BY LORI ACKEN | PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
Their JVR Group is still relatively new, but restaurateurs Dan Jacobs and Dan Van Rite are rock stars (yes, they flinch a bit at the descriptor) on the local foodie scene, courtesy of the imaginative spaces and “come as you are, eat top-notch stuff” sensibility of their Third Ward eateries DanDan, EsterEv and Fauntleroy. The pair’s newest venture is a partnership with developer Tim Dixon to revamp the Iron Horse Hotel’s food, beverage and catering operations, the largest piece of which is turning Smyth, the hotel’s former fine-dining restaurant, into Ash, an open-hearth-centered eatery featuring an unfussy, seasonal menu anchored in the use of fire and smoke. Jacobs and Van Rite won’t operate Ash, slated to open mid-month, but — as I found out when I recently sat down with the men, who boast a collective 40 years in the culinary realm — they are wholly invested in its, and the city’s, success. Here’s what they
had to say.
How did this opportunity come about?
Dan Jacobs: I’ve had a long-standing relationship with Tim Dixon, going back to when I first started working in the city in 2011. I worked at Roots [Restaurant & Cellar], and Tim’s office was upstairs, so he would be down pretty often. [It] started out as just a “Hey, how’s it going?” sort of relationship. When Roots closed, he and Gina [Gruenewald] did Wolf Peach, and I was the opening chef in Wolf Peach. Since then, I’ve had a working relationship with him … and it’s always been a good relationship. So he approached us last September and we had a conversation, just about his intentions and what he wanted to do with the hotel. It’s been around for 10 years, and it is iconic to Milwaukee, but I don’t think the food there really lived up to what the hotel is. So the opportunity to bring the food up to what the hotel is really interested me and Dan. And Tim’s ideas on the concept for the new restaurant were right up our alley. It’s something that we don’t have in any other restaurants — which is live fire, something we both miss.
This is a pretty expansive undertaking. Did it feel like something of a natural evolution, or a new challenge — or a combination of both?
Dan Van Rite: A challenge. And an opportunity to do something that we’re both interested in.
Jacobs: The hotel is something that we’ve never done together. I’ve worked at some hotels in Chicago, but we realized this could be a whole new sort of venue for us.
What did first steps look like?
Jacobs: The first thing was understanding what that new concept was. From there, you can start to build towards that. We knew what we wanted to do with Ash and the new concept — and then it was about bringing [remaining restaurant] Branded the lunch and dinner menu when Smyth was going to close, then working into brunch and then working into catering. And then really focusing on Ash.
Van Rite: We wanted it all to be cohesive.
What’s been your process — divide and conquer, or all hands on every deck?
Van Rite: It was divide and conquer. As the menu goes, we’ve just split it up between the groups of us to work on concepts and recipes and stuff like that.
Jacobs: We come together on ideas, talk about what it is we think and then we break it up into the actual execution of stuff. We all get together, taste stuff and tweak stuff and then move towards actually training the staff there to handle it. Like brunch at Branded, for instance, was three or four weeks of us being there on Sundays,
making sure things are being executed properly and things are being done correctly.
Winter is coming. Is that part of the appeal of opening a restaurant centered on an open hearth?
Van Rite: Well, we were supposed to open in June. So no [laughs]. Jacobs: We want to open a place that’s going to catch the eye of people from out of town, but is also going to bring locals in because we’re doing seasonal, really great food. We want to create an environment of really sharing — people having dinner at a table together, whether it’s sharing entrees or sides or salads. We want to be approachable for everybody.
Tell me about the process of working with Tim to get both the cooking and operational space you need and also the dining space that makes the most of that unique experience and feel.
Jacobs: The main thing is that we’re trying to lighten up the room and make it less manly, less masculine.
Van Rite: Less cave-y. And the main thing is the hearth. We wanted a showpiece. When you walk into a room, that’s the first thing you see, and it gets people interested. So it’s something that we wanted inside the restaurant. … The fireboxes and the grills and the hooks and the cage — how that’s going to work on the inside — they’re all going to be handmade, by our specs, how we want to run this device. Because you don’t want to be stuck only being able to do one thing. So we have a lot of moving parts and a lot of options to smoke stuff from the very top. It’s not so much “hang stuff in the corner.” We want to be able to use the hearth in a wide variety of ways.
Downtown is booming with the “deer district,” the streetcar and now the coming of the Democratic National Convention.
Especially exciting time to be in the hospitality industry?
Jacobs: The DNC is giant. It’s the largest opportunity the city’s had, at least since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here for eight years. For four straight days, people are going to say the words “Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” over and over again, multiple times a day on national and international television, on the internet, everything. And we in the hospitality realm — whether it’s restaurants, bars or hotels — this is how we’re going to be viewed. It’s up to us to make that statement and make good on our efforts to build this city. I’m ecstatic for it. I love the idea that people are coming into the city, coming into downtown and realizing that there’s so many options and so many great owner-operated establishments and smaller boutique hotels.
Given the successes of your joint ventures thus far, do new projects get easier for you?
Jacobs and Van Rite: No!
Jacobs: It’s a lot of work, man! There’s a lot of weeks where we work six days a week. You’re constantly on call, no matter what. You’re engaged in every major decision.
Van Rite: You go to the bank. You go to the farmer’s market. You run from restaurant to restaurant. Go get ice. Or some guy is passed out in the toilet …
Jacobs: … and you’re the one who has got to call the cops. When something goes wrong, you’re the No. 1 person. Somebody is calling at 7 a.m., no matter what time you got done with work. But, at the same time, in all the restaurants I’ve worked at, the one thing that’s constant about the ones that succeed are the owners are present. Me and Dan always wanted to make sure that we were part of stuff. We have a great group of chefs de cuisine and sous chefs and front-of-the-house managers and bar managers that handle the day-in, day-out, and really kick ass, no matter what it is. But me and Dan want to be part of it. We love doing this and, for us, it’s fun. MKE