The baker Emily Marks is also an artist. She is deeply conscious of the details around her. At The Bachelor Farmer, she revels in the restaurant’s mission to build relationships with small farms and producers. She notices when the hue of her egg yolks changes her lemon curd to neon yellow, and when the shells change from thin to thick and brittle.
She’s rewritten recipes to account for the different types of wheat in her Baker’s Field flour. What one baker could view as an annoying inconsistency, Marks finds inspiring. She understands that the grain supply changes with the weather and the farmers.
As a pastry chef, she focuses on what’s in season or what she has preserved over the summer. As an artist, she plays with the tangible elements of her world, bending flavors, pushing limits. But she’s eager to play with more than your taste buds; she wants to provoke a feeling in you or a memory of something you’ve had in the past. Her medium is food, but her work is in nostalgia.
HEAVY TABLE: What was your culinary upbringing like?
MARKS: My parents adopted me from Korea when I was four months old. I grew up in White Bear Lake. My earliest memories are mostly around food. My parents were hardworking and didn’t prepare fancy food for us, but my dad had a routine of reading cookbooks every morning like someone would read the newspaper. When I was old enough, I started reading them with him.
In one of my most vivid childhood memories, I was looking up at our kitchen countertop, every inch filled with strawberries from Pine Tree Apple Orchard. To this day, every time I smell strawberries, my mind flashes back to that memory, and I think of the summers our countertops would be filled with the berries that my sister and I would help my dad make into quick jams to put on toast and to give as gifts.
In high school, I read cookbooks and food magazines and watched a lot of public TV like Martha Stewart and Julia Child. I got kitchen appliances for birthday gifts. I still have my tiny white KitchenAid mixer I’ve had for twenty years. It’s super old-school and has been through a lot, but it still works just fine. Every time I pull it out, I think of how small and old it is. I still love it. After a day working in a commercial kitchen with huge equipment, coming home to bake with it feels a bit like using an Easy-Bake Oven.
HEAVY TABLE: Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up?
MARKS: From a young age, when someone would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d tell them I wanted to stay at home and have a lemonade stand in the yard. When high school graduation came along, I was less sure. I really didn’t like school or the idea of more of it. I was involved in the fine arts in high school and thought it was fun, but I still didn’t feel like I was passionate enough about anything. Culinary school should’ve been obvious, but it was not on my radar.
I ended up going to college at Northwestern, a super-tiny Bible school in St. Paul. It was nice at the time, and had a small art department with really great instructors. I focused on drawing and painting and gravitated toward nature in my work. At the end of college, I was more into abstract expressionist and minimalist art; the things that look easy but are super complex. It’s the same for me now with baking.
In college I think I kind of drove my roommates crazy. We had these tiny kitchenettes in our dorm rooms where I made kimchi once. I probably stank up the whole hall. My roommates didn’t make fun of me, probably because I also often baked them treats. I remember hand-whipping cream for a whipped-cream topping and my roommates were completely amazed.
Eddie Wu is the owner of Cook St. Paul, a diner and Korean-food gateway on St. Paul’s East Side. His restaurant on Payne Avenue is bedecked with colorful “All Are Welcome Here” signs in Arabic, English, Hmong, Somali, and Spanish. “Black Lives Matter” posters are displayed on his restaurant’s storefront. He knows well that unity isn’t the same as uniformity, and he’s happy to bullshit with anyone who walks in his door. He’s created a “greasy silver spoon” vibe, as he calls it, by giving a nod to Serlin’s Cafe (the diner that lived in his restaurant’s space from the 1930s) while also introducing the Korean food he knows and loves. It’s a made-from-scratch restaurant — from the English muffins for your eggs Benedict to the kimchi for your mac and cheese — and a place unafraid of mixing in a dash of politics.
