Tips From 5 Local Foodies
Story by Jenna Kashou
Photo courtesy of Bill Johnston
The holidays are a time of togetherness and nothing brings people together more than food. Whether you follow family traditions, or create your own, being a good host is an art. Five local foodies—pros and amateurs—dish about what they’re excited to put on their holiday table and the real makings of a get-together.
The Party Designer: Bill Johnston
Use lots of candles. Everything looks better by candlelight, and don’t forget to have extra ice on hand, always! —Bill Johnston
When you love to cook, eat and drink like Bill Johnston, you’re destined to be a good host. Johnston grew up in a large, close-knit family that was always entertaining large groups. “Everyone pitched in and brought their best to the table,” he says. A few special family recipes have remained intact over generations and graced the table at his gatherings: a creamy dip known as “Reuteman,” Grandma Alice’s caramel rolls and his great-great grandfather’s sausage. Johnston’s signature dish is a wild mushroom tart—a mixture of sauteed wild mushrooms with fresh herbs and brandy, braided into a puffed pastry strudel with cheese.
Johnston really shines when hosting a holiday cocktail party. The self-employed interior designer will cater and host parties up to 40 people for family and friends, though he doesn’t really advertise his services. He insists on doing most of the cooking from scratch and sourcing locally, but if he finds French pastries or the perfect pate he can’t do better himself, he’ll buy it. “I adore smoked rainbow trout from Rushing Waters in Palmyra, especially when paired with local stoneground mustard and cornichons,” he says. Other spots he relies on for local provisions are Empire and St. Paul’s Fish Market, Bower’s Produce in East Troy and the Milwaukee Winter Farmers’ Market.
The Down to Earth Chef: Karen Gill
Make room. Clean out the fridge and freezer ahead of time so you have space for everything. —Karen Gill
Karen Gill began cooking professionally as the Down to Earth Chef in 2004, and continues to entertain small groups at home with her husband, partially as a way to share their travels. They’ve hosted several theme dinners based around trips to Cuba, Turkey and Mexico, complete with authentic food, music and photos.
Unlike others who learned from family, Gill’s parents rarely hosted, but she always had a knack for it—even when she was in college and only had $10 to entertain four friends.
Gill likes for things to be easy, so she uses a few local standbys: Clock Shadow Creamery’s quark, 5 Lilies jam, Indulgence chocolates and Treat Bake Shop’s nuts. Gill and her husband trek up to Door County a few times year to stock up on organic meat at Waseda Farms.
Gill is hosting Thanksgiving for her husband’s family this year, and for Christmas every year, she brings her mother’s cranberry walnut fluff (using fresh Wisconsin cranberries). She’s the keeper of the coveted family recipe.
The Master Chef: Katrina Kozar
Start getting organized early. And ask for help—you don’t have to do it all yourself. —Katrina Kozar
Kozar is a professional chef with a day job, and was a past contestant on MasterChef: Season 6. “I just love to host, if I could have people come over to eat my food and have a glass of wine every weekend, I would,” she says. Her speciality is hosting casual gatherings like Packer parties and “Sunday gravy”—a decadent meat sauce akin to a meat slushie, served over pasta. Kozar doesn’t need a theme or an occasion for a party, just good people, homemade food and great music—on vinyl, she insists.
Growing up in a German family, she feels it’s in her blood to feed people. She began hosting dinner parties in college and enjoyed fresh beef from her roommate’s father, a hobby farmer. Her father also now supplies her with fresh fish and venison for her recipes. “Wisconsin was farm-to-table before that became a buzzword,” she says. Kozar’s family goes the potluck route for the holidays, so she’ll be bringing a few dishes to share. (Dips and salads are her staples.)
Kozar is a member of a CSA—Community Supported Agriculture—at Pinehold Gardens in Oak Creek, and frequents the West Allis Farmers’ Market and Kettle Range Meats. She also sources beef from Amy Heine in Helenville and pork from Bargene’s Farm and Ed and Gail Belinski in Watertown, along with local honey from Baraboo.
The Connector: Toni Spott
It’s not always going to be perfect. That’s OK! —Toni Spott
Toni Spott loves to connect people. As a real estate agent, she helps people find their perfect home and, when hosting dinner parties nearly every other month, she tries to bring people together who have never met. “Everyone has a story to tell,” she says.
She always hosts a gathering on Christmas Eve that incorporates a few of her own, and her husband, Michael’s Polish-Catholic traditions. The buffet dinner started as a family gathering and branched out to include friends who don’t have anywhere to go.
Before the meal begins, Michael brings out the oplatki (large wafer) and breaks off a piece before passing it and saying something nice about someone else in the room. This continues until everyone has a piece.
For the meal, Spott rarely does anything twice and tries to keep it local and organic when possible. Outpost is her store of choice and she relies on her large collection of cookbooks to find inspiration when compiling the meal. She relies on Bernie’s Fine Meats in Port Washington for “cannibal sandwiches” and Milwaukee’s own Ma Baensch’s for pickled herring, two more Polish traditions always on her holiday table.
The Dynamic Duo: Leslie Stachowiak and Tommy Pecoraro
Keep it in perspective. Gatherings are about the people and the time you have to spend with them; the rest falls into place. —Leslie Stachowiak
Leslie Stachowiak and her husband, Tommy Pecoraro, have been hosting parties with friends and family for almost a decade. “Hands-down, my favorite type of gathering to host is one where we can all be seated around the table for dinner and take time to visit. Life gets so hectic so I always appreciate when we get the opportunity to spend quality time together, laughing and creating memories,” she says.
Stachowiak works in PR full-time and has a toddler, so their gatherings are now more of a group effort. Pecoraro is the family chef, and together, they work on menu planning.
Pecoraro loves to adjust recipes and tweak ingredients to add his special touches. He is looking forward to the Christmas sausage at Glorioso’s that’s only available for a few weeks during the holiday season.
Every good host agrees that the guests are as important as the food, and the occasion is merely an excuse to be together. So, go ahead and indulge in good food with friends this holiday season!
Jenna Kashou, a Milwaukee native, is a freelance writer covering all things lifestyle. She served as the Pfister Hotel’s 5th Narrator-in-Residence and also contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Business Journal’s special sections. Coming from a Middle Eastern and Italian family, she knows a thing or two about eating a good meal. She also works full-time as an event planner and fundraiser.