Many successful entrepreneurs know early in life just what career path they want to pursue. For Dane Baldwin, chef and owner of The Diplomat, it was more a case of knowing what he didn’t want to do.
“In high school I had a job at Sendik’s Food Market in Whitefish Bay as ‘the cleanup kid,’ and I knew I didn’t want to do that for very long,” Baldwin says.
From that experience, he learned the food industry from the ground up, mostly by cleaning that ground.
A series of professional stops became a trajectory that this past August led Baldwin to open a restaurant at 815 E. Brady St., the former home to Bosley on Brady.
The Diplomat, currently open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, takes a “shareable plates” approach with seasonal menus and an emphasis on locally sourced foods.
It’s been a long, progressive trip from Sendik’s to The Diplomat, but the chef still credits that market for setting him on his way.
“I used to clean behind the butcher counter at Sendik’s and eventually learned how to use a knife,” Baldwin says.
From there he worked his way up, moving out to the retail floor and eventually ordering merchandise for the store.
Baldwin took a job at the former Gil’s Café, and next became part of the Bartolotta restaurant group as part of the team that opened Bacchus on the ground floor of Cudahy Tower.
While later working for the SURG Restaurant Group’s Carnevor Steakhouse Moderne, Baldwin met his wife Anna, who was just starting as a waitress.
“She was getting the new-employee tour and we shook hands,” the chef remembers. “The rest, as they say, is history.”
Baldwin also spent time at the former Graffito, Barossa, Dancing Ganesha and Hinterland, in some cases augmenting a full-time position with part-time work as a way to better learn the industry.
“Chefs tend to be visual learners, and hands-on experience can be the best teacher,” Baldwin says. “I have no formal culinary-school training, but if I had a day job I also had a night job, which provided me with 15 years of good training in a variety of culinary styles.”
Before opening The Diplomat, Baldwin reunited for several years with the Bartolotta group, filling a slot at Harbor House before becoming executive chef at Mr. B’s Steakhouse. He left the steakhouse in February as plans for The Diplomat got underway.
Baldwin, who owns the restaurant with his wife, wanted a name that was distinctive and would stand the test of time.
“Naming a restaurant is a lot like naming a child,” says Baldwin, who has two daughters with Anna. “I also thought about The Franklin and Baldwin and Daughters, but we tried The Diplomat and it stuck.”
The restaurant’s menu is similar to a small-plate approach, although Baldwin admits some of the plates are not very small.
Selections range from tagliatelle served with a “winter squash ragu” and other ingredients ($12) to pork rinds in a Carolina mustard sauce ($6), and corn grits with cave-aged cheddar cheese, arugula, pancetta, oyster mushrooms and egg ($15).
The menu also features beef short ribs prepared with fondant potatoes, pickled mustard and Broccolini ($15/$29) — it’s become a house favorite — and brandade ($12), which is French for salt cod puree.
“We buy the salt cod already cured, rinse it and then soak it overnight,” Baldwin says. “We then gently poach it, which removes more of the salt, break it up and emulsify it with heavy cream, olive oil and other ingredients and then bake it to a golden brown.”
Baldwin’s creative approach has drawn a significant following, and the restaurant already changed its no-reservations policy to meet customer demand. After so many years in so many different restaurants, the chef knows just what he wants to do and is pretty sure how he is going to get there.
“This is near and dear to my heart and something that has evolved over my career,” Baldwin says. “Restaurants are a young man’s game. I still have some years ahead of me and want to put them to the best use possible.”
The Diplomat, 815 E. Brady St., Milwaukee
Chef Dane Baldwin takes a shareable-plates approach to new American cuisine — with a nod to Southern cooking — and employs locally sourced food in a seasonally changing menu.
On the web: thediplomatmke.com
Hours: Tuesday–Friday, 6–10 p.m.; Saturday 5–10 p.m. The bar opens at 4 p.m.
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