2011 Silver Whisk Award Nominees: Best Chef

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Welcome to the 2011 Silver Whisk Award nominations. The Silver Whisks celebrate the best of local food in the Upper Midwest; only three are given out, for Best Chef, Best Purveyor, and Best New Restaurant.

The nominees featured this year for the Best Chef Award are a diverse lot: Two took the traditional route to chefhood; one had never worked in a restaurant prior to opening her own; and one is admittedly “not a chef” at all. We will be the first to acknowledge that this is stretching quite a bit — but as times change, so do those who find their vocation in teaching others to cook and eat well. Both inside and outside of their respective kitchens, this year’s nominees have not only inspired us as diners, but have taught us to find beauty in the mundane and really appreciate the often-overlooked potential of our surroundings.

Below, presented with our annual lack of a particular order, are the nominees.

The Pizzaiola: Ann Kim of Pizzeria Lola

Ann Kim of Pizzeria Lola

Natalie Champa Jennings / Heavy Table

A week before opening night, Ann Kim finally told her mother, Young Kim, about her restaurant, Pizzeria Lola. “She never approved of anything I did,” Kim says. “I mean, she already disowned me once before! If she had seen the space before we finished it, I think she would have had a heart attack.”

Kim’s awe of her mother’s judgment is palpable in her focus and extensive preparation for the restaurant. After leaving her 9 to 5 job as the director of education at the Hennepin Theater Trust, she and her partner, Conrad Leifur, sat down and formulated a plan of action: “I focused on one thing and did everything in my power to do it well.” Kim enrolled at the International School of Pizza in San Francisco, graduating in January 2010. She followed that by apprenticing with Tony Gemignani, the school’s owner and a nine-time world champion pizza maker, and eventually developed her own style of pizza-making: a “bread-centered” fusion of Neapolitan and New York styles.

At Lola, Kim’s conscientious approach extends beyond the pizza to the sensory experience of the restaurant as a whole. “I want the restaurant to evoke my memories of home: The moment you walk in, you smell food cooking.” And although Kim is acting as a consultant for Vero, a new pizza restaurant opening at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, she’s ultimately focused on her work at 56th and Xerxes. “Starting out, we knew we wanted Pizzeria Lola to be the kind of place you’d go and see your neighbors. It’s amazing to see that we have so many regulars who come in week after week.” Kim was never expecting people to visit from all over the metro, sometimes waiting in excess of an hour during peak times.

Kim and her mother have come a long way since the opening. These days, Young Kim calls the restaurant about once a week to see how their sales are doing, see how busy they’ve been, and remind her daughter not to let the awards and press get to her head. “My mom’s my biggest cheerleader now. Ultimately, she realized that I found my calling — and she is finally, truly proud of me.”

Pizzeria Lola Interior and Sunnyside Pizza

Natalie Champa Jennings / Heavy Table

Personal cooking philosophy: Create food that tastes good.
Words of advice for a new chef: First, be aware that the work is terribly hard. It’s not for the faint of heart. Second, do research, ask questions. And lastly, chase your dreams. Just go for it!
What she’s most proud of: Having the courage to do this in the first place.
Her favorite meal: Whatever my mom would cook.

The Educator: Russell Klein of Meritage

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

Russell Klein is no stranger to the Silver Whisk Awards: He was nominated for Best Chef once before in 2009. Since then, Meritage has continued to bring in award after award in both local and national press. This past year, he and his team ambitiously launched an acclaimed oyster bar, crepe stand, the blockbuster Oysterfest, and an upcoming brasserie and raw bar at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.

Even so, Klein maintains that the basic Meritage experience is of the utmost importance. “We’re in no hurry to expand. Right now, we want to focus our attention on maintaining relationships with our guests and the community.” The restaurant’s weekly wine classes, which showcase the major wine regions of Europe and the United States, always fill up quickly. They attract students with a refreshing accessibility that, sadly, seems rather old school these days. Everything at Meritage is focused on educating their enthusiastic customer base, who turned out by the hundreds for seminars, demonstrations, and more than 15,000 oysters at last fall’s Oysterfest. “We’re unique in that we’re not just consumption-based; we have a larger mission, which is, and will always be, education.”

