Kristine M. Kierzek
Tonya Garrido’s first introduction to professional kitchens was as a waitress at a Greek restaurant. She was so enticed by the fresh food and cooking she wanted to learn more. Going a step further, she decided to attend culinary school at MATC. Even if she wasn’t sure she’d cook professionally, she figured she could become a better cook and feed her family.
Two decades later and she’s still smitten with cooking and feeding others.
She’s worked her way up to executive chef at Harwood Place Retirement Community, 8220 Harwood Ave., Wauwatosa, helping to build a culinary program that differs greatly from when she started as a line cook 19 years ago. Focusing on scratch cooking for residents at the retirement facility, she oversees nearly 250 meals daily. Not only does she have to address different tastes and interests, cooking for an aging population also means addressing dietary concerns and how a food may be prepared or served. Garrido embraces it all, and wants to spread the word that there are options for culinary careers outside restaurants.
My mom was always a good cook. I ate, but I never got interested until I started waitressing. I found waitressing is like running your own business. The better you are, the more money you make. I was working for a family-owned Greek restaurant. I wanted to learn every ingredient. …
Then I got married and had a child. I quit waitressing. While I was home with my baby, I’d walk to the local Sentry. I’d buy whatever produce. I’d come home and cook, cook, cook. If I’m going to do this, why not go to school and learn? Even if I never do this for money, I’ll learn.
I went to MATC. It was the greatest college experience ever. It is a completely hands-on program …
I graduated, why not try to get a job? I worked at Taste of Home in Greendale in the test kitchen. … Then I ended up coming to Harwood Place. They had just added assisted living and were expanding. We really had to build the culinary program. … Ninety percent of our food here is from scratch. It wasn’t always like that, but that’s where it has landed.
Starting from scratch
I do have a couple new cooks now. They’ve had some culture shock here. We’re actually cooking. They were doing steaming bags, open a can of pie filing and put it in a shell. … To see them learning and growing is really exciting.
Her Milwaukee mentors
I am very lucky right now, my sous chef is Giuseppi, aka Joe Safina; he is the son of the owner of Giovanni’s downtown, and his good friend is Justin Aprahamian. For me, he is a mentor. He has plans of his own. We’re lucky to have him right now. …Then Justin Johnson from Sustainable Kitchens, I was his sous chef. He taught me a great deal about working with fresh ingredients.
Her home cooking
We eat less processed. I don’t use a microwave oven at all. If I make something in advance it has to go on the stovetop or oven. My kitchen is small. I don’t want to give up the countertop.
Every month we have a Destination day. … Next month is Dublin. We “go” to all these places, Portugal, Canada, Japan, and create menus and give them an entire day based on the destination.
I do try to give it a shot to make the desserts for the Destination days. Am I an expert? No, but the residents are good sports. This last one was Beijing. I put on the menu a candied fruit, tanghulu. You take the fruit and dip it in a sugar water. … I was telling my daughter and she said “Oh, I’ve made those.” It is on TikTok!
They really do love the German and Polish cooking here, that is a lot of what their moms and wives cooked. They love it when they see the things they used to have when they were kids. They love ice cream the most, probably more than anything.
Every resident gets their own birthday cake when it is their day. We make little cakes, homemade from scratch. Then once a month we celebrate the month of birthdays, and we have cake for everybody. Every holiday we make something. We do bake daily.
We love summer because we grow our own herbs. We’ll even infuse a vodka with them. We make Bloody Marys with a basil vodka. They love that. Last summer we pickled beets and we sold them at our in-house farm market. We make our own jams, blueberry, strawberry rhubarb. We used those in house and sold those.
What keeps her going
I spend a lot of time writing, researching and ordering, but I love to work the line. I love preparing the food to order and getting it on the plate so it looks spectacular. I really love making food for the employees, because they are also customers. They get happy and they go forth and make the residents happy. It is a chain. Everybody loves food.
I’ve worked with chefs who have come in and are full of what they want to cook. “This is my menu and if you don’t like it I don’t care.” It doesn’t work that way. We are cooking for people who live here and they have to be happy. … I get the compliment, “Tonya knows how to cook for old people.” Not everyone would take that as a compliment. Do I want to make a vegetable super al dente because that’s what I love? Sure, that’s how I would eat it, but that’s not how I cook here. We use braising a great deal of the time. We accommodate how they want it.
When she’s not cooking
My splurge would be we go out for sushi. We love Ginza, 2727 N. Mayfair Road, Wauwatosa, and Screaming Tuna, 106 W. Seeboth, and Kanpai, 408 E. Chicago St. We also go to a Mexican restaurant, El Senorial, 1901 S. 31st St.
Rethinking restaurant life
We give tours to students from WCTC. We talk about the actuality of life versus working in a restaurant. We have every other weekend off here and we’re home by 7 p.m. We hate for people to think this is not like real cooking. It is, and our quality of life is so good here.
Fork. Spoon. Life. explores the everyday relationship that local notables (within the food community and without) have with food. To suggest future personalities to profile, email [email protected].