Port High grad David Magnasco has built his dream restaurant around the idea of customers interacting with the staff
David Magnasco has taken control of two the biggest unknowns in the restaurant industry.
He knows how many people are coming. He knows what they’ll be eating.
The menu and number of guests are determined ahead of time. Then Magnasco goes to work, personally cooking meals, explaining each course and how to pair it with the proper wine.
Magnasco’s passion comes out even as he’s slicing produce, mixing humor and excitement in discussing his cooking journey that includes gutting and redoing a 100-year-old building.
The Chef’s Table in Milwaukee is a dream come true for the 1991 Port Washington High School graduate.
The concept for Magnasco’s restaurant was developed while he was working as executive chef at Tripoli Country Club in Milwaukee. He found a table in the club’s 7,000-square-foot kitchen and had an idea.
Customers would sit at the table and eat. Kitchen staff would interact with them. Magnasco calls it a “revolutionary” idea.
“Usually, members don’t go in the kitchen.”
He started seasonal menus and served dinners from five courses all the way up to 26 for a six-hour meal. “How fun,” he said.
Magnasco did something as he interacted with customers. He educated them.
Those who asked for asparagus in January were told no; Magnasco didn’t want to serve produce that traveled the globe and wasn’t fresh. But he told customers that asparagus would be available in April and where it came from.
“It’s growing out on (Tripoli’s) property,” he said.
Magnasco’s interactive dinners became a hit with members and sparked another idea.
“After doing 50 of those, I thought I could do this in my own home,” he said.
Magnasco and his wife put together a business plan and had a member of the Tripoli club who teaches business at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee take a look at it.
The instructor told him it was the best business plan he’d seen in 10 years of teaching. He connected Magnasco with an attorney and banker — other Tripoli members. The next step was to find a space for the restaurant.
He and his wife found an old warehouse on Third Street in Milwaukee.
With help from investors, Magnasco bought the building from “straight-out hoarders.”
Magnasco said 1 million magazines were stacked in what is now the kitchen; he chose that location since he knew the floor could handle the weight of his equipment.
Magnasco, whose father was an industrial arts teacher in Cedarburg, did much of the work himself, building the bars, table and chandelier made of utensils, and laid the tile. Much of the rest of the work was done by his friend, Greg Welton from Welton Builders in Port Washington.
Magnasco has a wine cellar in the basement, along with a private club he plans to open soon called The Board Room.
His focus remains on his personally created meals for his customers. With each course, he pairs a wine — “that’s half your palate” — and he talks to his customers between courses.
“It becomes an event. It’s not just going out to dinner,” he said.
Magnasco works with area farmers, so ingredients are fresh.
“This is real food,” he said.
He has learned “real food.” Roma tomatoes, he said, are hybrids of seven tomatoes.
“It’s not a real tomato. It’s mealy and has a low nutrition count.”
Magnasco and his family of three live upstairs in the building. Magnasco’s daughter already likes to help stir and suggest modifications to their favorite dish, risotto.
Magnasco’s own training in the food industry started early.
At 7 years old, he began serving as his grandmother’s prep cook at his grandparents’ farm near Janesville. In addition, he helped feed chickens and calves and work his grandparents’ 3-acre garden.
He spent the summer before his freshman year of high school with his dad in Port Washington and liked it so much he didn’t want to leave.
He brought his father his school supply list, and his dad told him to get a job.
Magnasco’s mother suggested working in a kitchen. She told him cooking is a lifelong skill and he’d never go hungry.
Magnasco applied and was hired at the still-under-construction Arby’s in Port, the flagship store of the then Hank Aaron-owned franchise.
He later worked as a dishwasher at Ville Du Parc (now the River Club) in Mequon. Magnasco was only allowed to talk to the chef if the chef addressed him first, so he kept asking the sous chef what other tasks he could do. Magnasco completed his work so fast his responsibilities grew to include taking out garbage and peeling potatoes.
He began an apprenticeship through Waukesha County Technical College with Ville Du Parc until the chef sat Magnasco down one day.
“‘You’re fired,’” he told him. “‘I can’t teach you any more. You’ve got three weeks to figure it out.’”
Magnasco ended up working as an assistant chef in Hawaii, then in Madison and at two restaurants in Milwaukee before being hired by the Twisted Fork in Milwaukee, which earned Best New Restaurant from longtime Milwaukee Journal Sentinel critic Dennis Getto.
From there, Magnasco opened Porto at The Abbey Resort in Lake Geneva.
But he felt he was missing something. Most great chefs, he said, have spent time abroad.
Magnasco studied at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners in Piedmont, Italy, for 16 months. For six months, he worked 14-hour days, six days per week. The rest was an apprenticeship.
After returning to the United States, he had planned to go back to Italy and get dual citizenship. He put all his belongings in a semi trailer and was ready to auction them off when he met his future wife. She kept him in the United States, and the rest is history.
Regardless of Magnasco’s role or restaurant, one task stuck throughout his career.
“I still wash dishes. You never stop that in a kitchen,” Magnasco said.
Magnasco also never stops doing something else — learning. He teaches his staff members and lets them bring him new expertise.
“I’m constantly studying,” he said. “I learn new stuff everyday.”
Image Information: Port Washington High School graduate David Magnasco opened The Chef’s Table in an old Milwaukee warehouse in 2014, a private dining facility. Magnasco and his guests set the menu ahead of time and he discusses the meal with customers in between courses. Photo by Sam Arendt