Chef's Corner: Ben Hudson, Executive Chef of The Brown Bottle, Milwaukee

The historic, circa 1938, Brown Bottle pub is back in business at the Schlitz Park office complex, the former Milwaukee home of the Schlitz Brewing Company. Operating the legendary pub, which had closed in 2004, are Menomonee Falls-based Davians and D&S Food Services Inc., a catering and vending operator, which also oversees the Schlitz Park Café in the RiverCenter and The Brew in the Stock House in Milwaukee.

Chef-QA-BrownBottlePHOTOThe Brown Bottle’s revamped menu, developed under the leadership of Executive Chef Ben Hudson, has been enthusiastically received since the pub reopened in November 2014.

A Northern Illinois native and graduate of the Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute in Portland, Ore., Hudson most recently worked alongside such notable executive chefs as Adam Siegel and Nick Wirth from Bacchus, a Bartalotta Restaurant in Milwaukee. In Portland, he served as head chef of Hungry Tiger Too, a vegan restaurant and bar, and was sous chef at Mama Mia’s Trattoria.

FE&S: The Brown Bottle has a long history in Milwaukee. What was the reopening like?

BH: The building we’re in has a strong history as a mecca among the breweries that helped build Milwaukee. After Schlitz, this area also housed the Pabst brewery. The Brown Bottle was always located in one of the complex’s buildings called the Stock House where all the workers at the brewery would have a beer and hang out after work. The restaurant we revamped was this former tasting hall, sort of like an old meeting hall or tavern with a lot of old-world flair. We don’t offer tours, but we wanted to make sure there was plenty of information about the history of the building — a lot of cool photos were blown up and reframed showing the history here, as well as famous celebrities.

When it came to the renovations, the designers wanted to stay with a lot of the original woodworking, which is hand-carved and made from Brazilian maple that’s very hard to find nowadays. We also cleaned up the space with newer furniture and better lighting. We are located in the basement of an office building with 600 employees from financial consulting, Internet startup and other technology companies so we didn’t have to go looking for many new customers. The median age is probably mid-30s.

FE&S: How big is the space?

BH: Our bar seats 40 to 50 people comfortably, and is the focal point of the pub. We offer a full-service lunch and dinner menu in the bar from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and we also have separate lounge areas with casual leather chairs for cocktail hour or smaller gatherings. Our volume fluctuates because we’re still pretty new, but our busiest day is Friday when we offer a traditional Wisconsin fish fry.

FE&S: Gastropub is such an overused term. How would you describe the concept in your view?

BH: Originally, D&S wanted to do something more casual and quick and easy, like burgers and hot dogs. I proposed we offer food that is a little more elevated but still incorporates a lot of the comfort food people enjoy here. We wanted to focus on what Milwaukee does best — beer and cheese — but using the best ingredients possible. I would call it American pub food, but high end, where old meets new. We’re taking classic dishes like meatloaf but adding better ingredients, and proper seasoning and technique. Basically we just wanted great food, great drinks and great service.

FE&S: What are some other popular menu items?

BH: Our kimchi reuben is really popular and has a little spice and a kick to it. Some people have said they don’t want to go back to a regular reuben. For that we make our own kimchi and corned beef — we go through so much we’re making corned beef every two to
three days.

FE&S: I imagine you have a nice selection of beers on the menu?

BH: We actually cook with a lot of beer and even some of our desserts contain multiple types of liqueurs, like our brandy old-fashioned sundae. On tap we have a selection of 12 different beers and we offer 25 different bottles, including many local beers like a Brown Bottle lager from Lakefront Brewery, made specifically for us. We’re also starting to work with Horny Goat, Sprecher’s and Water Street Brewery. It’s cool that we can work with people in the community to have a little more flair and give us character. I’m looking forward to doing more beer dinners where we offer four courses paired with beer.

FE&S: Having gone to school and cooked in Portland, you’re likely comfortable with working with local farmers. How have you worked to source Wisconsin produce and foods while at Brown Bottle?

BH: We have built a great rapport with a local distributor who collects produce from nearby farms. A lot of the produce is really nice and not overgrown and bruised, and it’s huge in the summer when the growing season is at its peak. I’ve found it’s best to treat your vendors right and they’ll treat you just as well.

FE&S: Other than the office workers on the property, with such a lengthy history but a location in an up-and-coming neighborhood, what type of other guests do you see?

BH: We are surrounded by colleges, including UWM (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee). But we’re off the beaten track and offer a more chill, quiet environment so we also see an older crowd. There are many customers of Baby Boomer age who may have had their first beer here at 19 and like to come back.

FE&S: How do you cater to such a wide variety of customers, particularly the younger generation?

BH: At lunch, one of our more popular items is a vegan panzanella salad tossed in roasted shallot and garlic vinaigrette with homemade croutons and candied walnuts. At the base of that is a butternut squash puree that’s purely vegan with no cream or butter. The vegan-vegetarian thing is comfortable for me — I used to run a vegan restaurant in Portland so when I moved back to the Midwest I saw an opportunity to be ahead of the pack with these menu items. But I try not to overwhelm — I make most of our dishes so that they can be deconstructed — plus or minus something — to cater to more people. Some vegans eat honey, some don’t. Some people want the chèvre, others may want our vegan cheese substitute. We also offer vegan and gluten-free flatbreads, breads and buns.

FE&S: With your location in an office building, do you find many guests want that takeout option?

BH: We will do takeout but it’s a little hard for me because I don’t want to be a delivery-style restaurant — it’s better if people spend more time here and order beer and potentially spend more. But we are looking into an online ordering system for people on a
time crunch.

FE&S: What are you future plans for the restaurant?

BH: We’re very excited about our outdoor patio, which will open in the spring. It will feature completely remodeled landscaping and a beautiful view of the skyline. We might even offer movies in the park events on Fridays and Saturdays as a way to drum up business. We hope this will attract more residents from the Brewers’ Hill neighborhood. We are also looking to expand our event space. Right now people can rent out our dining room which seats 85 people with folding doors for some privacy. Right now we’re just taking one step at a time but are seeing great feedback from our guests.

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