Dining and Drink

Chef of the Year 2017: Daniel Bonanno is a chef's chef

A Pig in a Fur Coat's chef deeply cares about food

You can tell a lot about Daniel Bonanno just by eating his food.

“He’s a very underrated chef,” says Mindy Segal, a James Beard Award-winning pastry chef and owner of HotChocolate Bakery in Revival Food Hall in Chicago. It was Segal’s first time eating at A Pig in a Fur Coat on Williamson Street, and before chef Bonanno even stepped out of his kitchen, she already knew a lot about his approach to food.

“I’m really, really into people who are super passionate about what they do and dedicate their life to what they do, because I do that. I gravitate toward people like that,” Segal says. “And I could tell that by eating his food.”

Then Bonanno came out to Segal’s table and she met the funny, down-to-earth chef responsible for the dinner she says was one of the best she’d had in a long time. He was genuine and humble—a chef with whom she would want to collaborate.

But Segal has met Bonanno only once. Patrick DePula, owner and chef at Salvatore’s Tomato Pies and Madison Magazine’s 2016 Chef of the Year, knows Bonanno well. “I always have a good time with Dan. If Dan’s going to be there, I know it’s going to be fun,” DePula says.

"He’s just so real," says Tory Miller, another James Beard Award-winning chef who needs no introduction to Madison food lovers. “He doesn’t try to put on airs about being a chef,” Miller says. “He just makes good food.”

But good food alone does not a great chef make. 

He stays true to who he is, Miller says, who grew up in Racine, a 20-minute drive from Bonanno’s hometown of Kenosha. That’s where the journey began for Bonanno, the son of Italian immigrants, who was usually the youngest among his peers because of his natural talent.

At 32, Bonanno is in year five as executive chef of A Pig in a Fur Coat, and his 80-hour workweeks are not part of a calculated plan to become a famous chef or to make tons of money. He's just great at what he does, according to his peers, his patrons and probably anyone else who's stepped foot in A Pig in a Fur Coat.

“Dan has done everything that a chef is supposed to do,” says Joe Gaglio, Madison College culinary instructor and chef and owner of Gotham Bagels. “He participates in community events. He’s there for his fellow chefs. He supports his local agriculture community. He’s thoughtful, he’s calm. He’s just an ambassador of everything that embodies not only a chef, but a person.”

A Kid From Kenosha

Bonanno can technically say he’s been cooking since he was 2 years old. His evidence is the shortened index finger on his left hand, the result of Bonanno as a toddler sticking his finger in the meat grinder his dad was using in their basement. But the hazard wasn't a deterrent, as Bonanno continued to be exposed to what went into making food, including the early years he spent in the Italian deli shop his dad still helps run—a place where Bonanno picked up techniques and food knowledge in a hands-on way that many of his culinary peers didn’t have when they started out.

“I grew up doing a lot of the stuff that everyone’s talking about now,” Bonanno says. “My dad is the original hipster. He had a garden at his house. He would make his own wine. He would jar, can, pickle. Forage mushrooms,” he says. “Everything everyone’s talking about now, like, ‘you’re so cool.’ He did that like 30 years ago, and it was annoying.” 

Bonanno’s parents, Tony and Maria, grew up in the town of Cosenza in the Calabria region of Italy, which is between Sicily and Naples, but oddly, they did not meet until they were in their 30s in Chicago.

Tony, 67, works six days a week at Tenuta’s Italian Deli in Kenosha, which Bonanno says is probably the best deli in the Midwest (although he may be biased, he might not be far off). Tony swept the shop’s floors at 14 years old, and he watched it grow from a small deli on a dirt road in 1950 to a Kenosha institution that today draws almost 500 customers daily from as far as Chicago and Green Bay. An endless variety of meats, cheeses, pastries and prepared salads fill 40 feet of counter space. Aisle upon aisle are filled with canned tomatoes, international spices and more than 40 different brands of pasta. A wheel-shaped sandwich called a Muffo-Lotta sits as a giant among others. A 300-pound block of provolone cheese as large as a punching bag hangs to the right of the case. And Tony is the food curator—he’s the man who decides what to stock on the shelves. 

“It’s the ultimate store,” Bonanno says.

Going right into Le Cordon Bleu culinary school out of high school, Bonanno says his time at the deli set him apart. While others were just being introduced to cured meats, he already knew how to identify different types of prosciutto. When he was being taught to make pasta using a pasta maker, he did it faster by hand.

As a child, Bonanno remembers watching his mother and grandmother make fresh spaghetti or gnocchi—skills he’d file away with a photographic memory.

“With Dan, you knew right away,” says Rick Starr, who was the chef de cuisine at Ristoranté Brissago, an Italian restaurant at Grand Geneva in Lake Geneva when Bonanno was an intern there. “You can see talent in a kitchen. It stands out.”

Starr says he was learning from the 19-year-old who knew how to make fresh pasta as much as he was teaching him. “He’s got the experience. It was kind of cool to see his influence and his passion and sense of humor,” Starr says. 

