The Milwaukee Chefs Behind Dandan and Esterev on Illness and Empire-Building

Chefs Dan Jacobs and Dan Van Rite haven’t been working together for long, but since they teamed up, they’ve proven that they’re better together with a series of hit Milwaukee restaurants. In 2016, they opened their first restaurant together, the aptly named Chinese restaurant Dandan. They followed it up with restaurant within a restaurant Esterev, and last year launched Batches Bakery with Dandan’s pastry chef. “It’s nice to have your best friend next to you and be able to bounce ideas off of,” Jacobs says of his partnership with Van Rite.

They opened their newest restaurant last month. Fauntleroy (named for Donald Duck’s middle name, a fact of the day Jacobs’s received on his phone on his 40th birthday) is a French restaurant with a 70s rock vibe. It’s also the coda to Jacobs and Van Rite’s two-year expansion tear in Milwaukee’s historic Third Ward.

The two first cooked together at local culinary events. Jacobs had moved from Chicago to Milwaukee in 2011 to work at Roots, initially as sous chef and then as executive chef. When it closed, he continued on at Wolf Peach, which opened in the same space. In 2014 he became executive at chef at small plates restaurant Odd Duck. Van Rite, meanwhile, was executive chef at Hinterland, following a stint as executive chef at the location in Green Bay, his hometown. In 2015, after meeting at various collaborative dinners and becoming friends, they left those restaurants to work together as chef-owners. “We’ve been able to build a real great infrastructure and just a real sense of community and ownership between the staff,” Jacobs says. “We couldn’t do it without the people around us.”


Duck confit salad at Fauntleroy

Dan Sturdy/Fauntleroy


Fauntleroy’s chicken liver eclair

John Sturdy/Fauntleroy


A tower of hors d’oeuvres and glasses of wine on a table at Fauntleroy

Dan Sturdy/Fauntleroy

Fauntleroy’s chicken liver eclair

It’s a sentiment that rings true for any conscientious chef, but doubly so for Jacobs. In the lead up to the opening of Dandan in 2016, Jacobs was diagnosed with Kennedy’s disease, a rare neuromuscular condition. Similar to ALS, Kennedy’s causes muscle weakness and atrophy. The progression of the disease is particularly noticeable in the face and throat, affecting speech and swallowing. “It sounds like I’m losing my voice, and that’s because I’m literally losing my voice,” Jacobs says. “At some point I’m gonna have a hard time talking, but I found out if I yell, people hear me very clearly. Or maybe that will be a good thing. I’ll lose my ability to yell.”

Because Kennedy’s is so rare, there’s not a lot of information out there on how it might progress. “There’s no real expectations of what’s going to happen in the future or what’s happening now,” Jacob says. He’s found that when it comes to working in the restaurants, some days are better than others. “A lot of things I think that frustrate me that I can’t do are little things like pinching dumplings, or turning artichokes, or the real simple mundane tasks.”

But Van Rite and the staff at their restaurants complete the tasks that Jacobs can’t, whether it’s opening up a jar, carrying food to and from the downstairs prep kitchen at Fauntleroy, or filling in when Jacobs needs time off. “A lot of it is up to me to be able to tell people sometimes I need help,” he says. “And that’s hard for anybody. I think it’s learning that strength to be able to be like, ‘Hey, man, I need help with this.’”

Jacobs doesn’t know how the disease will advance, but in the meantime he’s doing what he can to work towards a cure. “I’m not a doctor. I’m not going to come up with some sort of cure. I’m not going to be able to research something. But being chefs, the one thing we do really well is we raise money really well,” he says. He and Van Rite put together periodic “Dim Sum Give Some” cocktail party-style fundraisers for Kennedy’s disease, and in two years, they’ve raised over $50,000 for the Kennedy’s Disease Association.


Fauntleroy

Fauntleroy
John Sturdy/Fauntleroy

Jacobs attributes their fundraising success to Milwaukee’s close knit food community. Over the past five years, he says, the city’s food scene has flourished, making Milwaukee more than Chicago’s little sibling. And Fauntleroy is one of the latest restaurants to contribute to “just a great time in Milwaukee’s dining scene” with a take on French food that the city was missing. “Whether it’s doing our style of Chinese food, or doing our style of French food, it’s going to be different than the status quo that’s been here at various times,” Jacobs says. “We’re just trying to offer something a little bit different, something a little bit just more fun.”

The Dandan duo aren’t done growing their portfolio of Milwaukee restaurants. “We’re always looking,” Van Rite says, although his partner notes that he’d like to give it some time. But despite not knowing what lies ahead, Jacobs is confident that their partnership — and the staff they’ve built together — will carry them through. “I think the beauty of having me and Dan is the fact that we can step in for each other at any point. I mean, Dan is ancient,” Jacobs jokes. “He’ll break down at the drop of a hat, you know what I mean? We’ve got to make sure we take care of each other.”

Fauntleroy [Official]

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