The existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre once said that to do is to be (and of course he would.) Chances are that were he alive today, the French philosopher-author would have appreciated Chef Jason Gorman’s approach to cooking, as well as his culinary talents.
“It is more important to me that I cook, rather than where I cook,” says Gorman, 42, who currently cooks and consults at La Merenda Bar & International Tapas, located at 125 E. National Ave. in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood. “I am happiest when I am creating food.”
Gorman, a native of Chicago’s River Forest suburb, has been a culinary force to be reckoned with since emerging onto the Milwaukee dining scene nearly a decade ago as chef at the original Dream Dance in the Potawatomi Bingo Casino. Behind a nearly anonymous wooden door on the casino’s upper floor across from the bingo hall, Gorman and his staff created culinary marvels that Milwaukee soon discovered. He quickly developed a following, sharing his love of food and talent for creating it through culinary classes around the state.
“All food has the potential to be exceptional or mediocre, and I look for contrasts in flavors, textures and temperatures,” says Gorman, who cooked professionally in Atlanta and Dallas before landing in Milwaukee. “When you enjoy what you are eating, (the food) should be fulfilling the promise of its initial visual excitement. If it looks pretty but doesn’t taste good, then I feel that I’ve been lied to.”
The casino’s popularity grew right along with that of its restaurant. The enterprise nearly doubled in size in 2008, and Dream Dance moved to the ground floor, gaining its own entrance from the street. But the restaurant’s nature also changed, and its emphasis moved away from more creative dishes becoming Dream Dance Steak. Despite the restaurant’s migration to what is largely high-level supper club fare, Gorman remained for several years in an effort to add more than an interesting patina to proceedings. But the relationship didn’t last.
In early 2011, Gorman made a much-publicized jump to the Iron Horse Hotel to take the role of executive chef for Smyth and the hotel’s other restaurants. The relationship lasted about a year before he moved to his current berth at La Merenda, an Italian word meaning “early snack,” which refers to the custom of early evening socializing and gathering for food and drink.
“The restaurant has been open five years and most people aren’t aware of its commitment to sustainable food,” Gorman says. “Owner Peter Sandroni works closely with more than 45 different farmers to source local ingredients. It’s an exciting point for me in my career.”
Gorman, an amateur guitarist and comic book artist, says the relationship with Sandroni is almost musical.
“When Peter and I are creating menus or specials, it’s not unlike jamming,” he says. “We have fun, we work with the freshest ingredients and we bounce ideas back and forth. Having a loyal audience packing the house each night doesn’t hurt, either.”
La Merenda, which specializes in small plates, covered an international culinary range even before Gorman joined. The options run from locally sourced Wisconsin meats and cheeses to Costa Rican ceviche, from Lebanese falafel to sambal goring udang, a sautéed shrimp dish with Indonesian roots. Seasonal items also are incorporated into the menu to capitalize on locally sourced ingredients.
The international flare combined with local roots is the perfect combination for Gorman, who didn’t consciously set out to be a chef. It’s a career that he says found him.
“There wasn’t an ‘aha’ moment per se, but I can speak to what cooking is all about for me,” Gorman says. “It’s the moment when you see the look on a person’s face who maybe wasn’t happy when the meal started, and you know you played a role in making his (or her) life better. Being part of creating a good memory is what gives me purpose.”
That’s something even Jean-Paul Sartre could appreciate.
Chef Jason Gorman's "Lobsterwurst"
12 slices, serves 6-8 people
1-1 1/4 lb. live lobster 8 oz. scallops 8 oz. rock shrimp 1/3 oz. butter
1/2 oz. roasted garlic paste 2 1/2 oz. onions, minced 1/4 oz. tarragon, chopped Kosher salt, lemon juice, peppercorns, bay leaf, black pepper and cayenne peppr to taste
1. Cook lobster in boiling water, seasoned with salt, lemon juice, pepper- corns, bay leaf and cayenne pepper for about 5 minutes. Immediately shock in ice bath to stop cooking.
2. Clean lobster, removing all meat from tail, claws, and knuckles. Medium dice the meat.
3. In a food processor, puree the scal- lops and rock shrimp.
4. Sauté onions and garlic paste in butter until translucent. Cool.
5. Mix all components together along with tarragon, salt and pepper.
6. Form mixture into a sausage-like roll, then cover tightly with plastic wrap, tying the ends of the lobsterwurst tightly.
7. Poach in 170 degree water for about 8 minutes. Cool lobsterwurst in refrigerator until ready to serve.