At the Bridgewater Modern Grill in Milwaukee, the chef believes in ingenuity

Kristine M. Kierzek

Steve Gustafson’s culinary career has taken him from his roots in Minneapolis to opening hotels and restaurants in Nashville and Louisville.

He took the opportunity to bring his family closer to home, landing at the Kimpton Journeyman. It was just over a year when he took the opportunity to join the Harbor District’s brand new restaurant, The Bridgewater Modern Grill, 2011 S. First St., part of Benson’s Restaurant Group with David Marcus.

Overlooking the Kinnickinnic River, the new space opened in October with 255 seats, a riverside patio, boat ramps and a wine program. Featuring an open kitchen and a wood-fired grill, the restaurant’s approach will also be influenced by seasonal and local ingredients. Menus cover everything from small plates with oysters and crab cakes to entrees including rib eye, trout, roast chicken and its signature Bridgewater burger.

The Bridgewater Modern Grill is open for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

After:The Bridgewater Modern Grill, a new riverside restaurant in Milwaukee‘s harbor district, has set its opening date

This is the pulled duck tostada from Bridgewater Modern Grill, located at 2011 S. First St. in the new River 1 resort. It includes duck barbacoa, ancho chili, mashed avocado, yellow pico , cotija, radish and lime.

Gustafson spoke about what inspires him and how fire pervades this new space and menu.

Question: How did you start cooking?

Answer: My mother was an excellent cook. She was still cooking and preparing food for the next day. She was working full time. My father worked full time. I was athletic and probably ate a lot. When I came out of high school, I wasn’t really a college guy. I went to community college to try to figure it out. My sister’s husband, he was a chef and worked for Morton’s of Chicago when I met him. I saw his passion for food and love for business. We ate in his restaurant and I felt like it. Eventually I walked into a kitchen and said, hey, I’d like to be a prep cook. The chef picked me up and I started peeling hundreds of prawns.

Q: How do your Minnesota roots influence your approach to food?

A: That’s an excellent question. Growing up, my mother and grandmother were great cooks. Being Swedish and Norwegian, I sometimes get flavors from it. Minneapolis has a large Swedish and Norwegian community. I think Minnesota food is very honest food, not pretentious and not ego driven. Minnesota is just true to the roots and true to the product. That’s what I remember about being from Minneapolis. It’s very honest and real food that we want to eat at the end of the day.

Q: What is your style and approach to cooking?

A: It’s contemporary. We focus on flavor and on authenticity and loyalty to seasonal and driving creativity, not ego.

I have worked with many great chefs who have allowed me to pursue innovation and my individuality as a cook. Ingenuity is super important in this forward-moving industry, which needs to be pushed on people going up. If we lose our ingenuity, we are not going to advance this industry as an industry to pursue.

Q: What can people expect at Bridgewater? Tell us about the space and what you want people to experience.

A: You get open garage doors, a killer patio, a place you want to relax. You can even sit inside and enjoy the outdoors. It’s right on the Kinnickinnic River. You can see the boats going in and out. It has a laid back California atmosphere with a bit of greenery. There is nothing stuffy at all, very high ceilings. Not fine dining, more fine dining.

Food, we are diverse in flavors. You can enjoy Japanese-style tuna tartare, beef skewers marinated and cooked in harissa, or oysters over a wood fire, roasted beets with labneh and dukkah. … Our burger, which is going to be really good, is with gruyère cheese and roasted shallots, and it’s wagyu. I think it may be an ode to French onion soup. It’s real food, and we’re still trying to infuse it with fire.

Q: What was the first thing you had to put on the menu?

A: There wasn’t one thing in particular, but obviously we really want to have a killer burger…

My style, I like to cook in season. The menu will probably change three to four times a year; day to day, we work with local farmers and organize promotions. We work with Hundred Acre Farm, an indoor hydroponic farm, Vitruvian Farms in Madison, Mushroom Mike. As I do research, we attract new people.

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Q: One of the things you have in this new space is an open kitchen. What is the attraction for you as a chef?

A: I like how the customer can see what we are doing. We obviously have to be clean, and that’s the show. You will smell wood and food. I think it’s an added bonus, heightening your senses as you walk through the door.

The Bridgewater's wood-burning grill will be used for more than meats.  This ancient grain salad features charred onion on the grill along with miso mashed sweet potatoes, snow peas, wild mushrooms, avocado and cilantro pumpkin pesto.

Q: One of your specialties is cooking over a wood fire. What’s the trick to working with wood and not overloading your ingredients?

A: Working with a good lumber supplier is probably key. We will get a dried wood for us, so we don’t have to worry about getting wet wood. We use oak, which burns very well and has great flavor. Most things we put on the grill, it just gets a nice burn, a hint of smoke, and those are the key ingredients. We use Jade grids.

Q: What do you remember from the experiences of recent years and the opening of a new restaurant?

A: Opening a new restaurant is always a challenge, but opening a new restaurant now is more difficult than in 2017 or 2018. People left the business or did not return, having found a different career. Chefs across the country, around the world, we need to make this industry great again and make it more attractive for people to get back to creating great food.

Q: What do you say to someone starting out, culinary school or starting to work in a restaurant kitchen?

A: Culinary school if you have the money, I would. You get a good base. I don’t think you need four years — do two years. If you can’t, that’s okay. If you’re really interested, go talk to chefs at a local restaurant you like. Learn from the chefs you want to work with. Buy a set of knives, read books, watch shows, and do your research. Cook at home. Start this way.

Q: What resources did you use for recipes and inspiration?

A: Art Culinaire (magazine) is one that teaches you how to dice an onion, no matter how basic and simple, then how to clean a fish, cut a steak, make different classic French dishes. It’s just a good read to know your five basic sauces, your mother sauces.

Q: Where are you on your day off?

A: On my day off, I’m usually at home with my family. I have a very large construction site in Mequon. I live on an acre of land, so on my day off I have to tend to my lawn. After that, if the little guy isn’t there, we’re still trying to check out Milwaukee since I’m new here. You will also find me in my kitchen. I cook at home.

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Fork. Spoon. Life. explores the everyday relationship that local notables (both within and outside the food community) have with food. To suggest future personalities to profile, email [email protected]

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