Donald Gonzalez of Forepaugh’s in St. Paul

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

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.

Donald Gonzalez was born in California and, after a stint in the Marine Corps, pursued a career in the culinary arts. He’s worked across the country: Waldorf Astoria in New York, French Laundry in California, Toque in Montreal, Restaurant Lulu in San Francisco, Tria in North Oaks, and Chambers Kitchen in Minneapolis. Gonzalez joined Forepaugh’s when Bruce Taher purchased the restaurant. He now lives in St. Paul with his wife and four children.

On matriarchal influences

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

I think that everyone’s food philosophy comes from whatever your mom cooked for you. My mom was a great baker. But I would say that my grandmothers were the ones who really threw it out there. As a little kid, I loved watching my grandmothers cook. They were so hands-on. My grandmother on my mother’s side comes from England, and she is the most amazing baker and cook. She was poor growing up. Sometimes there was hardly food to eat. I notice that food means a lot more to people who come from depressed backgrounds. If you’ve ever been without food, when you finally get it, you respect it. That’s how my grandmother was. She spent time with her food. It was a gift to get dinner. It wasn’t like you needed to finish everything; it was more that she cared so much about what she was cooking. To her, food is a beautiful thing, and you can really tell by her cooking.

The same goes for my dad’s side. His mother is from Puerto Rico. She could cook amazing, phenomenal Puerto Rican food. Her food was so alive. Not spicy, just alive. Lots of plantains, fish, braising. Everything was so full of flavor. I think my palate comes from that. Her food was so over the top. She’d start cooking in the morning and not stop until night. When I was a teenager, she lived with us. I was wrestling at the time, so when I came home I’d be starving. Right when I walked in the door there was that beautiful smell of Puerto Rican rice with chicken, or steak braising in the oven for hours. Oh God, it was good.

My mom was the same way. She would start cooking at noon, and at 5pm the meal would be made. The food was so organized, so right. If she made Mexican food there would be homemade tortillas. One day, when I was about 12 years old, I commented on my mom’s cooking. I said something like, “You need to add more salt.” So she said, “OK. Fine. You’re cooking tomorrow.” The next thing you know, I was cooking two meals a week, then all my meals, and then for the whole family. At first it was basic stuff, like lasagna or spaghetti. But I’d make it special by adding a little something to it. Some days it was great. Some days it was awful. I didn’t even know I liked cooking at the time, but I was such a freak about it. I always had to use the right stuff, like the right cheese for the meal. I was a stickler for food.

On dining at home

I’m home at night two days a week. I probably cook one night at home, but not a full meal, just bits and pieces of a meal. Like, I’ll make the beans and rice. I’ll also whip up breakfast for the kids in the morning. I spend so much time at the restaurant, that the time I have when I’m not at it is time spent with my kids and my family. I’ll help with cleanup, or take the kids to give my wife a break.

My wife’s a great cook. She cares about food. She makes really good breakfast. There’s something about your wife making you breakfast; it just feels right. On my day off, she’ll go out of her way to do it. The kids might be going nuts, but she just seems to know that I need one day of being cared for after being at work all week and being in a hot kitchen. She’s a great baker. She makes great cupcakes. And she makes the best buttercream ever.

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

We like a lot of chilies: bell peppers, Hungarian, and cayenne, whatever’s in season. I love salsas, tortillas, beans, and rice. I don’t have a Minnesota flavor profile. My wife does. But really, I don’t know what would be considered Minnesota food. Maybe hot bake? She doesn’t really do that. I think it’s because she hung out with me for so long. She likes food I cook, so she’ll try to mimic that. Like, she makes risotto, a pasta dish that’s inspired through our cooking. Our kids our picky, but we don’t push them to eat what they don’t want to eat. Kids are picky for a reason, because their bodies and their palates aren’t ready to accept those flavors.

On separating restaurant life from home life

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

I’m addicted to the stress of the restaurant. I like the way I feel when I’m stressed out. It’s high energy, almost like I’m falling apart. I get off on it, because I’m an adrenaline junkie. But it’s not the same at home, with the four kids. I love my cooks. But that’s a different love than the love for my kids. There are some times when my wife has to warn me that I’m on kitchen mode and I need to snap out of it. I’ll come in a say, “OK, guys. Everyone stop. Now you grab this, you this, let’s go.” I’m pushing, pushing, pushing. I’m trying to be a good example for my kids. But because I’m an adrenaline junkie, I need to watch it. You can imagine what — for someone like me — getting cut off in traffic might do to you. All the sudden the kids look at you in a different way, like, “This guy is not my dad.” Or, you’re out there playing soccer with them, and then you’re getting into the soccer game and you’re knocking them over and toughening them up, and then once in a while you find yourself being this shady character.

I raise my daughter completely differently than my boys. With the boys, I’m like, “Figure it out. Be tough. Negotiate.” With my daughter, it’s, “Oh my God, honey. She got a scrape on the bottom of her foot.” I pick her up, hold her, and walk her around. She’s five years old but she’s my baby. She was my baby from the beginning. When we had the twins, my wife couldn’t handle waking up in the middle of the night with two babies, so I took care of our daughter. I realized why moms connect with their kids in ways that dads don’t.

Having a home life and being in this career is very tough, and I need to give all the credit to my wife. There’s no other job out there for me. I’m a chef for life. I don’t think many women can handle that. Every relationship has give and take. Because of my job I take a lot more from her, because I have to. Rather than complain about the lack of time I have available to be a good father, she accepts the time I have when I’m home, because I don’t squander it. On my days off, I’m not going out drinking with my buddies or spending time alone. I hang out with my kids. I hang out with my wife. The morning time, before I go to work, and the weekends I have (Sunday and Monday) are a religious time for us. We go and do things together and we appreciate one another. Here at the restaurant we’re doing business with Natura Farms. So, we might go down to farm as a family and pick produce for the house and for the restaurant.

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

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4 Comments

  1. Just wanted to send a thank-you from San Sebastian, Spain for your coverage of an unsung hero of the Twin Cities culinary scene, the hardest working chef in showbiz, Mr. ‘Recon’ Don Gonzalez.

  2. What a great article! I love the insight into the “other side” of a professional chef. Pictures of Don with his wife and kids would have been a nice addition to the article.

    Thanks for this story, I was a treat to read.

  3. Stephen whitehead12/30/2013Reply

    Hi Donald.i just talked to your mum, I am peters son Stephen from England .i live in Canada ,in Vernon British Columbia. I’m glad to hear your doing well out their in Minnesota it’s been along time since I’ve seen you ,at the reunion in Oregon with all your family maybe 30yrs ago.so sorry about Joan passing away she is like my second mother. From your picture of you you look like Salvador your grandfather. Anyway I can go on and on. Drop me a line or call 250 5428668 in Vernon bc . Canada

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  1. [...] home a small gift bag from Forepaugh’s Restaurant in St. Paul, filled with treats that Chef Donald Gonzalez had designed: Cinnamon Tea Cake, Evening in Missoula Herbal Tea and Ames Farm Honey. It was a [...]

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