Talk to Rick Winter for a few minutes and one thing becomes clear: it’s good to be king. By day, Winter is Dr. Richard Winter, DDS, a third-generation dentist who has been practicing in the Milwaukee area for 30 years. His father and grandfather were dentists. His wife works with him. His daughter is finishing up dental school. But there’s another side to Winter, a side that has little to do with wisdom teeth and root canals. Yes, by night (and on Instagram), Winter is the self-proclaimed Milwaukee Food King.
Winter takes his title seriously. Scroll through his feed and you’ll find a man obsessed with cooking great food (especially dumplings), finding great food (preferably dumplings), and sharing his love and knowledge of great food. While he’s not afraid to offer up occasional criticisms and withering put-downs, Winter’s overall vibe is positive and celebratory. In his own words, he’s simply “on a quest to discover the world’s best food or make it myself!”
Following a chance encounter at the Merriment Social one random Thursday night, Milwaukee Record talked to Milwaukee Food King about his regal title, the difference between food influencers and food critics, the best restaurants in the city, his mother, Anthony Bourdain, being a “dumpling slut,” his day job, and traveling the world as an MMA judge. Oh yeah, Winter is also an MMA judge.
Milwaukee Record: Let’s start with your Instagram handle: Milwaukee Food King. It’s a pretty bold title. What makes YOU the food king of Milwaukee?
Richard Winter: I believe that in life you gotta go big or go home. There’s no starting off at the bottom and saying “I’m Milwaukee Food Prince,” or “I’m Milwaukee I Enjoy Food.” I’m Milwaukee Food King! Otherwise why should anybody listen to me? There are enough food critics out there. I’m a self-proclaimed king! My job is to live up to the hype. If I can live up to the hype I’ll be popular. If I can’t live up to the hype then I won’t have earned my reputation.
MR: And how do you think you can live up to the hype?
RW: One of my good friends is a food influencer in Chicago. Seth Marcus. ChiCityFoodie on Instagram. He’s really done tremendous things to help the Chicago food scene. I’ve thought to myself, “Okay, I’m going to all these great restaurants and I know more about food than, I would have to say, almost any food critic.” I really believe that. It’s in the eye of the beholder, but I have a great palate and I tell it like it is. I don’t want to just pacify everybody. So I’ve thought, “Milwaukee really needs some food influencers.” We really don’t have a lot in the way of people that are steering…obviously you’ve got a couple of good food reporters that are out there, and nothing against what they’re doing or saying, but I just feel like I might have a slightly different take than they do. I think that having a fresh face and a fresh palate is something important to try and help move Milwaukee even closer to Chicago in terms of its food scene.
MR: I’m sure you’d agree that the Milwaukee food scene has seen plenty of improvements in the past few years.
RW: Oh yes. You first saw it with a lot of the farm-to-table restaurants that were opening up. Then you saw small-plate restaurants opening up. Now we have a couple of Spanish restaurants, we have great Vietnamese food, we have a new dumpling place. We have more and more places that are taking that plunge into more authentic offerings, and I think Milwaukee is going to benefit because of it. Are we behind Chicago at least 10 years? Absolutely. But are we covering some good ground? Yeah, I really think we are. I don’t feel we are hurting for lack of great restaurants in this city. There’s always good food to be found here.
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MR: Let’s talk about your background. Is food something you’ve always been passionate about? What’s the story?
RW: The story is I grew up with four brothers. My mom, Bernalee Winter, was an amazing cook. We always had great food on the table in mass, mass quantities. She would make pots of pasta sauce, chili, meatloafs, and all sorts of amazing food. There wouldn’t be leftovers because you had five boys raiding the refrigerator 24/7. I’d always be able to come home from school and have a snack and visit with her in the kitchen.
She was really passionate about food and took a number of cooking classes in Fond du Lac with a woman named Madame Kuony. My mom would come home and she’d buy a big veal roast and she’d pound it out and she’d say, “Rick, I need help pounding it flat for scaloppine.” I’d be in the kitchen pounding veal with her. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my mom learning how to make different kinds of recipes, from pork to sauerbraten to pasta sauce.
It served me well. Who wants to eat out all the time? As soon as I was able to get a place to live with a kitchen, I would make a lot of my own meals. I went on to take some Chinese cooking classes when I was in Madison, and some Thai cooking classes when I was here in Milwaukee. I’ve always had a great palate. My family has always enjoyed my cooking, and my house has kind of become the gathering place for all the big holidays: Thanksgiving, Passover, different holidays where I end up doing the lion’s share of the cooking. People really enjoy it.
My parents really believed that travel is important, getting to know other cultures. We would take trips in a minivan, and we’d spend a month tooling around Europe and going to really funky places to eat. Nothing fancy, but it was just a great way to bond with the family as well as learn about different cultures. They took us to the Orient, they took us to Italy, they took us to France and Switzerland and Germany. All these countries where we got to explore the food and learn about the culture. That was an amazing inroad into learning about different cultures, whether it would be going out for some really wonderful falafel when you’re in Israel, or going for some dim sum when you’re in Hong Kong. Once you’ve been exposed to it, you get the bug.
That’s kind of what Anthony Bourdain was all about, right? He would go to different countries and explore cultures through their food. I think that’s what I’ve been doing all my life. I’m very grateful to my parents for providing that opportunity. I’m taking my family to Southeast Asia in May, when my daughter graduates dental school. We’re going to go to Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Cambodia. I already have foodie tours set up in all these places. I’m going to do the same thing for my kids that my parents did for me.
