2010 Silver Whisk Award Nominees: Best Chef
Welcome to the 2010 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 definition of “best” is to have completed something in a most excellent way or manner. Our definition of “best,” when applied to the community of local chefs, goes beyond the kitchen. There is no argument that all four of the people we’ve nominated are gifted chefs. What makes them most excellent is that they are also dynamic in platforms beyond their kitchens. They are tastemakers, memory creators, and educators of food and drink.
It was too difficult to whittle this year’s list of nominees to three, so we opted to up the number to four (and even this was quite a feat). Below, listed in no particular order, are the nominees.
Stewart Woodman of Heidi’s
“So much has happened during this last year that I feel turned on my head. In a good way,” says Woodman, referring to the changes that stemmed from the events of February 18, 2010, when a fire tore through and destroyed Heidi’s, the restaurant he opened in 2007, the one named after his wife. This life-changing blow to what should have been a celebratory day (he also found out he had been selected as a semi-finalist for the James Beard Best Chef: Midwest award) pushed an unsuspecting Woodman to face a question he in no way anticipated: What comes next?
What did was a mandatory period of self reflection, followed by simply moving on. “I feel like a different person now. I am looking at change differently. There’s a quote that says the only issue with change is letting go of fear,” he says. He found a new space for Heidi’s — version 2.0 — in the Lyn-Lake neighborhood. Then he set hard to work on the rebirth of his restaurant. And he released his first cookbook, Shefzilla — a how-to for the everyday chef on conquering haute cuisine at home. It bears the same name as his blog, another communication portal containing everything from rants to restaurant reviews.
“For Heidi’s 2.0, we were able to visualize exactly what we’d like to see in a restaurant, and create it. I feel like I was imagining the way I wanted my life to be, and now I am seeing it happen. It’s very humbling, and you definitely see your place.” The highly anticipated Heidi’s 2.0 opened January 11, 2011. It’s been welcomed by previous fans and given accolades by new ones. At the moment, Woodman is especially enamored with his tofu entree (house-made with broccolini, pea tendrils, and kecap manis). He also gives mention to his mussel soup, labeling it simply as sinful. “We’re at the bottom of the hill, trying to figure out what the new restaurant is, who is going to come, and how I can be a better manager and leader.”
His admiration for Minnesota, and the fact that his wife is a native of the state, promises to keep Woodman here for the foreseeable future. “I can’t think of living anywhere else besides here — to the extent that I’d love to live in Paris when I’m 80 years old,” he says. “I can’t think of anywhere that I would rather have a young family and be able to work hard, be in a community of people who feel the same way. It’s unique and extraordinary, and I feel like we’re over-the-top blessed,” says Woodman.
Personal cooking philosophy: I try to think about the emotional experience and connection to the food, and recreate that in different ways. There are so many different ways for people to have a connection with you through your food, or for you to make a connection with them.
One word for the local culinary scene: Inspiring.
Words of wisdom for a young chef: Slow down. Work hard.
Ideal meal: A dinner party, at home, with a random group of people from all different walks of life. I love those kinds of parties, where people are connecting. We would eat anything Heidi cooked.
Sameh Wadi of Saffron and World Street Kitchen
Sameh Wadi of Saffron and the newly debuted World Street Kitchen food cart — both in Minneapolis — set locals abuzz amidst news that he was to appear as a challenger on Iron Chef, the foodie TV cult classic. The youngest contestant to appear on the show, Wadi’s narrow loss was a sad moment for his Midwestern supporters. However briefly, the national celebrity chef spotlight shone brightly on Wadi, who, in addition to chef duties at his restaurant and food cart, also has a line of spices, aptly named “Spice Trail.” In 2010 he received his third semifinalist nomination from the James Beard Foundation for “Rising Young Chef”. Oh, and after 13 years in Minnesota, he also was awarded US citizenship. “I am literally living the American dream,” he says.
Wadi attributes his career in food to his childhood. “I grew up in a household where food was the main focus.” The son of Palestinian parents, he spent the first half of his life in the Middle East, before moving with his family to Minnesota via Kuwait, Jordan, and then Canada. At Saffron, he tries to bring his culture into the flavors he creates while staying true to the ingredients he uses. “I’m heavily influenced by the spices used, and the combinations of textures and spices I create,” he says. But at World Street Kitchen, he has a completely different set of rules. “I can cook from the heart, layer flavors. It’s not about fireworks. It’s about creating little explosions of flavor.”