The spot attracts its share of high-profile regulars: On any given day, you could just as easily sit next to State Senator Tom Bakk, U.S. Representative Tim Mahoney, Eater editor Joy Summers, a mechanic from Dave’s Auto Shop, or a fanatic regular with the Cook St. Paul logo tattooed on his biceps. Wu, a restaurant owner who won’t allow himself to be called a chef, was just filmed by the Food Network for a series that will air late this summer. He’s laid back about it. He’s not driven by the luster of stardom. On Friday nights, he’s happy to cook Korean food with plenty of house hot sauce, while wearing his “I Love Eve” T-shirt (Eve is his wife) and holding an “Eddie Wu” in his hand. What’s that, you ask? A twist on the Arnie Palmer using the house lemonade he spent years crafting blended with Grey Duck chai.
HEAVY TABLE: Tell me about your upbringing. A culinary background?
WU: By birth, I am Edmond Charles Hansen III. I didn’t know I’d be a Wu someday, but my wife’s identity was stolen, and she was already on her third name, having been adopted, so I took hers. Ninety percent of the men I’ve met are appalled by me taking a woman’s last name. I’m not interested in tradition for tradition’s sake. My dad always told me my name was spelled Edmund (rather than Edmond, as his is spelled) so that our mail wouldn’t get mixed up, but I realized when I needed my birth certificate at age 18 that he was wrong. The spelling of my birth last name, Hansen, was changed when the first of my family members immigrated here. Names don’t mean shit to people.
I’ve been told McDonald’s was my first word. I’m one of five siblings, and my parents divorced when I was four. I grew up eating Tombstone pizza, hot dogs, and Chef Boyardee.
My dad was a Chief of Paramedics for the St. Paul Fire Department. He’d work for a period of time and then have ten days off. He’d sometimes take off and not tell us where he was going. I remember asking my sister once where my dad was, and she was like, “Oh he’s in Florida.” After my parents split, my mom was on welfare and struggled to take care of herself. My sister pretty much raised me.
When I was six, and because my parents weren’t hanging out that much, I would take rocks out of my front yard, clean them, and use my older sister’s clear nail polish to shine them. I’d put them in a wagon, and sell them around the neighborhood. I’d spend 10 hours a day out selling rocks. I used the money first to put a lock on my bedroom door, then buy a mini fridge, then food, and then I’d pay back my sister for the nail polish, plus interest. I remember buying frozen chicken Kiev and sitting on my bed with my door locked watching a movie and feeling like a king.
When I met my wife, there was still a good amount of my diet that was 7-Eleven-based: a taquito in my mouth and a Gatorade in my hand.
HEAVY TABLE: How did you claim your own path in the culinary world?
WU: When I was 14, I started washing dishes at Drover’s Inn in South St. Paul. Evidently, it was an institution. I just thought it was a lame restaurant in a hotel. It was the first time I saw how real food was made. From dishwasher, I was promoted to prep cook and then line cook. I worked there for two years. The head chef at Drover’s left to open Clyde’s on the St. Croix in Bayport, Minn. He poached me and three of my friends from Drover’s to help him, and at 16, I was running his kitchen. The place had a walleye special. I didn’t know what I was doing but I worked through the trenches and put in my time.
At 18, I stopped, and didn’t cook for a long time. I had the exact amount of credits I needed to graduate high school, and I planned to join the Marines after graduation. One day, I was hanging out with two other friends who spotted a Schwan’s truck down the street. They stole food from the truck, and we got caught. I didn’t steal anything, but I was with them. Because I was 18, and the other two were still minors at 17, the officer chose to charge me with the theft. It wasn’t exactly a “prison or Marines” scenario, but my recruiter did move my boot camp ship date from October of ’97 to August of ’97 in order to avoid that happening.
When I decided to enroll in the Marines, my sister was shocked, “The Marines, Eddie?” But I decided if I was going to serve, I was going to do the hardest one. There was even a pool at Clyde’s on how long it would take me to fail out of boot camp. They had an over-under bet. It wasn’t even if, but when. Of the four that joined with me, I was the only one who made it through.
