Birch restaurant chef finds home in Milwaukee after gigs around globe
Kristine M. Kierzek
Chef Kyle Knall brings a passion for seasonal and local ingredients to the newly opened Birch, 459 E. Pleasant St. There’s a new bar in the renovated space, and Knall himself has been painting the interior while planning the menu.
Knall, who worked his way from his native Birmingham, Alabama, to Gramercy Tavern in New York, has launched restaurants from London to New Orleans in recent years.
Milwaukee happens to be his wife Meghan’s hometown. They’d visited often, and talked about raising a family here. When everything shut down last year, it was time. They made their way here with son Aidan, 14 months.
Within his first weeks here, he was learning local agriculture and creating to-go meals at Stone Bank Farm Market, N68-W33208 County Road K, Stone Bank. Another chance meeting brought him to Birch, partnering with restaurateur Becca Zwiefelhofer and Ben Christiansen, who will be leading the restaurant’s wine program.
We caught up with Knall as he prepared for the restaurant’s opening.
Question: How does a chef from Alabama make his way to Milwaukee?
Answer: My wife is actually from Brookfield. The family used to have a grocery store in Brookfield called V. Richards. Her dad, his name is Vincent Richard, he sold it to his sisters. He moved to Birmingham and opened two there. That’s the tie to Milwaukee. My wife’s mother and stepfather live here, her grandparents and lots of family, friends.
I grew up in Birmingham, in high school I worked for my brother who was a chef … I fell in love with cooking, got a job working for Frank Stitt, who helped establish the food culture in the South. That’s actually where I met my wife. She was working for him as well. Soon after we met she said she was moving to New York. I tagged along basically. That was 2007.
I started working at Gramercy Tavern. That job changed my life. It changed the way I cooked. … I wasn’t looking to leave Gramercy, but Maysville was a great opportunity and I was 26. I broke off from Gramercy in 2012 to open Maysville.
My partners, a year after we opened decided they were moving back to New Orleans. We opened Kenton’s. I was fortunate to live in New York and split my time in New Orleans. My brother, coincidentally, was a cook in New Orleans at the time. He came on board to help us open. I did that for six years …
I took some time off, took a temporary job as a corporate chef, went to London to open a restaurant in Hotel Cafe Royal. … My last project was with Stephen Starr, Electric Lemon. I was the executive chef in the (Equinox) hotel and restaurant. Once COVID hit it was time to move. We were planning to move to Milwaukee. Let’s just do it now.
Q: How did you end up with Birch?
A: When I got here, I was introduced to Ben (Christiansen) from Waterford Wine & Spirits, through mutual friends. We cooked together, started tasting wine together. We partnered to come on to this project.
Q: What do you want people to know about the new Birch? What’s behind the name?
A: We want people to know this is a different restaurant (than Birch + Butcher), but looking at the word birch it made sense to use it. Birch is one of the first things that comes back from winter and grows in spring, it means rebirth.
My sous chef is Zach Nelsen, from Milwaukee. When he was 15 he started as a dishwasher at Ardent. He grew up working at all of Justin’s restaurants. Oddly enough he and his girlfriend moved to New York two years ago. He was working at Gramercy Tavern until the pandemic. He reached out on Instagram. It is great to have someone who knows Milwaukee, but also the culture and language I had at Gramercy.
Q: You followed your brothers into the restaurant business. Did you grow up always wanting to cook?
A: My mom is a great cook but not a Southern cook. Her dad’s family is from Italy. If we didn’t go to my grandfather’s to have the red sauce on Sunday, my mother would make it. She would start it in the morning and let it cook all day. My favorite thing was looking in the kitchen at the end of the day, lights off, everything would be clean and perfect and here was the sauce simmering away. It is a great memory, but also reminds me of cooking professionally and putting a stock on and letting it cook all day.
Q: You’re executive chef at Birch, but you’ve also been working with Stone Bank Market. How did you get involved with that?
A: The week before we moved from New York my mother-in-law and her friend were at Stone Bank Market. They said you have to check it out …
The day after we moved we went there. I was blown away by what they’re doing. It started with a casual conversation. I just moved here, could I come and get to know the agriculture and what y’all are growing? I started making a few meals to sell at the market. I developed a menu for the market to-go food, then one dinner a month in the beautiful barn. Then we started a CSA dinner series. … I was there full time until mid May. Now I’m staying on board consulting.
Q: Who are your kitchen mentors?
A: Frank Stitt and Mike Anthony from Gramercy. … The chef world can be perceived as everyone’s wild and the chef is the bad boy type. I appreciate that for sure, but I have always strived to be like Mike and Frank. They’re part of the food industry because of their passion for taking care of people.
Q: How are you approaching the menu at Birch?
A: I’ve always been fortunate enough to work in a restaurant that uses open fire as a huge source of cooking. That has become a tool in American cooking. For me, it centers around that. … As far as the menu, it will probably change often.
Q: Who do you still aspire to cook for or with?
A: I would love to have my mentors come here and cook with me. What would be really great is to use this as a tool to get to know other Milwaukee chefs and cook with them.
Q: What’s your go-to Milwaukee meal?
A: My in-laws actually live behind Kopp’s in Brookfield, so Kopp’s turtle, we always get that. Since we moved in September I have been to Ca’Lucchenzo, 6030 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa, numerous times. Then Allie Boy’s Bagelry & Luncheonette, for sure. We had that the first morning after we moved here. Moving from Brooklyn, it felt good to know I could have something that good and pretty darn near perfect here, too.
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