The Milwaukee Outsider Who Helped Put the City on the Culinary Map
James Beard Award-winning chefs have to start somewhere, and for Adam Siegel, that somewhere was his stepfather’s fast food restaurant, Michael’s Chicago-Style Red Hots, in Highland Park, Chicago.
Chicago-style steamed hot dogs turned out to be Siegel’s gateway to the culinary world.
Fast forward a few years and a few thousand miles. After graduating from culinary school, Siegel studied under a series of renowned chefs in Italy, France and in great dining destinations in the U.S., including Washington, D.C., Chicago and San Francisco.
And then Milwaukee.
Siegel arrived in the city in 2000 and signed on as sous chef at the highly rated Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro. “I thought I was going to be in Milwaukee for maybe a year or two at the most,” Siegel says. He was newly married; his wife was expecting their first child and he figured Milwaukee would be an interim step on his way to Chicago or maybe New York. “I didn’t think I’d stay here, but things kept falling into place.”
Great restaurants put cities on the map. They reshape neighborhoods and play an outsized role in the cultural life of an area. While some chefs make a restaurant’s reputation, others make a city’s reputation, which is what Siegel has been doing in Milwaukee for more than two decades.
“I fell in love with Milwaukee,” he says. “It’s not “Laverne and Shirley” or “Happy Days.” It’s very unique. There’s both a blue and white collar aspect to it, it’s artistic yet industrial. There’s a lot here and there’s a lot in the culinary world here, like some of the best produce grown in the United States and some of the best farmers markets, especially around Madison.”
Siegel has been instrumental in elevating the city’s culinary reputation ever since he arrived. He spent 21 years moving up the ranks of the Bartolotta Restaurants organization. “I was hungry and young and wanted more,” he says. He eventually became managing partner and corporate chef of the entire portfolio of restaurants. In the midst of it, he earned the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest in 2008.
In 2021, Siegel left the Bartolotta group, but he didn’t leave Milwaukee. This spring will see his most ambitious undertaking yet, a fine dining restaurant called Lupi & Iris, with a menu inspired by the cuisine of the French and Italian rivieras. The restaurant, co-owned with business partner and real estate developer Michael DeMichele, will have six dining and lounge areas including an outdoor patio, private dining room and chef’s counter where Siegel will be a fixture, doing what he loves: “Cooking really good food. That makes me happy,” he says.
He admits it’s “an extreme amount of pressure” and not a little bit of risk. “I had a great career and I left that to take this on. It’s not like I’m opening up a small neighborhood restaurant. I’m opening up a 10,500-square-foot restaurant that has 350 seats, and I’ll have close to 100 employees, but I think I’m well prepared to be successful.”
The restaurant is expected to be another boost to Milwaukee’s burgeoning foodie reputation. “I came to Milwaukee as an outsider, and I’ve loved helping it grow into a culinary city,” says Siegel. “You can put Milwaukee’s chefs and restauranteurs up against Chicago or New York or wherever. Just because we’re in Milwaukee doesn’t mean we don’t execute on the same level.”
Why Mercer Culinary
“If you don’t give your cooks good quality equipment to work with, how can you hold them accountable to give you great results? It’s important to elevate yourself and everyone around you with the proper tools.”