Featured chef: A.J. Dixon of Centro Cafe
She's intense, feisty, funny and friendly. Exasperated by an uncontrollable rat problem at a restaurant that once employed her -- it is now closed -- she beat one of the varmints to death with a hammer.
Most of all, A.J. Dixon is passionate about food, and as the new executive chef at Centro Cafe, she has the opportunity to express that. The small and popular Riverwest eatery has been undergoing changes, and the native of Milwaukee's South Side is at the center of that.
Centro now has an oven for baking its meatballs and desserts. The oven broadens the range of specials the restaurant can offer to include such items as lamb chops and duck breast.
An ice cream maker had been purchased a few days before I sat and watched Dixon cooking sauces on the eight-burner stove behind the marble counter at the front of the cafe. Centro will soon be making its own sorbetto and gelato.
Pasta, the restaurant's main attraction for many, is now being served in bowls rather than the previous platters. Dixon found and offers a gluten-free fresh pasta made in Madison that is so tasty, she sometimes chooses to eat it rather than conventional noodles.
She has hooked up Centro with Braise, the local farmer to restaurant network, and the chef wants to make more items from scratch in the kitchen. Centro has been buying its pasta dry, but it will begin producing its own gnocchi very soon.
The after 10 p.m. bar menu has been dropped, and Dixon wants to shrink the general menu a bit. That would simplify prep and allow more time for in-house creations.
The new executive chef orchestrated Centro's first wine dinner last month, and it sold out. She teaches cooking classes at Bayshore Town Center's Sur La Table and at the Bay View Community Center, and she presided over the first-ever cooking class at Centro on Dec. 10.
Students learned to make, among many items, pomegranate champagne aperitif, rosemary shrimp skewers, baked goat cheese with candied tomatoes, and chocolate truffles. There will be more cooking classes at the restaurant.
For some customers, the biggest change at Centro is the acceptance of credit cards. The cafe had previously been a cash-only business.
Dixon got her passion for food from her mother, a dietary aide at a nursing home but an adventurous cook in her own kitchen. "I grew up eating everything from chitlins to sushi," the red-headed chef said.
Mother and daughter constantly cooked together before Dixon's mom died. "I was 14, and I decided to go to culinary school and pursue that because she never did," the chef said. She graduated from the MATC culinary arts program in 2002.
Dixon has been everything from a bartender at Bay View Bowl, and server and cook at County Clare, to the kitchen manager at LuLu. She was the opening chef at The National, where she wrote the menu and even helped install the floor.
Her tenure at Centro Cafe began as a line cook last spring. Dixon moved up to executive chef in September.
I asked her a few standard chef questions:
OMC: What is your specialty?
AJD: Food. Everything. I am just passionate about food.
OMC: What is your favorite Milwaukee restaurant?
AJD: Hinterland Erie Street Gastropub. The food there is so good, so well prepared.
OMC: Favorite cuisine?
AJD: It's a tossup – Puerto Rican, Thai, Indian. I love spices. Oh, Vietnamese, too.
OMC: Future ambitions?
AJD: I want to open my own place. My husband is a home brewer, and we will have a small gastropub. He will do the beer, only two or three. I am waiting until my kids are bigger. (Dixon has two preschoolers.)
OMC: What do the initials A.J. stand for?
AJD: Amanda Joy
Dixon is creating a special menu for New Year's Eve that will include duck prosciutto and lobster mac 'n' cheese. Food will be served until 11 p.m., and champagne glasses will be raised at midnight.
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