Personality a Key Ingredient for Local Chef

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Matt Geiger
Chef Rod Ladson in the kitchen at Johnny's Italian Steakhouse. Times-Tribune photo by Matt Geiger

There’s an old saying about going to dinner and a show. When Rod Ladson is the chef, dinner is part of the show.

“In high school I wanted to be a comedian,” reflects the jovial culinary maestro. “I was in drama all four years. I loved to be on stage and be in the limelight.”

For nearly five years now, Ladson has been center stage as executive chef at Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse, 8390 Market Street in Greenway Station.

He treats the 1940s-themed restaurant like a theater. The bartenders are called “bootleggers.” All servers have a role to play. The kitchen is like a sweltering green room accented by bubbling saucepans and the perpetual clattering of dishes.

With his long dreadlocks, barrel chest and gregarious personality, Ladson’s is a familiar face for many. He’s known for his two-minute cooking segments on NBC, his culinary classes and community projects, and various other public appearances. (He’ll lead a group of foodies on a 10-day excursion across the Mediterranean next year.)

The restaurant, a franchise with seven locations in the United States, is modeled after Rat Pack-era supper clubs, but Ladson’s eclectic recipes draw on influences ranging from the Caribbean to Africa, from steak and potatoes to crab stuffed orange roughy.

Ladson grew up on Pennyroyal Road in Georgetown, South Carolina. He was part of a large, tightly knit family where “you could say just about anything and feel comfortable.” His early immersion in cooking was casual.

“You don’t get exact recipes from my family,” he recalls. “If you don’t pay attention, you don’t learn.”

He also credits his parents and siblings with encouraging his gregarious personality. “Growing up in a big family, you had to have a big voice to survive,” he says.

When Ladson was 13, they picked up and moved to Connecticut. He eventually headed to Springfield College in Massachusetts, where he studied graphic design.

But Ladson was already on his current path, even if the very beginning was inadvertent.

“I started in the service industry by working at McDonald’s, believe it or not,” he says. “I worked there through school and was eventually promoted within the company.”

He ended up at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. There, his affinity for the stage, his training in design, and his love of food were combined for the first time.

He carried that philosophy to Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse when he arrived in Wisconsin.

“The seven Johnny’s chefs work together on the core menu,” Ladson explains. “Then I have the freedom to create our weekly specials, our happy hour specials, our catering menu and those types of things.”

Seated on a bar stool as a crackling track of Louis Armstrong trumpets out of a speaker overhead, he lays out a philosophy in which flavor, aesthetics and good conversation combine to create a rewarding culinary experience.

“I decided when I left graphic design that I would always maintain control,” he says. “I wanted to entertain people and draw them in, and I wanted to really own that.”

 In addition to crafting recipes for the restaurant, he’s 80 percent done writing a cookbook almost three years in the making. While Ladson is the chief architect of the recipes, his goal is to create a “community cookbook.” He’s working with 100 Black Men of Madison on the project.

The 100 Black Men organization was born in New York City in 1963, when a diverse group of African American men began exploring ways of improving conditions in their communities. The 100 Black Men of Madison chapter was incorporated in 1995 as a nonprofit organization.

“The idea of the cookbook is to combine old soul and new soul,” Ladson says. “To keep the delicious dishes but get away from some of the frying.”

He also collaborates with AKA Sorority and Group Health United of South Central Wisconsin, working to help people live to 100 years old.

He offers cooking classes for parties and individuals. (He once helped a hopeful groom get engaged when he cooked dinner for the prospective bride at her home.)

Ladson doles out frequent kudos to everyone from his sous chef to the director of his television spots. And he says children played a key role in shaping his approach to recipe creation.

“I learned a lot about creating recipes from teaching kids, actually,” he says. “If you put broccoli on a plate in front of kids, they won’t eat it. But if you let them cook – if they get to help prepare the meal and they use that ingredient – then they’ll clean their plates.”

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