Karen Bell brightens, then pauses at the mention of the James Beard Awards, which recognize superior food preparation and service across the United States.
Bell — chef and owner of Bavette La Boucherie in Milwaukee’s Third Ward — last year made it to the semifinals in the Best Chef: Midwest category. This year, she was a finalist among five Midwestern chefs, a list that included Ardent’s Justin Carlisle.
Bell didn’t take home the prize May 7 — it went instead to chef Gavin Kaysen of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis. Still, the award committee’s recognition is quite an honor, a reflection of Bell’s continuing commitment to quality and creativity in cooking and presentation.
“I feel overwhelmed. It’s a huge honor I wasn’t expecting,” says Bell. “But I don’t think it changes much. Win or lose, we would continue to push ourselves to be the best we can be.”
Bell’s “best” has fostered a strong fan base for her old-fashioned neighborhood butcher shop and the inventive dishes she serves in the restaurant part of her enterprise. Since opening in 2013, her business emphasis has shifted, but her sustainable culinary principles have not.
“We opened as a butcher shop with a small cafe, and now we’re a restaurant with a small butcher shop,” Bell says. “I had to be flexible and go with it, but it’s worked out perfectly.”
Vast, worldwide food experiences
Bell, 41, has spent her life in the restaurant trade. The Milwaukee native started her career at age 15, waiting tables.
After three years at UW-Madison pursuing a degree in English education, she decided teaching wasn’t for her. She dropped out, went home and enrolled in the culinary arts program at Milwaukee Area Technical College, reigniting her love affair with food.
After graduating from MATC, she moved to Chicago and worked at several restaurants, including Charlie Trotter’s, run by the award-winning chef and UW-Madison alumnus who died in 2013. A few years after that, she fulfilled the first of her lifelong dreams and moved to San Francisco.
Through her work in the Bay Area, she rose to sous chef for several restaurants, but the rapid pace and heavy competition caused her to burn out. As much for personal respite as for professional advancement, she followed her sister to Madrid, Spain.
Bell thought she might return to teaching English to Spanish-speakers but missed the beginning of the school year. To support herself she took a job at Toma, a small “American-style” restaurant. After two years, she opened a restaurant — Memento — and introduced Madrid diners to California cuisine.
“If you say American cuisine to people in Spain, most of them think of hamburgers and hot dogs, which is not what I was doing,” says Bell. “In San Francisco I loved cooking ‘farm-to-table’ food before it actually had that name, and I utilized Spanish ingredients in non-Spanish ways.”
During her six-year overseas sojourn, she also spent time in France, coming to appreciate French butchers and their “whole-animal” approach to sustainable meat production. When she returned to Milwaukee to be closer to family and friends, the beginnings of what would become Bavette La Boucherie had formulated in her mind.
Sustainable butchery and amazing food
La boucherie means “butcher shop” in French, while bavette refers to an inexpensive cut of steak, most often flank steak or sirloin tips.
Bell butchered in the beginning, stressing the need to use all parts of the animal. But the rigors of the restaurant kitchen eventually claimed her time and efforts. Currently, butchering responsibilities fall to Bill Kreitmeir, who formerly worked for Grasch Foods in Brookfield and the Groppi’s Food Market in Bay View.
“Bill is 77 and originally from Germany,” Bell says. “What’s cool for him is that he has come full circle.”
The Bavette menu changes with the seasons based on what’s available from the farmers and other small producers with whom Bell works. Despite being a butcher shop, Bavette features a healthy dose of salads and some vegetarian fare among its sandwiches and entrées.
Lion’s Mane mushrooms cut into cutlets and served with parsnip puree is particularly popular, she says. So is the Reuben sandwich, made with beef tongue instead of brisket.
“We treat the tongue like corned beef in that we corn it, and serve it with cheese, spicy sauerkraut and a pickled mustard seed aioli,” Bell explains. “We go through more tongues each week than we do whole animals, so if I am going to buy anything in bulk, it’s that.
“We need to treat food as a sustainable resource, and I hate to see anything like tongues go to waste," she adds.
Bavette La Boucherie
330 E. Menomonee St., Milwaukee
On the menu: Snacks, cheese and charcuterie plates, entrées, sandwiches and salads. Some dishes are vegetarian.
On the web: bavettemilwaukee.com
Hours: Monday–Tuesday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday–Saturday 11 a.m. to
9 p.m. Closed Sunday.