Landon Schoenefeld of Birdie
The chef-owner of three highly regarded restaurants, Landon Schoenefeld is stretched thinner than ever. But he seems happy. And he has good reason to be: At almost six years old, Haute Dish maintains a devoted following downtown (and will soon begin lunch service), and Nighthawks, his take on a classic diner, gathers glowing reviews and clamoring crowds in Kingfield. And now, he has Birdie, an intimate room that creates a constantly evolving tasting menu of a dozen or so dishes for a dozen or so diners at a time. Tickets cost $100 each and include gratuity and tax (beverages are not included); tickets are available via Tempo Tickets and must be purchased in advance.
Schoenefeld is clearly in his element here. He’s having a blast collaborating with his tight crew (Jesse Peine, Brittany St. Claire, and Tlanezi Guzman), each person cooking, prepping, hosting, and serving, with no separation or hierarchy between the front and back of the house. We recently spent the better part of an afternoon at Birdie, eating, taking pictures, and talking with Schoenefeld about everything from meaty beets and Richard Simmons to aged squab and peyote.
HEAVY TABLE: So, how do you see the three restaurants tied together?
LANDON SCHOENEFELD: Haute Dish is what I’d call “meat-centric,” and big, hearty plates of food. And Nighthawks, it’s pretty straightforward; we might use a few luxury ingredients but it’s kind of like my vision of what the perfect version of a particular dish is supposed to be, within the diner mold. Birdie is produce-centric with a simplistic approach to a lot of the dishes. We kind of eschew red meat — we haven’t served any beef or lamb. We’ve had some ham and some pork as elements within dishes. We cook a lot of little birds, which I’d never be able to do at Nighthawks [because of cost] — squab, poussin, things like that — and more fish, more seafood.
HEAVY TABLE: What do you mean by produce-centered?
SCHOENEFELD: It means that we get our inspiration from the vegetables that are in season. This time of year, it’s getting a little more difficult. We had been able to use local produce basically up until now: rutabaga, potatoes, beets — storage crops, things of that nature. I always view March as a dead time, especially in Minnesota, and hopefully next year we’ll do even more preservation and fermenting to make that stuff last. So we think about what vegetables are in season first, and that’s how the menu comes together. It’s the glue.
HEAVY TABLE: Is it a challenge to be vegetable rather than meat-centric?
SCHOENEFELD: Absolutely. I think it’s part of the fun. It’s sort of cool to have the limitations sometimes. Like, we have all this fucking kohlrabi downstairs! We need to ——
HEAVY TABLE: Like getting a CSA box.
SCHOENEFELD: Yeah. Exactly. Though with the CSA box, you just need to come up with something tasty for your family to eat. We feel like we have to elevate that vegetable; we’re really trying to cook special food that people aren’t going to be able to cook at home. Taking a mundane vegetable like rutabaga, and turning that into something cool? That wows people, and that’s sort of our mission.
HEAVY TABLE: Tell me about your team concept, how you work together.
SCHOENEFELD: I really give everyone their own space. Jesse has a lot of experience, great ideas. She’s worked for me at Haute Dish for a long time, so she’s like my ace in the hole. And then Britt, who’s a great cook — she would cook circles all summer long around the guys at Nighthawks. She was an obvious choice to move over. I tell her, “do this course. Do this course.” I help her develop the ideas, mixing the experience of the old with the enthusiasm of the young. And then T [Tlanezi, above], she just constantly amazes me with the stuff she comes up with. She has a sort of irreverence to her approach, where she’ll throw avocados and weird things you wouldn’t expect in a dessert, and it’ll surprise and delight. And that’s sort of what I’m into.
HEAVY TABLE: Does the menu change every week?
SCHOENEFELD: Typically, we change the menu about 50 percent week by week. So if you ate here every two weeks, you’d probably have a completely different menu. We’ve actually saved all of the originals [of the menus], or most of them. We like to do a handwritten menu; it gives a little special touch. Everyone gets one.