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MR: Do you find yourself drawn to a particular cuisine?
RW: I’ll be broad and say all Asian food and all Asian cultures. But if you break it down, it would be Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Japanese, Thai. I have to have one of those—I call them “food groups”—I have to have one of those food groups at least every week. If you had to limit me further it would be dumplings. I always have a vast array of different kinds of dumplings and pot stickers in my freezer. I’ve got a professional steamer, so whenever I really need a fix I’ve got dumplings. That’s why in my Instagram handle I call myself a “dumpling slut.” I’ll pretty much do anything for a good dumpling. Or maybe 100 of them. [laughs]
MR: What’s good in the Milwaukee area for your “food groups”? What are your go-to places?
RW: I was just in a brand-new restaurant called Momo Mee, which is in Walker’s Point, and I had some delicious dumplings. I’m really happy that we’re beginning to have more and more restaurants that are breaking food barriers and bringing different types of cuisines to Milwaukee. In terms of my favorites, I would say that for Chinese food you have Fortune Restaurant and J.J. Chen’s. I also like Asian Fusion on North Avenue. They have some very authentic Chengdu dishes. There’s a new restaurant called Sze Chuan which I absolutely adore. They have really unique Szechuan specialties. Those are my favorites for good, authentic Chinese food, with Sze Chuan probably being number one.
As far as Thai food is concerned, we have a number of really good Thai restaurants, but EE-Sane on Farwell is still number one in my book. I love Singha Thai, even though it’s more Lao-influenced, or seems like a slightly sweeter version of Thai food. Kim’s Thai is probably the most unique and special. It’s a really special addition to the Milwaukee food scene.
I also like Mekong, which is on North Avenue. They have an excellent buffet, which seems like an oxymoron. No buffet is ever excellent, but what I really like about it is that the food is very fresh, very flavorful, and it’s not like “Deep-fried Dish #1” and “Deep-fried Dish #2.” If I’m in a hurry, that happens to be a really quick, really pleasing buffet. Their off-menu food is delicious, too.
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MR: Let’s talk about your day job: dentistry.
RW: My family has been doing dentistry for 94 years in Milwaukee. My grandfather graduated from Marquette in 1922. My father ended up graduating from NYU. Then my brother Bruce and I went in with my dad until he retired in about 1989. Now my brother’s son, Jeremy, is a dentist in Chicago. My daughter is finishing up dental school. So 94 years and counting. It’s quite an amazing legacy, and I’m very, very proud of it.
MR: Does dentistry inform your love of food? Does your love of food inform your dentistry?
RW: Matt, I’ll explain something to you. When you go to the dentist, you’re nervous, you’re afraid, you just don’t know what’s going to go on. You have to trust this person. One of the things that I’ve found is the world’s best way to connect with people is to talk about food. Finding out what their regional favorites are, if they come from a different country. Finding out what mom used to make. Finding out what they’re going to be making for the holidays. Their favorite restaurants. It all becomes an amazing way to open up a dialog with people.
Once my patients find out I have a food blog, they get kind of pumped about that. One of my patients owns an olive oil farm in Greece, and I can purchase a five-gallon tub of olive oil right from her farm. I have other patients that have soul food restaurants, who bring in countless numbers of lunches for myself and my staff. Food has always been part and parcel in how I connect with people. You can never win talking about politics, and you can never win talking about other things, but you can always win talking about food.
Food is connected to your mouth, and your ability to eat and chew. I do a lot of implants and reconstructive dentistry. Helping people regain the ability to taste their food, to eat their food, to enjoy their food and smile, is the best of all worlds. When people come in to see me and they’ve been wearing dentures for 10 years and they can’t chew their food…to be able to take that person and offer them implant dentistry is probably the single greatest high you can ever have as a dentist. So yeah, I think the food thing is more than just a way to connect. It’s a way to rehabilitate, it’s a way to help people improve their lives. I’m very fortunate that I have the ability to do that.
MR: And finally, you’re also an MMA judge. What’s the story behind that?
RW: I started off in grade school with Taekwondo. I ended up getting my first black belt in Taekwondo when I was going to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Then I saw these people do a seminar in Filipino martial arts and I thought it was amazing. When I finished dental school, I came back to Milwaukee and I found Duke Roufus of Roufusport, and did many, many years of Thai kickboxing with him. From there, he was putting on regional shows and he needed judges. I didn’t want to hurt my hands, or the rest of my body, so I continued to train with the pro fighters for a long time, but then I just became a judge. I’ve been judging for the past 18 years. I’ve been judging nationally and internationally. I’ve been to South America three times. I’ve been all over the place. I’m certified in Nevada and Illinois and Wisconsin. I really love making sure that the right person wins. It allows me to stay invested in a sport that I’ve loved my entire life. I’m very fortunate to be able to do that at a very high level.
RW: I’d like to add that on my Instagram account, and when I cook at home, I pretty much cook salt-free. I find that it’s healthier. I’m trying to make sure the food that I’m making is really healthy and really nutrient-dense. You’re not just going to see a bunch of…let’s call it Milwaukee State Fair food. [laughs] You’re going to see a lot more healthy recipes and offerings.
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