Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma and Brasa
We’re familiar with what local chefs serve in their restaurants. What about the food choices they make at home? This series offers a glimpse into what chefs are eating when they step outside their own establishment.
Alex Roberts opened Restaurant Alma in 1999. He then opened Brasa in Northeast Minneapolis in 2007, and later, a second location on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. After working in Minnesota restaurants during high school and college, Roberts attended the French Culinary Institute in New York City, where he later worked at Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe. Roberts now lives near Restaurant Alma with his wife and three children. He recently won the James Beard Award for Best Midwestern Chef.
On initial inspirations to cook:
I grew up in South Minneapolis and my parents were not together. That’s part of my history as a cook. I always thought my mom was a very good cook. She was working full time at a hospital, so she didn’t have a lot of time to make elaborate meals. But, she seasoned her food well and I enjoyed eating at home. We didn’t have money to go out so she made dinner. When my parents split up, my dad was a horrible cook. But he started to try right away. At a certain point he was making things that were pretty rotten. He’d boil macaroni and for a couple minutes, thinking — I don’t know what he was thinking. I remember the noodles were really hard. He put them in a casserole dish with some grated cheese, salt and pepper, maybe a pat of butter.
We’d say, “What is that?” He told us, “Macaroni and Cheese,” and we’d say, “No it’s not! That’s not the way Mom makes it!” So I went home to my mother and asked her for a recipe to bring to my dad. I brought it to him and said: “Here, Dad, make this.” And he told me he would, but I’d have to help him. So at nine or 10 years old I started to help out in the kitchen. Fast forward to age 15 and I had my first job, working for minimum wage as a dishwasher at Capers Restaurant (now Pierre’s Bistro). A couple months into that job a cook didn’t show up for work. The chef came over to me and asked if I could help out. She was so great — a little woman named Stella who was just an ass kicker. From that day forward I was never a dishwasher again.
On how restaurant experiences influenced him at home:
When I was 17 I started at Lowry’s, where Auriga used to be. I was cooking at home all the time. I didn’t really see it as wanting to make a great stir fry, or a great beans and rice. I was just making simple things and trying to eat well. At that time I wasn’t buying cookbooks. If we all rewind to what it was like in the mid ’90s — the cable television, the publishing — all of that was pretty dormant. Chefs weren’t in the limelight. Kitchens were kind of funny. There was always a motley crew: the ex cons, the high school dropouts, the architects who didn’t want to be architects and decided they wanted to be in the kitchen. Now cooking is more mainstream. Kids see culinary school as part of a career path. It takes a long time to develop your own style as a chef.
So when you’re working for other people you are emanating who you’re cooking for when you’re at home. At Lowry’s we were doing a lot of pasta, polenta, fish, and things like that. So when I cooked at home, I was focusing on a lot of techniques I was using there. Later when I opened Alma, I pulled from my time in New York, working at restaurants like Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe. I was influenced by the people I worked for: David Bouley, Tom Colicchio, and Michael Romano. I was also influenced by my travels. I had spent some time in Italy before opening the restaurant. I had also spent some time in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, and some of my ideas for Brasa started to harden during my time there. I had the idea for Brasa at the same time as Alma, but I didn’t have the guts to do it. When I was getting ready to open Alma I was cooking a lot at home to prepare for the restaurant, working on recipes. All of these experiences are tangled in there. Now I only cook one way, whether it’s at the restaurant or at home. For me, cooking isn’t a concept or a trend. Food is my luxury. I don’t have a boat or a cabin.
On how having a family changed the home dynamic:
Now I have three restaurants and I can float around. Before that, for almost 20 years I was always on the line. So I’m home for dinner now. It’s kind of mandatory since I have a four year old, three year old, and four month old. My wife says I can do anything I want from eight to six, but I need to be home for a while afterward. She’s been very accommodating to me as a chef. She does expect me to cook a couple days at home. Part of opening two Brasas was to have a restaurant that wasn’t undergoing as much change as Alma, where every six weeks we’re changing the menu. It’s kind of designed that I become more optional, and not always have to be at the same place every day. It took me a long time to get there but I’m 38 and I better start to do it if I want to be a good dad and a good husband.
Some days it’s shocking what we’ll eat for dinner. It’s just the hectic nature of having children. Dinner gets pushed back. All of the sudden, it’s, “We need to feed the kids before they go to bed.” Some nights I’ll look down at my plate and say, “What am I eating?” It’s something like spaghetti and carrot sticks. It’s all we had. I feel like I’m a kid again. But you’re not making two meals, you’re making one. I believe in teaching your children to eat well. If I’m making a meal it’s with a protein, a vegetable, and a starch. I put it all on the table, family style. I tell them they need to eat a little of everything. Some days the meals are really funny, and others we’re really on top of it and we make a whole meal. But we don’t have a microwave. We don’t do convenience foods. We always cook. Sometimes we rely on Brasa for dinner. It’s a great way to feed your family whole food that’s carefully prepared with really good ingredients. That’s one of the tenets of the Brasa concept. If a child can’t thrive on that food, then don’t serve it. Adults can eat whatever they choose. But it can be too salty, or too rich, and if they eat it every day they’re going to have problems. Brasa is more everyday food.
My wife tends to shop at the co-op. We go to Lunds occasionally. I always have the restaurants close by. But I don’t like coming in and pillaging all the food while my staff is working. In a pinch, there’s always good butter here, and good protein, and vegetables. We try to eat with the seasons. But I drink coffee, I love French cheese, my kids eat bananas. We live in Minnesota and you can buy dairy, meat, and some grains 100 percent of the time. When it’s local we buy it; when it’s not we try to make it make as much sense as possible.