning to Northeast Wisconsin in 1992 to serve as executive chef for the Oshkosh Power Boat Club.
“In Chicago I was good, but everybody’s good. Moving back to the area I felt I could make a difference and do something no else was doing,” Kuenzi says.
But cooking in the Valley was a different game than it was in Chicago where Kuenzi had access to a wide assortment of the best and freshest ingredients.
“When I first came back to the area, just getting mixed greens was hard,” he says. “People forget how much times have changed.”
Kuenzi frequented Asian markets to access fresh produce and unique ingredients not available elsewhere locally. He established his own garden at the Oshkosh Power Boat Club and began sourcing produce, meats and cheeses from local farmers – practices that are common in the industry today, but were definitely not in 1993.
Diners were drawn to Kuenzi’s fresh cooking philosophy and with that established clientele, he co-founded The Seasons in Appleton in 1996. Three years later, he opened Zuppas in Neenah which has been operating since.
The restaurant has an urban cafeteria vibe with a focus on fresh ingredients and clean, creative flavor combinations. A standard menu of sandwiches, salads, soups and pasta is offered along daily rotating specials. Kuenzi often incorporates international flavors into his daily specials (he’s a fan of Vietnamese and Indian cuisine) to keep things exciting.
“The philosophy has always been for people to come in everyday and find something new,” Kuenzi says. “I want people to be able to eat here every day if they want to.”
As a manager, Kuenzi likes his kitchen team to experiment and try things on their own.
“I have expectations, but I think you need to give people some level of creativity,” he says. “I try to remember what it was like when I was younger and let them have some freedom.”
One of Kuenzi’s favorite parts of his work, besides interacting with people, is doing culinary “research” by dining out at other restaurants.
“I go out a lot in Milwaukee and Chicago, but here locally it’s just about supporting each other because there’s room for everybody,” he says.
Head Chef, Meade Street Bistro in Appleton
Annie Ngo is as fearless with her culinary creations as she is with her ever-changing hair color, which currently is a striking shade of pastel purple and blue. Whether it’s whipping up a batch of bourbon barbecue cake pops or reinterpreting her family’s traditional Vietnamese recipes, Ngo says constant experimentation keeps things interesting.
“I like to do weird stuff all the time and be challenged in the kitchen,” she says. “I’m pretty adventurous with my food.”
Ngo has been the head chef at Meade Street Bistro in Appleton since it opened in December 2019. She studied culinary arts at Fox Valley Technical College and has worked at 1919 Kitchen and Tap at Lambeau Field and Stone Arch Brew Pub. She even had a stint working at a Thai restaurant in Costa Rica. Her current job is her first as the kitchen lead and every day there is something new to learn.
“I never had any experiences as a manager or head chef before so I was thrown into it right away and had to figure everything out,” Ngo says. “I had no idea what I was doing. I’m pretty laid back for the most part but I’m also a perfectionist. I like things done fast and efficiently in the kitchen, so learning to be patient has been the hardest part.”
Cooking at home is a rarity for Ngo, but when she does, it’s usually the Vietnamese noodle soup, pho. The labor intensive process involves charring onions and ginger, boiling bones for the broth, toasting seasonings, simmering for hours and adding noodles and fresh herbs at the end. (Chef tip: Ngo’s favorite place for Asian ingredients is the Oriental Food Market on Appleton’s Wisconsin Avenue.)
“I like preparing pho from beginning to end,” she says. “It’s an all day thing with so many steps. I like seeing how the flavors develop over time.”
Meade Street Bistro’s menu features rustic American comfort food and specials that push the boundaries a little more. For instance, restaurant goers might notice an Asian influence to the week’s specialty burger or taco preparation. Ngo encourages diners to try new menu items, even if they may be outside their comfort zone.
“I want to please people and make them happy through the food I make. If they don’t like something, I will change it for them,” she says. “Try to experiment with food as best you can. It doesn’t hurt to try something new.”