The student became the teacher in many cases during the internship. And when Bonanno started to feel he was ready to move on, Starr did something for him that was invaluable.
He encouraged Bonanno to leave.

“He’s like, ‘Go learn,’ ” Bonanno says. “He really taught me a lot of stuff about passion and food.” In culinary school, Bonanno says, it wasn’t about passion.

“They teach you discipline, but they teach you about money,” he says. “They drove you with money, they didn’t drive you with food. ‘Oh, you want to make money? Then you gotta know how to cook good food.’ ‘Oh, you wanna make money? Then you gotta know how to make pastry cream better than that.’ ”

With Starr, it was about being creative and learning new things. The two created a deconstructed lasagna together. They broke down a pig together. Bonanno says Starr introduced him to Thomas Keller and Heston Blumenthal, and Bonanno saw a different side of cooking.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this could be food.’ So what I know about food—not just spaghetti and meatballs—I can take that to the next level. The science behind food—so I could form my own cuisine,” Bonanno says. 

Starr encouraged Bonanno to branch out and take advantage of opportunities to learn about food—not in the pursuit of money. Everything about Bonanno made Starr think he’d be successful in the industry for a long time.

“It’s like if you had a string of Christmas lights and one is brighter—just constantly bright, just so bright. And every other light just kind of looks the same,” Starr says. 

The Bump

Bonanno’s knowledge led him to work in a Milwaukee steakhouse for a while, then to a restaurant called Mangia back in Kenosha, and he also spent time in Italy taking a master culinary class at Apicius International School of Hospitality in Florence. While he tried to find every reason to stay in Italy after the class, circumstances brought him back to the U.S. and to Chicago to cook at Spiaggia (a Michelin one-starred restaurant under chef/managing partner Tony Mantuano, who recruited Bonanno personally). Already, this was an impressive resume for any chef, let alone a 20-something just starting out. 

But bumps in the road are inevitable. Yet for Bonanno, that’s what led him to the team he has now at Pig. Also working at Spiaggia was Jonathan Huttsell, who worked in the formal dining room where Bonanno was sous chef. At 25, Bonanno grew tired of the Chicago food scene. That’s what led him to Appleton to work at a pizzeria—an experience that paid well but went against everything Bonanno loved about food. Huttsell ended up working at the pizzeria, too—what would be a somber choice for both of them. 

“We worked about 100-hour weeks,” Huttsell says. “That pretty much killed us.” The two made the pizzeria run like clockwork, Bonanno says, and profits increased during their time there. But the owner was a nightmare, they say.

“After working for that guy, we didn’t want to work for anybody else,” Huttsell says. 

Bonanno and Huttsell were so disheartened by the experience, they took the next year off from working in a kitchen. Experiences like this are sometimes what convince chefs to stop being chefs. “We kind of lost a little bit of hope,” Bonanno says.

But Bonanno still had a love and a talent for food—he just had to rediscover it. He decided to call up a friend he had kept in touch with after meeting her in Italy, who, at the time, was almost exactly as far from home as Bonanno was—Bonnie Arent of Racine, Wisconsin. When Bonanno called her, she was hoping to open a small cafe in Madison, nothing big. But once Bonanno came into the picture, plans changed.

An Idea Man and His Team 

Between Arent, Bonanno and Huttsell, the idea formed for A Pig in a Fur Coat. “When Dan came on, that was definitely a game changer,” says Arent, who is the primary owner and financial backer of the restaurant. They wanted it to be intimate with a communal dining concept and have a more casual feel with bright lighting, while still putting Bonanno and Huttsell’s fine-dining experience to good use. 

It took nearly a year for the plan to take shape. A place opened up on Williamson Street (the former home of La Rocca’s Pizza) and the team went to work. “The buildout we pretty much did ourselves,” Bonanno says. Arent’s sister made the tables. They all laid the tiles in the kitchen. Huttsell fashioned the wood-burning oven. “We did everything,” Bonanno says. “It means a lot more.” 

And the restaurant, now in its fifth year, was a quick success. They paid off in the first two years the initial investment, Bonanno says. “We just worked hard.”

From the beginning, Dan’s been the idea man, Arent says. He influenced the decor and concept decisions, and had everything to do with the menu. “I never doubted him,” she says. “Dan’s food speaks for itself.”

There are small and large plates to choose from, with dishes including porchetta, pork tripe, Wagyu ribeye, scallops, lamb carpaccio, pork loin and meatballs. Some call it meat-centric, but it’s Bonanno’s menu, and he cooks what he thinks is good. His dishes are rich and decadent, but all in perfect balance—each ingredient plays a part. “Dan is really good at focusing on maintaining what’s important and what’s just fluff,” DePula says. He’s not going to add an ingredient to a dish just for the sake of adding it to make it look pretty, he adds. 

“I’m cooking food I want to eat or using local products I want to use,” Bonanno says. “I’m doing food without labels. Without the training wheels. I don’t like labels.” He serves one giant ravioli with a duck egg, a strip of bacon, ricotta cheese, a seasonal vegetable and brown butter. The pork belly is accompanied by kimchi, carrot, sunflower shoots and almonds. The foie gras mousse—one of Bonanno’s masterpieces and a fan favorite—is a line of three Italian doughnuts sitting in a fig jam, all dressed with a paper-thin slice of lardo and a heavenly foie gras hat.

