2011 Silver Whisk Award Nominees: Best Chef
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
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.”
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
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.”
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
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.”
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
“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.”
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.