HEAVY TABLE: Why did you decide to do tickets?
SCHOENEFELD: Well, just, from my experience at Haute Dish, we have about a 15 to 20 percent cancellation rate. So our strategy throughout the years has been to overbook, which every once in a while, that’ll come back to bite you in the ass! You’ll have people who end up having to wait for a table; you buy them a round of drinks. That [cancellation rate] would be completely devastating for something like this, where we’re only serving 14 people a night. If four people don’t show up, that’s basically our profit margin. Having people pay for dinner ahead of time is kind of the way to go with something like this.
HEAVY TABLE: Do you see the food as being challenging?
SCHOENEFELD: Maybe somewhat. Sometimes it’s a mix. Sometimes I like things to be super straightforward, delicious, easy to understand. Other times, someone doesn’t think that they like liver or whatever the case may be, then I want to challenge them to see if maybe they could like it. I’ve always been that way — like at Haute Dish, serving head cheese, offal, and everything else.
Schoenefeld serves the first dish.
SCHOENEFELD: This is pretty representative of a “challenging dish.” It’s a Dijon mustard creme brulee that we serve closer to the beginning of the meal. Some people don’t like mustard. So, I’ll see some of these come back with just one bite taken out of them! But rarely. We use about half the amount of sugar as you typically would in a creme brulee, and then I use extra-spicy French Dijon. We’ve done onion custards, and a miso-pickled-turnip custard that we garnished with salmon roe.
HEAVY TABLE: The fact that you got this balanced is pretty remarkable.
SCHOENEFELD: And then Britt is cooking some squabs, and this is where we challenge ourselves. We aged these pigeons for a week, and then we cooked them on the cage, and then we carve them off. As opposed to taking the breast off and pan-roasting that. So, this really freaked us out at first.
HEAVY TABLE: Where do you age them?
SCHOENEFELD: Downstairs in our cooler. We just let them hang. [He describes the croquette on the plate:] We took the leg meat and we confit it, take it off and then mix it with chicken, ham, shallots, tarragon cream, and egg, and we poached it in a bag. We then breaded and fried it, with the pigeon bone coming out.
SCHOENEFELD: The skin [on the squab] is amazing. And that sauce is so funky! That’s really good.
Schoenefeld goes to the record player.
SCHOENEFELD: I started collecting records about three years ago, so I’m really new to it, but it can give me inspiration. And when I’m at the record store, I’m like, “Could we play this at Birdie?” [He puts on a Dr. John record.]
HEAVY TABLE: Do people ever bring in records?
SCHOENEFELD: Yeah, my friend, he had his birthday dinner here, and he brought in a few things. I asked him not to bring in Slayer! We definitely have our before and after dinner music.
HEAVY TABLE: What are some of the biggest challenges as chef and owner?
SCHOENEFELD: Besides keeping my sanity? That’s been a challenge! [Laughs.] One restaurant is enough, really, with the fires that you have to put out on a daily basis. Concepting and coming up with a restaurant is the fun and easy part; operating them for five, six years, that’s the challenging part. And it’s everything you can think of, from equipment breaking down to a vendor forgetting your parsley with your order to the dishwasher calling in sick. And if you have three restaurants, you can basically multiply those problems by three, you know? And the hours, too!
HEAVY TABLE: Do you have balance — or do you work all the time?
SCHOENEFELD: For a long time now, I’ve been struggling to find balance in my life. I realize that if I’m trying to do the things I’m trying to do, there can’t really be any balance. This is what I’m dedicated to. I’m not the phone-it-in chef; I think most chefs work really hard, especially chef-owners, and I just want to be the best, I guess. I’m constantly pushing myself and challenging myself. It’s kind of hard to live a normal life!
HEAVY TABLE: Do you think that’s sustainable?
