Growing up on the east side of Madison, Robert Kauper’s main daycare provider was his grandmother, who started him cooking and baking at approximately 8 years of age.
“I always loved to cook,” Kauper admitted. And as a self-described introvert, “the best way for an introvert to be popular at parties is to bring goodies.”
Another passion of Kauper is drawing and art, specifically architectural art. After graduating from LaFollette High School, Kauper chose the route of pleasing others’ gastronomic tastes and attended Madison Area Technical College Culinary Program earning an associate degree in 1985. One of the reasons he chose food service over art was at the time, registering for the military selective service was in place and Kauper would rather be in the kitchen than the front lines if the need arose.
“Culinary school introduced me to many things and many people,” Kauper said.
He added that any where he goes he will have a job within 48 hours. His kitchen experiences run the gamut of establishments and responsibilities. From opening chef to manager to consultant, his roles in hospitality has allowed Kauper to acquire a depth of knowledge. He also understands hard work, long hours and low compensation.
“It’s like juggling three bowling balls and having a raisin left over. One-third for staff, one-third for facility and one-third for food with a one to five percent profit,” Kauper said. “Hospitality has always been a tough business.”
He’s taken a few breaks to try other types of employment but always came back to his culinary roots.
During the recession Kauper worked five part time jobs, one of them selling cars.
“That will toughen your hide,” Kauper claimed. At the height of the recession, Kauper would talk to 100 people and sell two cars. And that was a good day.
“Lots of rejection strengthens your self-esteem,” Kauper said.
For five years, Kauper worked in a factory honing steel cylinders and hard chrome plating for the food industry.
After a variety of kitchen positions, Kauper became sous chef for the Hilton Madison managing food service for the main dining room and banquets, managing and instructing kitchen staff and assisting the chef in menu and concept development for the Nine East restaurant and Hilton banquet operation.
Moving into chef/manager position at the Lake Windsor Golf Club responsibilities grew to include costing and developing of all menus, scheduling kitchen and setup staff, inventory control and purchasing.
With his experience in reducing costs and increasing customer satisfaction, Kauper accepted a “hired gun” position to turn around a resort restaurant in Virginia. In spite of the experience being “an eye opener,” Kauper was able to garner favorable reviews for menu development and costing and kitchen design in the first four months.
The Post House in Spring Green was the state’s oldest food serving establishment until it burned in 2003. While working at the Post House, Kauper with his wife, Joan of 25 years, lived in nearby Avoca.
“It’s a beautiful part of Wisconsin on the Wisconsin River. I would get off of work, back into the driveway and put out the boat,” Kauper said. He was offered to buy the Post House. Tempted, he felt it would have cost too much to renovate.
As one of many chefs at Queen Anne’s Catering, Kauper ran one of the kitchens and contracted with the Bishop O’Conner Center and the Shriner’s Temple. Business was brisk and 150-200 weddings per year was the norm. When that business retired, Kauper became the dining service coordinator for Avalon Assisted Living Community where he spent seven years cultivating nutritious and palate pleasing food for the residents. Every quarter, Kauper prepared a banquet for the family members.
Six months ago, Kauper accepted the chef position at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Westport. He prepares food service for the community and their guests, retreats and special functions such as funerals and weddings. Three hundred people for a meal is becoming more common. Kauper works alone and also with a variety of 25 volunteers and occasional hired help. His wife, Joan, will pitch in as she has on many occasions. Kauper enjoys the optimistic environment and “they like what I do so I do it,” Kauper said.
Kauper tailors his menu for the widest acceptance. When creating his menu, he keeps in mind vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free desires. Gluten-free has become so popular that he doesn’t use bread crumbs in his recipes anymore.
With two and half acres of garden space and five acres of orchard on the premises, his food availability is as locavore as one can get. Harvesting 200 bushels of apples, pies, sauce and cider were in abundance.
“We use it all,” Kauper said, “everything but the squeal” as they say.
“I like playing with food. Food is art and covers every sense. There is so much to learn and so many different flavors. I’m experimenting with Mideastern foods. I’ve discovered a pomegranate molasses,” Kauper said.
Kauper is highly entertained by food. It is always changing yet always the same. Kauper admits he has trouble making a recipe exactly the same. He is always thinking of how to improve it and can’t help but change things. Kauper has gotten to know all the members at Holy Wisdom and has an open-door policy in the kitchen. “I’m everyone’s grandma,” Kauper said.
Kauper lives with Joan in Stoughton and has one son, BJ, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Kauper still has a boat, a very spoiled dog and a 40-year-old rescue parrot that the couple adopted 25 years ago. A Quaker parrot, also known as devil bird, is very particular about meeting certain people.
“He doesn’t like big hair. Farrah Fawcett would have lost her eyes,” Kauper laughed.
Always having more hobbies than he had time for, Kauper loves hunting, fishing and cabinet making. He used to build cars, now he builds computers. Self-taught, he learned that computers are less expensive, take up less space and clean up time is shorter than with cars.
“But I still have a big pile of parts,” Kauper said.
Kauper credits his parents for many of his life choices. They emphasized doing something you love and to be a life-long learner, he said.