I had really negative experiences up until the Marines. When I got there, it was the first time I felt like someone had a vested interest in what I was doing. I worked for Sergeant Stephen Griffin, and he took a really practical approach to leadership. He commented once, he believed I was probably the thorn in the side of anyone who had ever been in charge of me. At the same time, as long as I produced the results he was looking for, what I did didn’t matter. I was good enough to the extent that he didn’t have to punish me, but bad enough that he didn’t have to give me too much responsibility. Even still, at 22 I was in charge of 40 people in two different countries: in Kuwait, and a team on a boat off the Indian Ocean.
Right after the Marines I worked at Sodexo as a general manager for corporate accounts. It was soul-crushing. It didn’t help when I went to a managerial training, where other GMs were talking about how they’d been with the company for twenty years. I couldn’t imagine ever following that path, doing the same thing day after day, so I left. I had to do something to prevent that from being my life.
I found a job as a bathroom attendant at a strip club in Denver called Shotgun Willie’s. The place had a hundred girls working on seven stages. They started calling me “nice guy Eddie” because I wasn’t doing drugs on the job or stealing from them. I made three times more money as a bathroom attendant there than as a GM at Sodexo. I was making $150 an hour. After a while, they promoted me to a manager because I knew how to avoid fights. I managed the place for six months and was there for a year-and-a-half, total.
I was working in Denver when I met my wife, Eve. We went to high school together and reconnected when I came back to Minnesota for my brother’s funeral. A few months after the funeral, she started flying out to Denver every month to get tattooed. She had her entire back tattooed by a guy in Denver, so it took multiple trips. She continued making weekend trips to visit me, and I’d fly back to Minnesota monthly for a few days too. The path I took to becoming a husband and a father is about as irregular and unadvisable as you can get. We got married without telling anyone on an April night in Vegas. At that time, my wife’s father became sick. So I went from what seemed like an overnight change of living on my own in Denver, to being married and moving into a house back in Minnesota with my wife, my new father-in- law and two step children. I flew back to Minnesota, and then loaded up a car, and drove back to Colorado on Sundays, taking 4 different trips with my stuff before I eventually came back to Minnesota.
After coming back here, I had two ankle surgeries, two spinal surgeries, and a jaw surgery. I had five surgeries in five years, and they were all from my time in the Marines. I was [clinically] depressed, didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I couldn’t get anything done because I was constantly recovering from surgery.
It was my wife who finally told me, “You don’t want a boss. You want to be your own boss.” So I went to community college, and I took all business classes. My wife encouraged me down the path of opening my own restaurant.
HEAVY TABLE: What drew you to Korean food?
WU: I had eaten Korean food once while I was in the Marines in San Diego. But it was my wife who introduced me to it. She’s Korean but was adopted and raised in the U.S. When we were in Denver, we ate at a Korean restaurant. We drank shochu and sang karaoke. It was there I discovered Korean hot sauce. I loved it and wanted to know everything about it.
After community college, I apprenticed at a [St. Paul] Korean restaurant my wife introduced me to called Sole Cafe. The owner’s name was Kimberly, and she needed help on the business side of things. I told her, “If you teach me how to make your hot sauce, I will reorganize and restructure your restaurant.” Nine months later, I had taken on much more than restructuring her business, I was her busser, dishwasher, server, and prep cook. And anytime someone came into the restaurant that she didn’t want to talk to, she’d point them to me. In many ways, I admired her work ethic and felt like, “Kimberly! I just need your approval!” It was from her I got a solid grasp on the fundamentals of Korean cuisine.
Yia Vang is the 32-year-old owner of Union Kitchen, a pop-up that holds dinners all over the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro — in the middle of a farm field, in partnership with a restaurant or cooking school. He’s tying on his apron, rolling up his sleeves, and bringing his idea of kitchen to wherever you are. And he does it through storytelling. He’s energized by drawing connections between crafts, cuisines, and cultures in pursuit of ethnic harmony. Food just happens to be his medium for exploring this narrative.
The metro area is home to the largest urban Hmong population in the world, and yet, how many residents really know what Hmong food is? In this urban center of Hmong culture and cuisine, Yia Vang’s voice rises to explain it.