Klein wants his patrons to know who grows their food, as well. And although he is aware of the economic argument for working with local farmers, the relationships he’s built over the years are just as important. “It’s important to have that trust and to know exactly what we’re getting: no hormones, no chemicals. I’m actually just about to meet with a local farmer to work out a menu plan for the next growing season.” Few people in the Midwest would associate oysters with the local / seasonal foods movement, but Klein has worked and visited with oyster farmers on both coasts to build the same kinds of relationships he has with vegetable and meat producers in Minnesota.

It seems that everything Klein does, he does for his city. “I wanted to do an event in downtown St. Paul, and Oysterfest was it. Anything that brings people into St. Paul is going to be a good thing.” He extends that thought to the contested issue of light rail construction, which has sent some business owners into fits. “You know, St. Paul has been really supportive of businesses overall. You have to think about the impact it’s going to have on the city as a whole. There’s a growing sense of optimism in St. Paul, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon.”

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Personal cooking philosophy: Whenever possible, we want to know who grows the food we cook.
Words of advice for a new chef: There is no substitute for travel. Go and learn as much as you can about how things are done in other cultures.
What he’s most proud of: Employing 60 people in the midst of a recession.
His favorite meal: When my wife and I travel, we don’t tend to seek out the big name restaurants. It’s always the small, independently owned places that we love and remember best.

The Hiker: Brett Laidlaw, author of Trout Caviar: Recipes from a Northern Forager

Brett Laidlaw

In an era where even gimmicky Twitter accounts can generate lucrative book deals, Brett Laidlaw’s book, Trout Caviar: Recipes from a Northern Forager, reminds us that there is still a wellspring of poetry and sincerity to be found on the Internet. “It’s been amazing to meet so many people for whom this way of looking at food has really resonated — either in their family traditions or present life.” Trout Caviar, which is based on the blog of the same name, reads like a love letter to the landscape and culinary traditions of the Upper Midwest; it’s packed with odes to Wisconsin cheese, wild blueberries, fermentation, and hunting. Press and readers alike have received the book with enthusiasm; local food writer Dara Moskowitz-Grumdahl has named it her favorite cookbook of the year.

For most consumers of food media, the concept of foraging invokes visions of scruffy hipsters tromping around forests with burlap sacks, battling spiders and park rangers alike as they embark to pickle every edible specimen within a 5-mile radius. Though he does do his share of tromping, Laidlaw hopes to expand the definition of foraging from the woods to the grocery store. “So much of good cooking is about foraging, or shopping creatively. Honestly, it takes a little bit of courage to pick up a black radish for the first time and go, ‘I’m gonna find something delicious to do with this.’ A lot of people just wouldn’t do it.”

Which is not to say that nobody’s going to pick up that radish. In fact, it’s much more likely now than it was 20 years ago. “When I was growing up, all of the fancy restaurants were French. And the more stuff that came from somewhere else, the better. It was not a selling point, that you were cooking with local ingredients.” Cookbooks have been slower to catch up to the reality and necessities of regional cooking than restaurants, and Laidlaw has responded with a sensitivity to those limitations. Many of the recipes in Trout Caviar include suggestions for alternative ingredients, depending on the season.

Even though he actively participates in the Upper Midwest’s reimagining of local cuisine, Laidlaw is a realist. “There are many places in rural Minnesota where Walmart is the only grocery store in town. There may be corn everywhere, but it’s not the kind that people can eat.” He hopes for people to regain intimate knowledge of their landscape and the delicious things that grow so well here: milkweeds, nettles, rhubarb, and — of course — trout. His approach will continue to succeed, in part, because it is absent of the anxiety-inducing zealotry that plagues the local food movement. “There’s nothing wrong with excellent things that don’t grow here, but which we all enjoy: vanilla, coffee, lemon, olives, et cetera. Most of the wine I drink comes from France or Spain. And I’m a fiend for guacamole.”