“I cook from feeling, smell, sound, everything,” Bonanno says. “I like to shoot from the hip when I do stuff.”

While the menu hasn’t dramatically changed since the restaurant opened, the dishes change regularly. “I change the cooking techniques,” he says. “So that porchetta is better than the last time you had it.” Maybe he lowers the temperature a bit, brines the scallops, or makes the water a bit warmer. Once he lands on a technique, knowing he might tweak it the next day, he entrusts his team to carry it out.

Enter Huttsell, the workhorse of the restaurant. “He’s better than any sous vide machine,” Bonanno says of his sous chef. “He would do the same thing over and over again, perfectly.”

On service nights, Huttsell stations himself near the wood-burning oven—the hottest part of the kitchen. His laser-focused gaze darts around his line cooks’ stations to ensure every piece is moving in harmony, all the while plucking tickets from the line and yelling out orders. His hands are constantly in motion, removing items from the oven at the precise moment, or plating a dish to be sent to a table he knows is just 20 seconds away from being ready for the next course.

“When he’s busy it’s like watching him dance—he doesn’t make unnecessary moves,” Bonanno says.

Arent’s post is at the front of the house, greeting and seating guests. Sometimes she’s chatting up guests at the six-seat bar, which was an addition to the building in 2015. While the restaurant wouldn’t have been possible if not for Arent, she’s often the less visible third of the trio at A Pig in a Fur Coat. “I don’t care if people know me or not,” she says. That’s always been the understanding—she helps run things in the background and Bonanno is the face of the restaurant.

The three of them are equal parts of a seemingly perfect team. And many of their staffers have stayed with them for three or more years.

“We’re all on the same page at the restaurant, which is remarkable,” Bonanno says.

Dinner at Pig

You can tell Bonanno cares deeply about his culinary craft, and he's confident.

“I’ll always ask, ‘What’s the special tonight?’ ” DePula says. “And he’ll respond, ‘I don’t have a special. Everything’s special.’ ”

Bonanno says he views a restaurant as just a restaurant. “It’s not about a concept to me,” he says. “That’s what kind of bugs me. ‘What’s your concept?’ I hate that question. This is what I do. That’s it,” Bonanno says.

And, he points out, Madison is the perfect spot to have a restaurant. “Some of the best restaurants in the world are not in a major city,” he says, “because the capacity of running that kind of restaurant is super expensive.” He was nominated as a James Beard Rising Chef in 2013, which was in A Pig in a Fur Coat’s first year, but it was never really about winning awards for Bonanno.

What he desires, and what he excels at, is providing a great meal and a great experience for anyone who walks through the yellow door of his charcoal gray restaurant on Willy Street. 

“He’s definitely what a chef should be,” Starr says about his former intern. “It’s not about three Michelin stars with him.”

But Bonanno says he doesn’t feel finished with where he’s at now with the restaurant. “Maybe I want to be [in] the top 50 best restaurants eventually,” he says. “Maybe not with the restaurant I have currently, but why can’t there be evolution and build to that?”

He points out that El Bulli, a Michelin three-starred restaurant in Spain headed by chef Ferran Adrià, started out as a steakhouse. “Ten years later, by 1993, he had tasting menus. By 1997, he had his molecular thing going. That’s 15 years’ process. I’m only at five years now. What’s to say something else happens in five years? Evolution is great,” he says.

He doesn’t understand restaurants that put millions of dollars into a place and they’re finished with it. “I’m all about building up to it and getting better,” he says.

But right now, A Pig in a Fur Coat is special to many people in different ways.

It’s a favorite date-night spot of Miller, who took his wife, Kristine Miller, there for Valentine’s Day this year. Gil Altschul of Grampa’s Pizzeria has stopped in for “pizza lunch,” an event every third Wednesday of the month that sells out. A couple vacationing in Lake Geneva got a recommendation for A Pig in a Fur Coat and ended up having one of the best meals of their lives—not an uncommon phrase to overhear at Pig. It’s a place DePula says is surprisingly kid-friendly, while still feeling upscale. Madison attorney Eric Farnsworth feels so at home in the restaurant, he even threw on a service apron on New Year’s Eve when Bonanno was short-staffed. 

The restaurant wouldn’t feel this way if it weren’t for Bonanno, who regularly leans over the bar counter to chat with regulars, and who’s an active member of the Madison Area Chef’s Network. He brings his dry sense of humor into any room he’s in, and he’s admired and loved by his fellow chefs. He donates his time to help teach at Madison College, and he’s active in the University of Wisconsin Seed Program. His days start and end at the restaurant. “I pretty much devote my life to what I do,” he says.

“It’s passion. It’s talent. His discipline and basically his commitment to being a chef,” Starr says. “That’s his life. The restaurant is his life.”

And, again, he’s only 32.

Andrea Behling is managing editor of Madison Magazine.

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