In a recent meeting, Vang guided me around Hmong Village, an indoor marketplace in St. Paul filled with Hmong vendors, restaurants, and a farmers market. He knew the best places to build our lunch sampling: purple fermented rice from one vendor, braised mustard greens from another, crisp pork belly from yet another. He stood with me as I gazed in awe at the papaya salad being made for us in a giant mortar and pestle: A tiny woman with ridiculous strength ground hot Thai chili pepper with sugar and salt and then cut a lime on the edge of the mortar, adding its tart juice and pulp.
She mixed in thin shreds of green (unripe) papaya that she made by hacking fine lengthwise lines into the fruit and slicing off the shreds. Tomato, Thai eggplant, and Chinese long beans were next. Last she added a house fish sauce and paste to toss the salad together. Each vendor has its own family recipe for the sauce. We claimed a table, and Vang rolled out our feast. He explained the importance of all the tastes in Hmong cooking: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami. When I looked up and saw two young girls sprinkling slices of unripe green mango with chili pepper and fish sauce for a treat, I understood.
YIA VANG: I grew up in a Hmong immigrant family. I was born in Thailand, and my family moved here in 1989, when I was five. Hmong culture is filled with festivals for every occasion: birthdays, new babies, weddings, funerals, and Hmong New Year. Food is a part of all of them. There’s a sense of building the barn together. We have no such thing as invitations. That’s a Western thing. I grew up saying, “Hey, isn’t this person’s cousin getting married? Let’s go there. I’m hungry.”
For our festivals, women handle the vegetables, and the men gather outside to cook the meat, just like back in the hills of Thailand. My dad and uncles would be out back, cooking meat over an open flame, and my mom and aunts would be in the kitchen. Once, when I was 10, my dad handed me the tongs out on our makeshift grill. Being in charge of the meat for the family was a passage of manhood, like shooting your first buck. Growing up, dad didn’t believe in tee ball, he taught practical things like whole-animal butchery. I grew up in central Wisconsin, so we bought animals from Amish farmers. I was a kid comfortable around knives and breaking down whole animals. For me, that was childhood.
HEAVY TABLE: Did you grow up eating traditional foods?
VANG: Back in the homeland, to eat a lot of meat meant prosperity. As the first Hmong people coming to the U.S., this was a way to show we’d come far. We ate a lot of whole grilled meats and larb. Larb is minced chicken, pork, or beef with mint, cilantro, culantro, and Vietnamese mint. If we were eating beef, sometimes it’d be raw, like tartare. You throw all the herbs in, and add coriander, cumin, other spices, sometimes offal pieces and tripe. What binds it together is the toasted rice flour. It gives a nuttiness. You serve it with lettuce leaves and sticky rice. It’s super herbaceous.
In Hmong families, you grind meat with a meat cleaver, another test of your manhood. You double up with cleavers in both hands. Hmong people aren’t great at embracing technology. I remember the first time I showed my mom she could use a Vitamix for making her rice flour instead of using a mortar and pestle. And she was like, “this changes everything.”
We really didn’t have desserts. My parents would be like: “Here’s an orange or a banana.” The whole high-fructose corn syrup type of desserts are an American thing.
I remember desperately wanting things like Gushers, Capri Sun, and Lunchables just to be normal, like the other kids. I got made fun of for having grilled chicken, pepper sauce, and fermented mustard greens. I’d get questions like “what’s that weird ketchup?” when I had Sriracha, or “did you have Chinese food last night?” because I’d have rice at school. Now all the kids who made fun of me are jealous.
HEAVY TABLE: Any especially vivid food memories of your childhood?
VANG: When I think back, I hear the giggles and gossip of my aunts in the kitchen talking about someone who is getting married or someone getting divorced. I hear the clinking of dishes. I hear the water running, washing all the vegetables. I see kids running around. I hear the sounds of chopping and slicing. I can smell steamed rice. I can see my aunts washing dishes outside with a big bucket of water, even with a full kitchen inside. They have such nostalgia for the homeland. I laugh about it all the time, like “Why aren’t they caught up?” They have iPhones, but they love doing things old school. I hear the voices of my uncles outside, talking about the way things were. I can hear sizzling, and then I smell the pork fat melting into hot coals. My dad believed in building stuff, so I see this rink-a-dink, jimmy-rigged tent, wired to a tree, where we used to cook outside. I loved it.
