The Culinary Adventures of AJ Dixon • centro café: by Jim Loew Imagine a workday that starts anywhere from noon to 2 PM and doesn’t wrap up until somewhere between 9 PM and midnight. Imagine most of that time spent standing, on your feet, twisting, bending down, hovering near open flames. No time for a break.
centro cafe’s head chef, A.J. Dixon, doesn’t have to put much imagination into these thoughts; this is her reality. “It’s pretty nonstop,” she said.
Dixon began working at centro cafe back in April 2011 as a line cook, and this past September she took over as head chef. Now for those of you who don’t know, a line cook is the person who fills the ticket orders. In a nutshell, said Dixon, a line cook is a cook.
As head chef, besides cooking duties of her own, Dixon has additional responsibilities that involve a lot of running around before the restaurant opens. This includes picking up bakery, picking up produce, meeting with vendors, and whatever else needs to be done. Moreover, once back at the restaurant, she’ll begin getting the soup and sauces ready. Thankfully, Dixon has three other cooks helping her out.
Since taking over the reins in the kitchen, she’s even found the time to put her own personal stamp on things. “We source more locally,” she said. “There’s more seafood, more specials, and more is done in-house than before.”
Look for even more changes coming up soon. Come May 20, Dixon is planning a spring dinner. And if all goes well, she’ll be unveiling the spring menu April 30. “There’s also lots of gluten-free stuff, more sandwiches,” said Dixon. “And another menu change for summer. A more seasonal menu,” she added.
But that’s not all. Keep an eye out for a new drink menu that Dixon will have a hand in shaping – with more custom cocktails and homemade syrups. “There’ll be a basil-lemon gimlet,” said Dixon, “and I’m working on an olive oil cocktail.”
An olive oil cocktail certainly sounds different, but then what do you expect from someone whose guilty food pleasures involve Gummy Tummies Penguins from Trader Joe’s – made in such a way that you can see the goo inside each penguin’s tummy – and Chocorooms from Japan, cookies shaped like a mushroom with the head dipped in chocolate. “I like chocolate,” Dixon said. “And coffee is my main other (guilty pleasure).”
When Dixon has time off – typically Mondays, Sundays and Thursdays – she enjoys hanging out with her kids. It’s also her time to get things done around the house, like cleaning. “I’m also teaching myself how to play the piano,” Dixon said. In addition, she’s into geocaching, a treasure-hunting game where you use a GPS to hide and seek containers with other participants.
Dixon grew up on the south side and went to Bay View High School. And today she maintains her southern roots, as she and her family live in St. Francis. When it comes to work, though, she’s been all over the city of Milwaukee. In fact, her first culinary job was as a line cook at County Clare Irish Inn and Pub on Astor Street back when she was 19 or 20 years old.
So having toiled all over town, what are her thoughts on the Riverwest community in particular? “It’s definitely different,” she said with a laugh. “It’s way more open-minded than other parts of the city. It has very individual people.”
To experience what Dixon and her crew are creating at centro cafe, stop in and see – or rather taste – for yourself. The Italian-inspired restaurant is open Mondays through Thursdays, 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.; and Fridays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. It’s closed Sundays.
If You Go: centro café 808 E. Center St. Milwaukee, WI 53212
Hours: M-TH: 5-9PM F-SAT: 5-10PM SUN: Closed