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Dandan

Dan Van Rite, left, and Dan Jacobs, right, are the chef-owners of the American-Chinese restaurant Dandan in Milwaukee. "I don't think we'll ever stop learning about it," Jacobs said about Chinese food. The partners didn't want to pigeonhole themselves into one genre of food, so they've opened up two other restaurants and a bakery since.

Dan Jacobs admitted that he and his business partner, Dan Van Rite, are gluttons for punishment.

"Or as Carol Deptolla of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says, we're overachieving," said Jacobs, who with Van Rite has opened three important restaurants -- and a bakery -- in Milwaukee's Third Ward in just over two years. One is a restaurant within a restaurant.

What makes these achievements more remarkable is that Jacobs has done it while dealing with a rare neuromuscular condition called Kennedy's disease. On bad days, the condition can make it hard for him to perform simple tasks like cleaning vegetables.

Jacobs, 40, was diagnosed in February 2016 as he and Van Rite prepared to open Dandan, their take on American-Chinese food. It opened in July 2016, and by that November, they created a room inside Dandan for EsterEv, named after their great-grandmothers, Ester and Evelyn.

This year, the Dans opened a bakery, Batches, in February, and the French-inspired Fauntleroy in July. Also this year, the classically trained chefs got James Beard Award nominations in the category of "Best Chef: Midwest" for EsterEv.

The 20-seat communal EsterEv offers 10-course tasting menus on Friday and Saturday nights that Jacob likens to fancy dinner parties.

On Nov. 19, the Dans are teaming with Madison restaurateur and chef Tory Miller to bring a similar 10-course meal to Miller's Spanish-themed Estrellon. The dinner will benefit the Kennedy's Disease Association.

Jacobs and Van Rite have held two Dim Sum + Give Some gala dinners in Milwaukee, each raising $25,000. Now, they're starting to do similar events in other cities.

For the Madison dinner, wines are being donated by a couple of distributors, enabling a bigger chunk of the money to go to the association. The men are hoping to raise about $5,000 from the Estrellon event.

Jacobs, who grew up on the North Side of Chicago, moved to Milwaukee in 2011 and worked at the prominent, but now-closed restaurants Roots and Wolf Peach. He also spent time at Odd Duck. Van Rite was a former chef at the now-closed Hinterland in Milwaukee.

Miller met Jacobs seven years ago at Madison chef Dan Fox's Slow Pig event and they've been friends ever since. They'd been wanting to do something together, and Jacobs reached out to see if Miller would sponsor the fundraising dinner.

"I was heartbroken," Miller said about first learning of Jacobs' diagnosis.

Miller said he's been following Jacobs' career since his Wolf Peach days. "So getting an opportunity to do an event like this here in Madison with chefs of their caliber was a no brainer."

The fundraiser, Miller said, is not just a chance for him to hang out with friends, but to also raise awareness and money for a great cause. "These guys are killing it in Milwaukee and I’m stoked to see them here."

Jacobs said his degenerative condition, which is similar to ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, is part of the reason he's trying to do as much as he can while he can.

"You can hear it in my voice," he said during a recent phone conversation during which his voice was slightly raspy. "The muscles in my throat that control my vocal cords are degenerating."

His voice problem is a constant, but issues with walking and gripping things, especially with his right side, are more difficult some days than others.

Even though the disease limits what he can do, it's also given him the ability to become a better teacher and has forced him to learn to rely on others instead of trying to do everything himself, he said. "We have a wonderful staff at all the restaurants, and there's a great support system." 

In terms of why he and Van Rite decided on an American-Chinese restaurant, Jacobs said that many of his formative food experiences were at Chinese restaurants in Chicago.

"Most of my childhood was spent at Chinese restaurants," he said. Chinese restaurants also meant celebrations, whether it was a birthday or a graduation. "It was always happy time food," he said.

So the idea behind Dandan, Jacobs said, is that what he and Van Rite enjoy, their customers will enjoy.

"If we cook really good Chinese food... If it makes us happy doing it, or it reminds us of happy times as kids, it's going to make you happy."

Read more restaurant news at go.madison.com/restaurantnews.

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Wisconsin State Journal food writer Samara Kalk Derby brings you the latest news on the Madison area's eclectic restaurant scene.