SCHOENEFELD: No. But I’m only 34 years old. I figure I have 10 more good years to put into it, and then, at that point, hopefully, I’ve built the infrastructure and I’ve mentored the right people, trained the right people, and then they’re the chef and I’m just an owner-restaurateur at that point. You know, hopefully in my mid-40s, late-40s. Pushing 50, I know I don’t want to be working in the kitchen 18 hours a day! I’ve been in the kitchen for 20 years now, and I feel old!
HEAVY TABLE: Are you able to maintain your physical health?
SCHOENEFELD: I try. You know? I do my best. I’m conscious about going to the gym and not eating crap all the time — which is hard to do, in this business! Weaning myself off of hotdogs and cheeseburgers, actually eating salads. We’re actually playing “The Biggest Loser” now in the kitchen! Well, not all of us, but a few of us. The ones who felt we needed it! I’ve got a picture of Richard Simmons taped up in the basement!
HEAVY TABLE: Your spirit animal.
Tlanezi Guzman serves a cheese plate, and describes the dish.
TLANEZI GUZMAN: On the bottom, there’s a date puree, and then there’s a seeded rye that has wheatberries, golden flax, and brown flax. And then it’s [Alemar] Blue Earth brie from Mankato. There’s also a sherry gel and some variegated sage. This is a date that we rehydrated and stuffed with the softer part of the brie. And then these are just some mustard seeds, and this is a sage snow.
HEAVY TABLE: Thank you. It’s beautiful.
Schoenefeld serves another dish.
SCHOENEFELD: This is a chicken liver tart. We use butter crust and a savory hazelnut cream (hazelnuts, cream, garlic, shallot, and thyme). We made the pate from apples, onions, sage, and Madeira. We pipe the pate over the hazelnut cream and dust it with a mixture of porcini mushroom powder and cocoa, and then we char some shallots and fill them with our vegetarian onion soup that we serve next door [at Nighthawks].
HEAVY TABLE: What was the base ingredient that you started with for this dish?
SCHOENEFELD: We had a bunch of chicken livers — anyone who knows me knows that I love chicken liver. We add a little beet to the pate. Otherwise it would just be brown.
Brittany St. Claire brings over the next plate.
BRITTANY ST. CLAIRE: Do you want me to do my whole spiel?
HEAVY TABLE: Yes, please!
ST. CLAIRE: OK, so the beet filling — we take the beets and steam them in brown sugar, soy sauce, and water, and then we smoke them for an hour and roast them in butter for another hour. Actually, it was like two hours this time! We put that in the food processor, and we add some garam masala, some curry powder, and some ginger, garlic, and chilis [habanero]. So it’s kind of like a momo. The dough is made with beet juice [instead of water] that we mix with all-purpose flour, and the broth is carrot and coconut milk. We juice the carrots and add coconut milk and lime.
HEAVY TABLE: It’s amazing.
SCHOENEFELD: We’ve basically done a Chinese-style dumpling. People are baffled that there’s not meat in this. We did a carrot one, a celery root one, and a mushroom one. I think my favorite is still the carrot.
HEAVY TABLE: I’m surprised it isn’t too sweet.
SCHOENEFELD: But it’s, like, meaty, right?
HEAVY TABLE: Yeah, I can see that. So do you guys go into the wilderness, take peyote, and then come up with these dishes?
SCHOENEFELD: [Laughs.] We should do that!
Guzman brings out dessert, an orange pudding cake.
SCHOENEFELD: I love the texture on that cake. This one is a little big for what we typically do. Like I said, I want people to leave full and happy, but it’s a struggle. I don’t want to give them too much food. I don’t want people to be in pain so they can’t enjoy dessert!
About the Author
Joshua Page became fascinated with food as a young latchkey cook in Southern California. He developed a passion for eating out while working in “the industry” in college and procrastinating (and accruing debt) as a graduate student. Now a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, Joshua also loves to write— when it’s not about crime, law, and punishment, his musings are about Twin Cities eateries.