Culinary grad leads with learning at Oconomowoc’s Twisted Fire restaurant
One thing you’ll notice if you drive past Twisted Fire in Oconomowoc with your windows down is how good it smells.
Follow your nose, and you’ll find out that the taste is just as good. So good, in fact, that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel named Twisted Fire one of the Milwaukee area’s top new restaurants of 2019. The centerpiece of the restaurant is without a doubt the custom-built hearth, a staple for dishes across the entire menu. Appetizers, entrées, drinks and desserts are made from scratch, boasting many wood-fired flavors and fresh ingredients.
Formerly home to several other restaurants, new owner Dimitri Glavas decided to remodel the entire space for a fresh take. He brought in a modern feel with the fusion of aged wood and industrial elements in an open layout. Twisted Fire opened in late 2018, but head chef and WCTC alumna Kaitlin Schleef (Culinary Management ’12) has been part of its journey since the very beginning.
Schleef joined the Twisted Fire team before the restaurant opened, helping with all stages of planning. Her input shaped decisions for plateware, kitchen design, equipment and “lists and lists and lists of all the things we would need for opening, hiring, interviewing, meeting with vendors and even the difficult task of wine tasting,” chuckled Schleef. She started out as sous chef and was promoted to head chef in March of 2019. “It was definitely an easy transition becoming the head chef, Culinary grad leads with learning at Oconomowoc’s Twisted Fire restaurant because I was already such a part of most of those big decisions.”
A passion with deep roots
Schleef’s passion for cooking started early. “I was always really interested in cooking as a kid,” she said. “It started out with just cooking dinner for my parents, and by middle school I knew this was what I wanted to do. When I got to high school, I took every cooking class they had.”
Schleef participated in the ProStart program through Watertown High School, a nationwide curriculum and mentoring program for high school students interested in food service careers. “That definitely gave me a level up from what I would have normally been able to learn at that age,” she said, noting one unique experience in particular—prepping food for a live show with Food Network star Guy Fieri in Milwaukee back in 2009.
“By senior year, I had toured some bigger schools, different four-year colleges for cooking, but I also toured WCTC,” said Schleef. “I thought, this place also seems to offer just what these other places have. It’s closer to home, and it seems more streamlined. I could learn all of those basic important skills then get into a job faster without all the student loan debt. I’m really glad I made that choice.”
Aside from the hands-on skills, Schleef’s key takeaway from her time at WCTC was the connections she made. Her first real experience working on the line in a restaurant was at Sanford in Milwaukee, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Top 30 restaurant—an opportunity she found out about through one of her instructors at WCTC.
From downtown fine dining, Schleef made her way back to Lake Country and gained valuable experience. She worked at the Union House in Genesee Depot, as well as Andrew’s in the Delafield Hotel. She was also part of the team that transformed Andrew’s into its swanky new iteration, I.d.
It was one of her WCTC connections once again that brought her to Twisted Fire—a former classmate who had been hired to help open the new restaurant encouraged her to come join the team.
A learning environment
Today, in her role as head chef, Schleef has a special appreciation for student employees—namely their willingness to learn. Acknowledging the opportunity she was given to work and train in a fine dining restaurant while still in school, she knew she wanted to pass that opportunity along to others. “I figured it would be nice to have a restaurant that’s more of a learning environment,” said Schleef.“If you don’t know how to do something, someone is going to show you how to do it. If there’s something you want to do more of, we can find a way to squeeze it in and move you where you want to be.”
Building that learning environment is something Schleef takes seriously, because she has seen first-hand the way that students can flourish when given the right tools. “When I give them something new, they take it on as another challenge,” she said. “They enjoy this, they’re excited about it, and they have passion for it. That’s why they’re paying to go to school to learn more about it.”
Twisted Fire has seen its fair share of WCTC students and alumni since opening, with six including Schleef currently employed, and the connections continue to grow. WCTC culinary instructor Jack Birren brought in the WCTC Hospitality, Baking and Culinary Club for a special dinner at Twisted Fire last semester. “It was really fun for the students we have working here and myself because we’ve been in that club before,” said Schleef. “Now we were going to make this coursed dinner for them and show off what we can do here. That was pretty cool.”
Words of wisdom
As she looks ahead, Schleef’s main goal is to stay open-minded. “This is one of those careers and industries where you just have to realize you’re not going to know everything, and you’re never going to stop learning new things,” said Schleef. She consistently reminds her employees of the value of staying open to new ideas from others. “It’s always about teamwork. The most important thing in a restaurant is giving the customer a great experience, and that obviously happens by giving the employees a great experience and giving everyone opportunities to feel like part of a team.”
By Chelsey Porth, Writer/Marketing Specialist