Brett Laidlaw

Personal cooking philosophy: Try everything, one weed at a time.
Words of advice for a new chef: Let the ingredients be your guide.
What he’s most proud of: Being able to make seemingly daunting culinary processes, like smoking and fermentation, accessible to casual cooks.
His favorite meal: Szechuan food! I love going out to noodle joints, and there are so many authentic Szechuan places in the Twin Cities area these days.

The Technician: Alejandro Castillon of Sonora Grill

Sonora Grill in the Midtown Global Market

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

“Every morning, I wake up with ideas for new recipes, new stuff to try out at the restaurant. The ideas just come.” Alejandro Castillon’s (above, right) energy is palpable in every part of Sonora Grill, the restaurant he opened last summer with Conrado Paredes (above, left) and Fernando Armenta (above, center), his two college friends from Sonora, Mexico. From his modest outpost in Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market, the chef has been wowing the locals with his unique fusion of Spanish and South American cuisines, bringing a much-needed, fresh perspective to a region peppered with Tex-Mex joints.

Like legions of chefs before him, Castillon credits his mother with the beginning of his culinary education. “It was all from paying attention to my mom,” he says. He began his restaurant career at St. Paul’s Parkview Cafe, after he came to the States for a vacation and decided to stay for good. From there, he moved on to Solera, Barrio, Be’Wiched, then Bar La Grassa, where he worked as a sous chef. He continued to pay close attention, learning as much as possible everywhere he cooked. “I would see these dishes with 12, 13 components and think, ‘I can do this with four or five.’” When he finally felt like he’d learned as much as he could, he set out to open his own restaurant.

Despite his more-than-respectable resume, Castillon had no business experience. “I went to college in Mexico for accounting, but that was… a long time ago,” he says. He and his partners teamed up with the Neighborhood Development Center, which provided them with consultation, loans, and an affordable space to rent. The restaurant has since attracted a loyal following of people who return every week to try the specials, which showcase whatever concepts Castillon wants to play with next. And if Yelp is to be any sort of indication, a significant portion of his patrons hang around for the “eye candy” — though the suggestion would probably embarrass him and his staff profoundly.

Castillon’s ability to smoothly fuse disparate techniques has generated a truly unique menu. The success of his ocean-straddling dishes, such as the tempura-battered shrimp tacos and crudo tostadas, is a testament to how great fusion cuisine could be when done right. “Alejandro took a risk, did something different from what people were used to, and was accepted,” says Paredes, who tends to handle the PR side of things. “He is always thinking of ways to make things better.”

Sonora Grill in the Midtown Global Market

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Personal cooking philosophy: I always want to make things more simple. Simple is best.
Words of advice for a new chef: Most important is to always try for quality.
What he’s most proud of: Customers who keep coming back because they want to try something new.
His favorite meal: Bar La Grassa! We all try to go there when possible.

Tomorrow: Nominees for Best Purveyor. Wednesday: Best New Establishment. We’ll announce the winners in each category near the end of February.

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17 Comments

  1. morchella02/13/2012Reply

    Wonderful to not see the ‘usual suspects’ on this list but innovators and seekers. I LOVE these nominations!

  2. Great list, especially Sonora Grill!

  3. Scott McGerik02/13/2012Reply

    Ssh! I wish people would stop talking up Meritage so much! I’d like to keep the place to myself. ;)

  4. Not to sound too negative but this list is a little disappointing. Although I really like Lola and Sonora, they really aren’t the places I would think of when the term, “best chef” is thrown around. The inclusion of a forage/recipe book author is a bit suspect as well. Maybe it was a slow year for good food in the Twin Cities but I can say that I’ll be a little embarrassed to tell my NYC or Chicago out of town visitors that the area’s best “chefs” of last year make Neapolitan pizza, dressed up Mexican street eats, or forage for their food. Though maybe not as embarrassed as Chef Klein may be if he doesn’t win this thing hands down.

