The MKE-NOLA Connection
Story and Photography by Joe Laedtke
There and Back, and There Again
Bon vivants, hedonists and wanderers agree—visit New Orleans and it’s all over. The city, the people and the joie de vivre, knock you over and then burrow so deeply inside your heart that, by the end, you get this feeling that you’re merely living between trips.
Your plane arrives. Your legs come back under you while you stroll through the French Quarter, in the company of buskers, hustlers, natives and tourists. The music draws you in, all jaunty and energetic in the daytime near Preservation Hall, and at night, sultry in a smoky 7th Ward neighborhood bar or at a bounce club [in the 9th]. You can’t help but move, even if you never had any rhythm to start with.
And then, there’s the food and drink: Po’ boys, grilled oysters, etouffee. Sazaracs at the Hotel Monteleone. Barbecue shrimp washed down with Abita. Powdered sugar-drenched beignets at 3 a.m., while sipping on chicory coffee and inevitably wearing black. Cajun, Creole and classic French stand proudly alongside newly-arrived and longstanding immigrant cuisines, making New Orleans a true American multicultural melting pot.
Like New Orleanians, Milwaukeeans, too, turn our music up loud, pour our drinks strong, and appreciate equally our longstanding culinary traditions. We went down and came back up, then found our fix in town for when we can’t get away—but also can’t get NOLA off our minds.
“We plan our trips down there so our staff can ‘drink the Kool-Aid.’ They have to believe in the culture that we’ve established at Maxie’s. You can’t cook French food if you haven’t been to France. You can’t cook Southern if you haven’t been down south. The most impactful city to visit to get somebody to understand Southern cuisine is New Orleans.”
Joe Muench, co-owner of Black Shoe Hospitality, first visited Louisiana when he was in high school. At the time, he had no inkling that he’d become a chef, let alone chef-owner together with partner Dan Sidner, of three successful restaurants in Milwaukee. With Blue’s Egg strongly established and Story Hill BKC, their newest concept, finding a strong identity in small plates and a great craft cocktail and beer program, Maxie’s grew up a little differently—and knew who she was right away. Like New Orleans, she likes her music up, her lights down low and her home to be a place for a party.
“Maxie’s, by far, has the most expression [of our restaurants]. It could work in any city. We could put it into New Orleans and people would embrace it,” Muench says. It fits with the DNA of the south—humble and hospitable, a place you can go to eat well and get a taste of something you once had (or look forward to having, after landing at Louis Armstrong International Airport). With Muench’s strong belief that Milwaukeeans and New Orleanians share a common attitude, there’s not a lot of pretentiousness in what Maxie’s is doing.
What sets Maxie’s apart is not that they import the cuisine of the South, but that they strive to be authentic in their interpretation of traditional Southern food using local ingredients. You’ll find the standards there—freshly shucked oysters, Hurricanes and jambalaya, just to name a few—alongside dishes that are more innovative, yet won’t be entirely unfamiliar to Wisconsinites’ palates, like rabbit stew with sweet potato drop biscuits and pecan-crusted Rushing Waters trout fillets. To sample the menu is like taking a tour across the broad South without crossing the freeway to the south side.
Brilliant Savarin said, “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.” If this is true, then we might be southerners at heart.
“Every city is connected to New Orleans. We can relate to the genuineness, the longstanding traditions. It’s the heart of the U.S. When you go there, you leave a piece of yourself, but you also take a part with you,” Muench says. And us, well—we agree. We’ll keep living between those trips, with Maxie’s keeping our bon temps rouler-ing in the meantime.