By Nick Kotecki Photo by Joshua Sutton
Justin Ross’s favorite color is green. He likes long walks on the beach, bubble baths, eating pizza and hot fudge sundaes. His favorite restaurant in Milwaukee is the Alem Ethiopian Village (307 E. Wisconsin Ave) where silverware is generally unheard of, and patrons use their hands, scooping the food off their plate with a spongy bread call injera. Ethiopian custom dictates, if you enjoy the company of the person eating at your side, that you show your inner warmth and goodwill by tearing a piece of injera bread off the roll, slather it full of food, turn to them, look them deep in their eyes and then feed them your offering while they do you the same. This is called “giving gursha.”
It is not proper etiquette at theRiverwest Co-op Cafe (733 E. ClarkeSt) for employees dispense gurshato their patrons – it may violateseveral state health codes.Because Justin Ross is one of the cafémanagers at the Cafe, he willnot do this for you. He may, however,serve you his favorite Ethiopiancuisine, on your very own plate witha roll of injera on the side.Please use your own hands.
There are forty-four Mondays in 2011and every single one will be a WorldMarket Monday at the RiverwestCo-op Cafe. Justin Ross will pick a country or a region of world,concoct a few signature dishes, and somehow figure out a way to fitthem all on one plate. Recent favorites of his have been SouthAfrican, Indian, and Korean. These specials are available starting atabout 11AM and run until they areall gone or the café closes at 9PM.
How does Justin Ross know of the world?He’s traveled it, mostly to see“beautiful, remote places out inthe country – small towns where people live close to the earth,”like the Black Forest in Germany and Toulouse, France. He’s beenall over the United States too. He remembers Brunswick, Georgia themost, where he spent time living at communal hostel called The Hostelin the Forest. “It’s a phenomenal idea for a living situation,”he said. “It’s sustainable and environmentally friendly.”
The same ideals attracted Justin toRiverwest. He started making trips to the neighborhood all the wayfrom Mequon when he was still a teenager, going to concerts andbasement shows. After those nights he would stay at a friend’shouse. In the mornings, he would wake up,walk across the street, andeat breakfast at a small grocery and cafécalled the Riverwest Co-op.He never expected he would work there afew years later, let alonehelp run the place.
Justin knows the exact day he begangetting paid for his work at the Cafe.“February 17, 2009,” hesaid. Like most of its workers, he began volunteering much earlier.It just so happened that his volunteer nights fell on World MarketMonday, where Mark Caldwell, one of the previous managers, was makingthe dinner specials. Justin learned the ropes. He memorized therecipes. He toasted the bread. After he was hired, he worked everyweekend brunch, where he fried, scrambled,deviled and cooked the eggswell-done, sunny-side up, and anyway youcould name. A manager’sposition opened up and he went for it.
Today,Justin pours his heart out. “It’stough, physical work. It’snot like Martha Stewart; you constantlyhave to be multitasking. I serve food, do dishes, do prep-work, makespecials and do the ordering – I do it all,” he said. “If I gota free minute I’ll put produce away in the store.”
“It’s fluid. It’s family. It’ssimultaneously the best and worst job I’ve ever had. It’s reallytough and trying, but it’s also really fun – I love the people Iwork with and the customer base. I get to know them on a personallevel. I don’t feel like I’m anonymously serving someone. I haveregular customers and I’m up todate on their lives and families.
“It’s really important to feel likea f***ing person,” he added. “A good meal has the ability to makea positive impact on anyone’s day. Nobody’s unhappy when they’reeating good food.”
JustinRoss tried to sum up his two anda half years with the Café in one word and he couldn’t. He said,“Can you just put a picture of a thumbs-up?”
When asked how he felt about being inthe neighborhood spotlight though,he did just fine. “Stellar,” hesaid.
This recipe is super simple, tastesamazing, and is very affordable. Iusually don’t measure, recipesare only guidelines anyway. The tongue knows best.
1 pack of chicken drumsticks (6)
1 large yellow onion,diced 1/
2 package frozen peas
1/2 pound crimini mushroom,sliced
1 can coconut milk
2 large table spoons garam masala
1 large table spoon dhana jeer a powder
1/2 table spoon currypowder
1/2 table spoon turmeric salt and pepper
Melt butter in a high rimmed sautépan. Add onion,mushrooms and peas with a pinch of salt and stir. Adddrumsticks and cover. Cook until chicken is browned, almost fullycooked. Add spices and salt and pepper to taste. Stir to coat chickenand vegetables.Add coconut milk and simmer on low for 20-30 minutesuntil chicken is fully cooked. Remove chicken and de-bone, then placeback in sauce and vegetable mixture. Serve with warm flatbread.
Make it vegan/vegetarian: Cookmushrooms and onions until onions are caramelized and add 2 cupsdiced potatoes and coconut milk, plus 1cup of vegetarian chickenbroth. Cook until potatoes are tender.