  5. @russ, I think that’s a very fair complaint.

  6. @kevin_mpls02/15/2012Reply

    I’m confused by @russ & @moe frame of reference. Cooking involves taking ingredients & transforming them in to something to eat – a chef should be measured on their skills to not only make something, but elevate the final product above the sum of those parts. This is actually MUCH easier to do if you’re starting with expensive, luxurious ingredients and more difficult if you’re starting with everyday, pedestrian stuff such as flour, yeast & water, skirt steak, chicken thighs, etc. It could be that a fine-dining, white tablecloth environment adds to the experience for some people, but certainly not all. Best food I’ve ever eaten was from a gas station in Treme, NOLA, served up by an elderly grandma who had taken the most humble greens, grits & cheap meat cuts and turned them in to a symphony of flavors that absolutely floored me. I wonder if @russ friends have told him that many top-name chefs in NY & Chicago have been racing to open burger joints & other casual dining places to try and present simple, comfort food well executed. Both Lola & Sonora excel at producing exceptional food using simple, accessible ingredients & for that they should be seriously considered and possibly honored. Don’t discount substance due to lack of hyperbole. Judging outstanding, scratch-made “street eats” unworthy of consideration is as disingenuous as clamoring for “local, sustainable” food items but choosing not to include plentiful invasive species such as carp, garlic mustard, etc in your diet.

  7. Kevin, I really could not have written that more eloquently. Well put.

    The Heavy Table is dedicated to exploring the whole spectrum of dining. Fine dining, with its flashy ingredients and laborious techniques, tends to get more than its share of press. We’re interested in how people cook and eat every night of the week, and for lunch, and breakfast, and on the street. The best fine dining chefs and restaurants are easy to find – every publication, us included, writes about them multiple times every year. We’d like to push beyond that – not excluding upscale experiences, but capturing a much broader picture of what it means to eat and drink in the Upper Midwest.

  8. @kevin-mpls – Sorry for the confusion but let me take a step back and clear up my thoughts for you. I DO like Lola and Sonora – it’s good food and represents some of the best of their kind in the area. I’m not trying to be a “white tablecloth environment” snob – I’m actually in favor of a more relaxed dining experience. My friends don’t have to tell me about the the “top-name chefs” in NY and Chicago opening casual places because I’ve been to them. Rick Bayless isn’t earning a Michelin star for XOCO (easily on par with Sonora – possibly better), he’s getting one for Topolobampo. Paul Kahan isn’t going to be considered a great chef because of his pork belly or al Pastor tacos at Big Star – it’s for his work at Blackbird. Although I enjoyed my tacos at Big Star on Friday afternoon, I’m not short-sighted enough to think that it compares favorably to Blackbird, Avec or even Publican. There’s a simple reason for this – knocking out tortas at XOCO doesn’t reflect the same skill or creativity as ANY of the dishes at Topolobampo. It’s that simple. I enjoy a taco or a pizza as much as anyone (probably more) but if a food media outlet wants to tell me that’s as good as it gets for 2011 in MPLS, I have a right to feel pretty disappointed. Just compare this list to years past: 2010 – Chefs Woodman, Wadi, Russo and Pampuch – 2009 – Chefs Phillips, Becker and Klein. Sorry, this year just doesn’t compare.

  9. @russ, I really could not have written that more eloquently. Well put.

  10. @kevin_mpls02/15/2012Reply

    @russ – I guess I don’t accept the premise that “knocking out tortas at XOCO doesn’t reflect the same skill or creativity as ANY of the dishes at Topolobampo” is necessarily true. And, full disclosure – both of my adult children work in upscale establishments (including a James Beard winning eatery) that my wife & I frequent so I hold no grudge toward fine dining. I’ve also worked in the industry and while I’m more familiar with work product at Sonora than Lola I can tell you that the tacos, bocadillo’s etc there DO take a great deal of creativity, effort & skill to produce – even salsas & ailoi are made in-house daily and Alejandro Castillon invents weekly specials that are as whimsical and delightful as those I’ve seen offered by other “serious” chefs in this town. I like that Mr. Norton has decided to focus on the whole spectrum of dining choices rather than blindly missing out on lesser known, talented pros that offer food that’s as pleasing and well made AND is affordable enough to be enjoyed by the 99%.