Over the Labor Day weekend, I didn’t just head up to the cabin; I joined sixty other food-obsessed adults for a wilderness cooking retreat called Chef Camp, held at YMCA Camp Miller, where chef-led classes, gourmet meals, and classic camp activities converged in the Minnesota North Woods. What follows are my top five takeaways from the weekend.
ONE: How to shuck an oyster without sending yourself to the ER.
We had just finished breakfast. It was the first class at Chef Camp, and Sarah Master, the executive chef at Mr. Roberts Resort had us gather around a bonfire. Above us, tall red pines swayed. Before Master on a table were a blue mesh bag of oysters, a stack of linen towels, and a pile of oyster knives. We were handed a set of each so we could give oyster shucking a try.
To approach this like a pro, take a towel in your hand, along with the oyster, making sure the flat side of the shell is facing up. In the other hand, grab your oyster knife and wedge the knife firmly, vertically, right at the hinge of the shell, and wait until it pops open a bit. Then, use the knife blade to pry the rest of the shell open. Wipe the knife to remove any bits of shell or grime, and then work the knife under the oyster to remove it from the bottom shell, being careful to retain the oyster liquor.
Had I eaten plenty of oysters in my day? Yes. I’m at a foodie camp, after all. But shuck one? Never. It proved to be an easy check for some of us, harder for others, depending on how straight or rippled the shell was. We learned that East Coast oysters generally have a briny, mushroom flavor, while West Coast oysters tend to have more of a tart flavor.
Master’s oyster shucking prowess made more sense once I asked how she came to cooking. After studying pre-18th-century British literature in college, she decided she wasn’t hip on teaching. She blindly put a finger on a map of the U.S., and moved to New Orleans. Debating her path, and always knowing she loved food, she went to culinary school. We saw the richness of Master’s France-by-way-of-Southern influence in the classic mignonette we used to dress half the oysters. It was a mix of red wine vinegar, minced shallot, and freshly grated pepper. On the other half, we dolloped a spicy orange sambal-garlic butter. We cooked both versions over the fire for four or five minutes, until the edges curled slightly and the butter melted into the shell. Then, down the hatch they went, the perfect campfire delicacy.
TWO: Yeast can be harvested from anything.
Of the countless things I learned at camp, one that absolutely blew my mind is that sourdough starter can be made from pine cones. Ryan Stechschulte, a sous chef at Spoon and Stable, sent scouts to Camp Miller three months ahead of time to gather pine cones to use for a wild yeast culture. He boiled the pine cones in water and added flour to slowly develop the starter over several weeks. What resulted were naturally leavened sourdough loaves that beautifully integrated the tall-pine terroir of our North Star forest “classroom.”
We continued our bread education by taking turns rolling out dough for laffa, a Middle Eastern flatbread, and by listening to Stechschulte talk about berbere, an Ethiopian blend of chili peppers, garlic, ginger, fenugreek, cardamom, cumin, black pepper, allspice, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, and coriander. The complexity came through in a simple sprinkling of this deep-red spice over hot, cast-iron grilled laffa drizzled with olive oil.
“If you want to be really good at something, you have to be ready to mess up,” Stechschulte tells us, as he moved on to making cornbread in a cast-iron Dutch oven. Later, as we ate spoonfuls of the moist cornbread straight from the pot, savoring the velvety crumb lent by the creamed corn in the batter, I silently wondered just how many times he’d messed up to get to this sigh-inducing moment.
THREE: Only one percent of mushrooms are actually edible.
