At age 31, Jeremiah Novak has practically lived two lives — starting an impressive journey in the culinary world on both coasts and now as owner/operator of Novak’s Service Center in Manitowoc. He dreamed of becoming a chef and was educated at Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Ariz., but a family health emergency brought him back home. He eventually took over the business his father started in 1972. Novak talks with Insight contributor Sharon Verbeten about his journey, getting involved in his community and juggling his work commitments and his life with his wife Rebecca and their two young children.
Insight: You’re young, but have an amazing resume in the culinary world already. What got you interested in being a chef?
Jeremiah Novak: From my grandmother. I used to bake Christmas cookies with her. They were my great-grandmother Lucy’s recipe, made with sour cream. I thought I wanted to be a pastry chef and do wedding cakes. But after going through baking basics 101 in culinary school, it was too much measuring … I like the free range of just trial and error.
You worked as a chef at Gramercy Tavern in New York and the American Club in Kohler. After such success in the cooking world, was it tough to come home and take on the family business, putting your career dreams on hold?
My father started this business in 1972. It’s always been here on the same corner. I was just getting done with cooking in Door County when I took a job in Madison. While we were transitioning and getting ready to move, my dad was getting more ill. We came home just to help.
I didn’t have much automotive background. He never pushed us to get into this work. After two years of doing that, my father ended up beating his illness. And we also stayed because my wife really liked the lifestyle … no nights, home on weekends. It worked out nice that way.
Do you find the two careers use similar skill sets?
It uses the customer service aspect of the food industry. You bend over backwards for people. I try
to bring that same experience here.
Do you think you might return to the culinary world someday?
My wife was in the restaurant industry as well. I think we both would like to get back into it. Our goal would be to open our own place. We’ve actually started acquiring some properties. I want to do farm-to-table, higher-end, yet approachable fine dining.
You are on the Manitowoc City Council and received the chamber’s “Champion Award” for your efforts to improve downtown Manitowoc. Manitowoc is a city with youth on its side, including a young mayor (Justin Nickels). That’s not the case in every city — why do you think this city is eager to hear what the young guard thinks?
It’s tough. There are a lot of people in Manitowoc that have been doing things the way they have been doing it for 60 years; not that it’s right or wrong, but I feel they’re ready to step to the side and let others take over.
I hear it from the service groups in town. They’re looking for these younger people to fill the ranks … where some of our ideas can get heard. I definitely think we have good momentum going in and a lot of growth that a lot of people don’t see. Manitowoc is in a good place to be in the next 10 years in terms of employment and growth.
It’s a crucial time right now for the younger generation to actually start grooming Manitowoc into a place where we want to be for the next 25 years. I wanted to get involved and be at that table and get Manitowoc on a growth track instead of just status quo.
When running for city council, you mentioned you wanted the city to be “preemptive” rather than “reactive.” How do you plan on working to make that happen and in what way?
It’s knowing what’s coming. We know roads and the “not exciting” things of spending money are always coming. We don’t really plan far enough ahead, and I think we need to start thinking of another source of income for the city; possibly a wheel tax.
Usually, we wait and see what happens. Now that the city’s in a better spot, we need to start planning for our infrastructure: How are we going to get millennials to find Manitowoc exciting? We’re doing a downtown master plan — looking at sites for growth opportunities, figuring out better parking flow and helping get more business downtown.
Milwaukee is known as a “Great City on a Great Lake,” but Manitowoc could just as easily claim that (although smaller). What makes the city so great and how can you see it getting even better?
You can’t say anything about Manitowoc without the lakeshore. We put forth a lot of time into grooming it. Two Rivers has a great beachfront, and we have space to do that.
The city already has as its history the gleaming memories of aluminum Christmas trees and Mirro cookware. What’s the image you’d like to see people have of Manitowoc?
I think we’re going to change from heavy manufacturing — although we still do have good manufacturing. However, I think we need a push more toward recreational use of Manitowoc — our trail system, surfing for lake surfers, boating, great charters. Hopefully, that transitions into places people “want to visit” into places where they “want to live.”
With family, work and extracurriculars, how do you juggle all the demands?
It is tough. The only way that it does work is that I have a wife at home that is super supportive and lets me do all these crazy endeavors. I’m going to keep going with a
non-stop attitude until it’s not healthy anymore.