    If it takes large, complex organizations with many moving parts to produce something of high value then does it follow that enterprise software from IBM is more worthy of praise than the elegant “killer app” developed by a solo developer in their basement?

  11. @James Norton – Although I like your blog and respect your overall goal, I still can’t agree with your thoughts on this matter. My initial disappointment about your nominees list was that there really didn’t seem to be a barrier of entry to your “chef” classification. I really don’t have a preference for fine dining vs. casual dining vs. hot dog carts – as I enjoy them all but there’s a good reason why fine dining gets a lot of press – it helps push the food movement forward -whether it be skill or creativity – thus allowing the other aspects of “everyday” dining to grow. Good chefs usually work for other good chefs and a competitive environment fosters creativity and pushes boundaries. Their “flashy ingredients” come from somewhere and in your eyes – hopefully locally, which leads to farms pushing out better product, which may some day allow me access to better ingredients. Did something change in your nominee selection process this year? Over the last few years it seems that your selections were mostly from “fine dining” and included chefs that use “flashy ingredients.” I’m just saying that it seems different this year. Anyway, I’ve made my point and if we don’t see eye to eye, it’s okay – it’s still America – and I’ll still check out Heavy Table.

  12. I won’t speak for @russ, but my issue isn’t that Lola and Sonora aren’t deserving, it’s that only 1 out of the 4 is a traditional full scale restaurant chef.

    I think it all comes down to what my expectations are from an award winning chef.

  13. @kevin-mpls – Yea, I agree with you about Sonora and Lola – they put out a great product. I’m comparing a “best chef” list to previous lists and it doesn’t jive with the historical trend. I can’t stress enough about how much I appreciate casual dining – especially the cost – and we need more high-quality, accessible dining options. Though I also think that it’s much easier for a competent chef to work their way down to a casual place rather than up to fine dining. As you probably guessed, I’m originally from Chicago and there are A LOT of good taco places that make everything from scratch. Also A LOT of pizza places that do the same. I think it would be very difficult for someone that runs a great pizza place to put out high end Italian though – they typically don’t have the formal training, experience with ingredients, etc that would be required of an executive chef. I think we may be more similar than you think but I was getting hung up on the “chef” classification.

  14. Wow this is a really interesting debate. I would have to say I agree with Russ and Moe. However, there is no denying that casual dining has and deserves respect. There are a million places that serve up uninspiring tacos and crap pizza. If takes skill and time and patience (especially with pizza) to come up with a good product. However, I’m not sure either owners of Sonora or Lola deserve recognition of best chef just yet. Neither have proved longevity or staying power in a market that seems to have a very short attention span. Also, it takes more than making one good product to be considered a chef. A chef is a master in some regards of a broad field. They also have people under them who they have developed and trained into a great cooks with the potential to be a chef. I’m not sure I see any people on this list like that other than Klein.

  15. Just as a comparison, the James Beard award Semifinalists were announced yesterday and Chef Klein was included in that list for Best Chef Midwest as were Chefs Russo (Heartland), Flicker (Piccolo), Steven Brown (Tilia), Woodman (Heidi’s), Mike Brown and James Winberg (Travail). Also Tim McKee was listed as Most Outstanding Chef (La Belle Vie), Sameh Wadi (Saffron) was listed as Rising Star Chef of the Year, and Michelle Gayer (Salty Tart) for Outstanding Pastry Chef. Now, I know James Norton clearly stated that he’s less concerned about fine dining and more interested in “how people cook and eat every night of the week,” but I think this list is more indicative of the people that are pushing the limits. Please, again – I like Lola and Sonora and understand the reasoning behind J Norton’s thinking – but if I’m looking for a top notch Chef, they probably are sitting on the James Beard Semi Finalists list.

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