For our wildly anticipated foraging class, we were led along the lakefront for a hike out to Jamie Carlson’s classroom on the camp’s point. Our eyes were keen to pick out any mushrooms on our wooded path. We found Carlson (who writes the blog You Have to Cook it Right) decked out in camouflage, sitting by his fire with a cast-iron pot and skillet on the stove in front of him. “The only two cooking instruments you’ll ever need,” he says. “I can make anything with these.” Earlier that day, Carlson had led a group of foragers on a hike, during which lobster mushrooms (not actually a mushroom, but a fungus that grows on certain mushroom species, giving them a reddish-orange hue) and black trumpets were found.
For our risotto class, we worked with giant puffball mushrooms. I picked up one that Carlson had foraged, and it was as heavy as a baby and as big as a basketball. As you’d imagine, they’re great for foraging because they’re easy to see. They’re best to eat when they’re about the size of a fist because they start to decompose once they get larger.
We helped Carlson chop onion and garlic for the risotto we began to cook over the wood fire. As the water boiled and the aromatics sauteed, we listened to Carlson share his passion for foraging and cooking in the wild. “There’s a certain magic in finding, hunting, and cooking something right where you found it, with the edibles present around you,” he says. His stories triggered that deep Minnesotan survival instinct (you know, the one akin to House Stark’s mantra that “winter is coming”), drawing us into the rugged appeal of living off the land.
We learned there are over 3 million types of mushrooms in the world, and yet, only 1 percent are edible. While scouting the Minnesota landscape for his bow hunts, Carlson developed an interest in the wild mushrooms he found in abundance on his path. He recommends Mushrooms of the Upper Midwest by Teresa Marrone and Kathy Yerich (above) to anyone beginning their foraging journey. Best part? The authors are from Minnesota and know our local flora.
FOUR: Using the “fruit” of your land creates food authenticity.
“It’s important to feel a connection to where you live,” says J.D. Fratzke, a chef-owner of Saint Dinette and The Strip Club Meat and Fish. “Centuries ago, just imagine how flavors were transmitted. People shared spices from their homeland saying, ‘I want you to taste where I come from.’ We learn to speak each other’s language by sharing flavors and food.”
Listening to Fratzke speak is a lullaby to anyone foodcentric. “Anything you’re inspired by, whether it’s history, art, or music, can be translated onto the plate,” he says. Fratzke’s interest in the merging of ideas and worlds is so primal in his cooking that you can’t help but be enveloped in his stories about the history of the spice trade, or how wild rice is harvested by native tribes, or how reading books rich in descriptive and sensory language feeds his soul for cooking. His top literary muses? The Collector of Worlds by Iliya Troyanov and Returning to Earth by Jim Harrison.
Fratzke’s style involves using native Minnesota foods with an homage to the countries, cuisines, and spices currently feeding his curiosity. Think freshly caught walleye fillets poached in coconut milk for meen molee (a dish from Kerala, in southern India) served over a fragrant bed of mixed basmati and wild rice. Or Korean ssam, butter lettuce leaves wrapped around trout, bright red crayfish tails, vibrant pink pickled cabbage, and cilantro. Fratzke holds sacred cooking outdoors in his home state. He has instinctively — not because it’s trendy or the right thing to do — created a culinary North by embracing local ingredients.
FIVE: Minnesota Nice is at work in our restaurant kitchens.
Call us Upscale Flannel, Team North, or Minnesota Nordic — we’ve got an unrivaled culinary scene happening in our state. How about this for Minnesota nice? Our chefs actually support one another. How do we get better? By getting better as a whole. “If one of my line cooks needs more hours, I’m calling a chef at a different restaurant to see if her restaurant needs more help,” Fratzke says. “Why would I do that? Because it helps everyone, and because I don’t get to spend time with my friends who are chefs; so this way, my cooks come back, mentored, sharing what they’ve learned, and I learn, too.”
Line cooks as pollinators for culinary and creative growth — sharing resources, and leaning on one another for fresh ideas. That’s what gives us our Minnesota Nice reputation, our culinary true North, and our depth of place. We don’t need to waste a second trying to emulate the big food cities; we’ve got what we need right here.