BY NAN BIALEK | PHOTOS BY LAURA DIERBECK
Chef Michael Feker found his heart in San Francisco.
Feker recalls that he and his sister were lunching at the California Culinary Academy when he saw the students in their crisp, white chef’s hats and coats and instantly felt right at home.
Born into a well-to-do family in Persia (Iran), and educated at a boarding school in Switzerland, Feker was a pre-med student at the University of Southern California at the time, as his father wished.
But his heart wasn’t in it.
“There was something that cooking ‘said’ to me,” he explains. “I learned from my mother that food is a great conduit to manifest your love for life. I always liked food; I just never dreamed of becoming a professional chef.”
Once he realized that cooking was his destiny, Feker could hardly wait for the culinary school’s next semester to begin. In the meantime, he launched his career in the kitchen of the best French restaurant in Los Angeles by offering to work for free. That ambition propelled him into work long before starting time so that he could arrange the kitchen just the way the chef had prescribed. The chef took notice of the young man with big plans, and started teaching Feker skills such as how to debone a duck.
“It took me six-and-a-half hours to finish a case of duck, but it was done exactly the way he wanted it,” Feker says.
At home, the young aspiring chef began cooking for family and friends. “It was like something had just sparked the biggest flame in my spirit and my soul,” he recalls. “I was in love — and I still am.”
After finishing culinary school, Feker returned to L.A. and worked with some of the best chefs in the country. His mentor, he says, “was a multi-Michelin chef who taught me the art of simplicity.”
In 1990, Feker opened his first Il Mito in L.A. The restaurant was an overnight success, and he was named the best chef in the city. A local magazine raved, “If you want to eat great food without the rubber-necking tourists, Il Mito is the place.”
A family real estate venture brought Feker to Wisconsin in 1997, where he met Maricela, a woman from Milwaukee who would become his wife. He fell for the city and its rhythms too. “L.A. is a great city to be young in, but for me, Milwaukee was a perfect place to settle down,” Feker says. “It is peaceful, and the seasons dictate what your pace of life should be.”
At the time, Milwaukee had a reputation for good food, but Feker and other young chefs had a vision for what it could become. They saw an opportunity to build a true foundation of culinary arts in the city and create a more colorful food landscape.
For Feker, that means focusing on classic dishes, keeping them simple while making them his own. It’s the philosophy he brings to the table at Il Mito in Wauwatosa, 2Mesa in Milwaukee, Zesti in Hartland and the newly opened Americas in Delafield.
“Keep the focus on the recipe, fresh ingredients and the approach to the culture of foods — just do it right,” Feker notes of that philosophy. “Don’t create a taco that is weird in ingredients; just cook the meat correctly and use the proper quality meat, so when [diners] think about the taco, they think about the juice running down their face.”
Feker presents a classic Mexican food menu at 2Mesa. At Il Mito, the spotlight is on Mediterranean dishes with an Italian emphasis. Zesti features global cuisine; at one table you might see Hunan Orange Chicken, Moroccan Lamb and Gnocchi Veneziana being served. At Americas, entrees inspired by North and South American fare take center stage.
When he’s not creating new recipes and restaurants, Feker enthusiastically shares what he knows about flavors, cooking techniques and life. He teaches individuals and groups, including a group of culinary arts students in a program he created at the Social Development Commission in Milwaukee. Supported by the State of Wisconsin, the program is training food service workers for jobs that continually become available as the city prepares to welcome many thousands of visitors for the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
“This is not just for the students,” Feker stresses. “It gives me that gratification I am looking for in life. We all have different bank accounts, our physical and spiritual bank accounts. This is my spiritual bank account.” Feker calls his C.H.E.F. Foundation (Culinary and Hospitality Education Foundation) his greatest success. It was established to provide “basic training” in kitchen skills for military veterans and others hoping to develop the skills to work at every level of the culinary field. Launching the foundation, he says, “was the proof that you are somewhere in your professional life that you can give to something bigger than yourself.”
Refusing to rest on his many laurels, Feker’s next project entails helping homeowners design a dream “chef’s kitchen” of their own.
And yes, his father did forgive him for abandoning that medical career.
“He could see how happy I was, cooking and serving and cleaning tables,” Feker says. “One night, he was sitting at the corner of the bar at Il Mito, and he told me, ‘Son, I’m so glad you took this path.’ That was his way of telling me, ‘Son, you did good.’” MKE