8 questions for Milwaukee foodie Colleen Henry
Milwaukee is filled with amazing people. And some of those people are wild about food. 8 Questions is a series that focuses on food lovers in our midst. They aren't chefs. They don't work in the food industry. But, they know a thing or two about eating. And that's part of what makes them awesome.
Many Milwaukeeans are familiar with Colleen Henry thanks to her nearly 25-year tenure as broadcast journalist with WISN. But if you haven't sat down to talk with her about food, you're missing out. Henry is both a passionate eater and aspiring cook whose appreciation for food extends to both places in Milwaukee and abroad.
But first, a little background. Henry hails from the south side of Chicago where she grew up in what she describes as a "typical Irish Catholic family." She went to college out east to pursue her bachelor's degree in Spanish and international relations, landing her first job working for the French Wire Service in Washington D.C.
"At the time," she notes, "I watched a lot of TV news and thought I'd pursue a career as a foreign correspondent. So I decided to pursue a degree in journalism from Northwestern."
Rather than landing in a foreign clime as planned, Henry found herself in the equally foreign land of Elkhardt, Ind. Her work there led her to a position in Chatanooga, TN and subsequently Milwaukee, where she's spent the past 23 years with at WISN 12. As to how she landed in Milwaukee, Henry says she fell in love with a criminal defense lawyer who had built a reputation in the city.
"He was able to grow in his career," she says. "And I ended up close enough to home that I'm expected to be at all the baby showers."
OnMilwaukee: What inspired your love of food?
Colleen Henry: I think probably waitressing. At our house, if my mother tried to put onions or peppers into a meatloaf, there would be a boycott among the family members. We were meat and potatoes people, and that's just the way we were raised. I didn't eat actual well prepared fish until I was probably in my 30s because my memories of seafood stemmed from a steady diet of fish sticks, my brother's favorite food.
I started waitressing in my mid-20s when I was just starting out in news. I worked primarily fine dining in Chicago ... at an Italian place, a French place ... and then when I moved to the south, I worked in an Italian restaurant there before getting too busy to continue. And I think that's when I started cooking.
When you cook, what are some of your favorite things to make?
Henry: My husband doesn't like anything I like to cook. He hates basil ... how can you hate basil?
But, when it comes to food I'm known for, I make a very mean tres leches cake, and people often ask me to bring it to gatherings.
I also have a meatloaf recipe that's a tribute of sorts to the one I remember eating at Mother McCauly High School, essentially dried out meat served with boxed potatoes. I make mine with ground sirloin, Italian sausage, Romano cheese, a layer of gorgonzola. My husband's not a fan of blue cheese, so sometimes I'll make it with fontina instead.
The one thing I can't make – and I've tried it all my life – is pecan pie. It's my mother's favorite, and i don't know what it is, but I just can't get it to work. And it's not the crust, I just can't get the filling to gel.
Overall, I cook probably two nights a week. I get home at about 7, so it can be tricky. And we eat out a lot.
From your perspective, what's the most exciting thing that's happened to food in Milwaukee?
Henry: When I first came here, I was dating a guy in the food business. He was working for Lettuce Entertain You in Chicago. But here in Milwaukee, there was nowhere to go until Bartolotta's opened Bartolotta's and then Lake Park Bistro. And I think they single-handedly changed the scene here. And now ... and I think it's because Bartolotta's proved it could be done ... small restaurants are cropping up everywhere. People feel empowered that there's a market to sustain them.
One of my favorite places to eat is Lake Park Bistro. I studied French in school, and from the beginning I thought the steak and frites are just right on. But, talking with Joe Bartolotta ... he said people were constantly complaining that they were being ripped off. They didn't want to pay for that experience. Didn't see the value of it. And I think all of that has changed. Food is almost a form of entertainment. I'm just so grateful for what has happened here.
But, you know what I would love to see is an over the top butcher shop. We went to Eataly in Chicago and went to the butcher counter. They had these bone in ribeyes and tomahawk steaks. I'd love to find a place here where you could find things like that.
You mentioned the steak and frites at Lake Park Bistro, but do you have a favorite dish to eat here in the city?
Henry: Hands down, it's Lake Park Bistro's halibut, which you can only get six months out of the year. I also think they have the best ribeye – the entrecote aux champignons. And people never talk about that. But, I think it's the best out there.
Oh! And I absolutely love Crazy Water.
Do you have a particular guilty pleasure when it comes to eating?
Henry: My biggest weakness is emotional eating. I work in a newsroom where everyone is stressed out. Honestly, if somebody wanted to wipe out the competition, all they'd have to do is bring in some ex-lax laced brownies, and they'll just disappear. People don't ask questions. I don't think there's any stress that can't be alleviated by chocolate.
But, if I had to pick two foods to have with me for eternity it would be chocolate chip cookies – crispy on the outside and soft in the middle – and pizza. And just sausage pizza. Nothing fancy.
Do you have a favorite spot you'd consider a hidden gem?
Henry: Yes, and we go there probably two or three nights a week; you can't go to Lake Park Bistro every night. It's Divino's. I love their pizza. They have awesome burrata. And then they have sfingi dipped in Nutella. We used to go there when it was Palermo's Villa, and it's great… just a new generation of young people that have taken over. We go there every week and play trivia on Mondays. It's a little "Cheers"-y.
You seem to have a favorite type of cuisine.
Henry: Yeah, my brother-in-law likes to call my family the Henrynis because we eat so much Italian. But that's not so inaccurate. I love Italian. I could eat it every day.
Tell me about your latest food adventure.
Henry: It's funny. We have this ongoing conversation about our most memorable food events, and so a number of them stick out clearly in my mind.
I was pretty young for the first. My sister was working in Japan, and we visited her in Hong Kong for the weekend. One of my college buddies, Kingford, lived there, and he took us out to this place for Peking Duck. I remember we had to call ahead … that was a world changing experience for two reasons: the duck was just so extraordinary in its flavor, beyond anything I'd ever had. There were things that tickled your tongue and your palate and your nose. It was perfect. And then the whole presentation was just very grand. It was special.
Maybe 10 years later, I was going to law school at Marquette. They had an exchange program in Australia. And we went to a star show in the Outback. It was this dinner with a didgeridoo player. We were eating kangaroo and snake and all of this. And then this woman – who was an actress – took you through all of the constellations. It was all very heady and a bit Shiraz-inspired. But, it was one of those days when food and wine and nature just all came together. Very powerful.
The third was Bartolotta-related. We were in Las Vegas. My husband had won a couple thousand bucks, and I was starving. He's like "Let's go over to that new Bartolotta restaurant." It was a quiet Sunday night, and we told them to let Paul Bartolotta feed us whatever he liked. So much of what we had were things I wouldn't have ordered myself. But, there were anchovies or sardines or something fresh off of a plane. And all of it was really great.
You know, I hate the word "foodie" because it makes you sound like you have experience that you don't. I'm not experienced. I just love food. And there are just times you can tell that an experience is extraordinary.
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