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HOTELS Interview: Chef takes sourcing personally


By Ann Bagel Storck on 8/24/2012

Sourcing products locally is an expectation these days, but when it comes to finding lobster and crabs in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that’s not possible. So, Mark Weber, executive chef at Mason Street Grill in the Pfister Hotel, has decided to do the next best thing. Earlier this year, Weber embarked on his second stone crab-fishing excursion, and earlier this summer, he traveled to Maine to learn firsthand about lobster fishing. Surprisingly, Weber says seafood makes up about a third of the menu at Mason Street Grill, and as a result of his most recent trip it now includes items such as a lobster boil and a lobster salad with cilantro-honey-lime vinaigrette, avocado, oranges and fennel.

HOTELS spoke with Weber about his fishing adventures and his future plans for hands-on sourcing.

Mark Weber, executive chef, Mason Street Grill, the Pfister Hotel, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

HOTELS: Why embark on trips like your most recent lobster fishing adventure or your stone crab excursion earlier in the year? What do you see as the main benefits to your operation?

Mark Weber: The benefit is out of necessity for us. Being in the Midwest — I’m an East Coast guy myself — there’s a completely different attitude and acceptance level of seafood here. It stems to the suppliers as well. If I’m in New York at Daniel eating fish, he’s getting it from a completely different and better source.

A couple years ago, I ran my own restaurant. What I ended up doing was going down to Galveston, Texas, because a friend of mine moved down there and said they had great fish. So I went down there initially to set up a fish supply for my own restaurant, and it worked out really well. It gave me a different understanding of where my fish was coming from, the process of how it gets from water to boat to me and everything else.

A couple years ago, we started with stone crab here. I used to work in Miami Beach, and I love stone crab, and we have a hard time getting decent supply up here. I figure if we’re going to do stone crab, which is one of the owner’s favorite things to eat on the planet, we need to go down there and lock in a solid, steady, high-quality source. I thought it would be a good idea to — pardon the pun — dive right into stone crab fishing and see what it was all about. If I could understand it, then I could certainly bring the best possible product to my customer.

HOTELS: Describe the lobster fishing experience. What were some highlights, challenges or surprises?

Weber: It was very different than what I expected. Stone crab fishing is pretty straightforward, and I guess lobster fishing is pretty straightforward too. I guess what was surprising was the simplicity of it. I mean, you have a baited trap that’s in the water, the creature goes in there, and if you’re lucky enough to pull the trap up while he’s in there, you have yourself a nice lobster.

What I didn't realize, especially in Maine, is there are a lot of different philosophies on lobster fishing. It seems like the older fishing families and the company we do business with, they're more of a traditional fishing family. They tend to focus on hard-shell lobster. You’re looking for the heartiest lobster that thrive on the rocks and in the shallows. They tend to have big claws, and they’re associated with the highest-quality lobster you can get.

HOTELS: Was this the first time you had been lobster fishing?

Weber: Yes. It was fairly tricky. It’s not something you would want to venture out on your own and do as an amateur fisherman. When the tide is coming in or out, these little rogue waves come from out of nowhere and toss the boat. It’s very unnerving. You get tossed around pretty good even though you’re in shallow water, and there’s a certain amount of danger there. They’re really skilled boatsmen.

HOTELS: What was the main takeaway for you?

Weber: Understanding the source is the most important thing. The more you understand how it’s done and what you’re looking for and what the professionals know about it, you can tighten up your specs, and you can ensure you’re asking for something that makes sense, something they can deliver and something that truly is the highest-quality product. We really tightened our specs.

HOTELS: How are you marketing these types of expeditions to your guests? What has guest response been like?

Weber: We have some radio spots lined up. We’ve done a couple TV pieces on it. And we like to talk about it to the staff so they can talk about it to the customers.

It worked tremendously well with stone crabs. This year, we sold twice the amount of stone crabs in the first month than we sold the entire season the prior year. I’m kind of expecting the same thing with lobster. We still have to develop a bit more strategy of how we can effectively market this, but there are a ton of things we can do.

HOTELS: How much do you consider the cost/benefit equation for something like this? What is the main ROI?

Weber: It plays to our advantage in a lot of ways. I don’t know how measurable the ROI is, but I think it does a lot for us. Besides the fact that we can market it in the restaurant, it lends a lot of credibility to our name as a restaurant company and hotel company. I’ve been in this market for over 20 years. It’s hard to measure in dollars, but I think it does unspeakable things for our place in market. It’s tremendous.

HOTELS: Do you have similar plans for the future? What can we look for next?

Weber: I have another trip in the works right now. We’ve been partnered up with Meats by Linz in Chicago for a couple years. They’ve done a very good job for us. One of the things we were always interested in doing is having our own line of Angus beef. For the past two years they’ve been working with some ranchers in Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin. There are about 10 of them, and they’re raising certified, 100% Angus cattle in a few different locations, and they’re just starting to get to the maturity point where they can slaughter them. So that’s really our next move is to begin to feature our own brand, basically, of all-natural organic beef. One of the biggest producers is in Darlington, Wisconsin. He’s going to be my next trip, sometime before Christmas. It will coincide with our winter menu change.

I feel very privileged and lucky to be in a situation where we can make these things happen. It’s great to bring this kind of information to the customer. We have a dining counter here, and it’s nice to walk up to people, and you can give them information that is untouchable.


 
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