In 2011, Wadi hopes to secure a location for World Street Kitchen to exist year-round. He is also working, with his brother Saed, to release an “Encyclopedia of Palestinian Cuisine.” His parents previously authored it, working on it for five years before completing it in 1989. It was set to publish, but after turmoil forced them to move from Kuwait to Jordan, they were not in a mental state to go through with it. Wadi discovered the book in its raw form while unpacking boxes after their move to the United States. He hopes to see it go to print, with a “then and now” version in the works.
Though he’s had several alluring offers from both coasts, Wadi doesn’t know that he could leave Minnesota. His family is here, thus he plans to stay. “Without really any choice, I need to stay.” His mother still comes in the restaurant to help with food prep. “It’s scary as shit to have my mom here. I don’t care who I am cooking for, I won’t break a sweat as much as I would with my mom.”
Personal cooking philosophy: It changes according to what food I am cooking, but it stems from the same ideals. I try to use the best ingredients, and showcase them for what they are.
One word for the local culinary scene: Camaraderie.
Words of wisdom for a young chef: The world of food is evolving. Our eating habits are changing, and we need to keep ourselves informed by continuing to read and go out to eat. Here, at the restaurant, we aren’t doing molecular gastronomy. But, that doesn’t mean I won’t read about it. I still think it’s fascinating. We need to be aware. And don’t be a douchebag.
Ideal meal: I’m happy when I am surrounded by the people I love. That is a huge list of people, so it would need to be a big meal. We would all eat food cooked by my mom. When I visualize it, we are eating somewhere outside, there’s a lot of grass. I’m not sure if it’s in the Middle East or not.
Lenny Russo of Heartland
When Lenny Russo reflects on moving his St Paul restaurant, Heartland, from its cozy Mac-Groveland location to its new, large-scale, warehouse-style digs in Lowertown, he doesn’t remember being surprised by anything. “I set an aggressive schedule. What surprises me the most is that I didn’t give my contractor a stroke,” he says. Not the anticipated answer, when you take into account the new space is more than five times as big as the original, and it now houses an in-house market and deli, exhibition kitchen, and banquet space.
“The plan was to open everything at once. But there was a five-week lapse between close and the opening,” he says. “When you’re moving, you want to make sure your clientele follows you. Five weeks wasn’t that long.” With a menu that changes nightly and includes dishes like pheasant with root vegetables and a Midwestern Cassoulet, Russo hasn’t retreated much from his previous “go local or go home” attitude. He happily admits to having strict standards when it comes to everything: cleanliness, food handling, and method technique. “My standard is perfection, which is totally unreasonable. But if we make a mistake, we learn from it.”
To add to the July move, Russo was also a finalist for the James Beard Best Chef: Midwest award. After cooking here for 25 years, fresh from a stint as a child psychiatrist, he’s grown a family tree that includes chefs like Russell Klein of Meritage and Doug Flicker of Piccolo. The recognition seemed long overdue. Russo has also been a long-term advocate for the local food movement, and is also a regular contributor to the Star Tribune.
Although his roots are in New Jersey, Russo has welcomed the idea of remaining in the Midwest. “I’ve spent different periods of my life in different places. I tried to leave in the early ’90s and went south to do consulting work. But I came back after a year and a half because I was homesick. Minnesota is home.” He does still yearn for the East Coast, but commends Minnesotans for being genuine in the way they approach their life and the things, and ideas, they place value on. “People here care about their community. They care about their neighbors. That’s important to me,” he says. The only thing that confuses him is the idea of “Minnesota Nice.” He sees the concept as Minnesotans not telling you what they think to your face. “That’s annoying. But if it’s the worst, I’ll take it.”
Personal cooking philosophy: At Heartland, it’s classical French / Italian, using local ingredients.
One word for the local culinary scene: Vibrant.
Words of wisdom for a young chef: Learn to speak Spanish.
Ideal meal: Anywhere in Italy, eating anything that anybody wants to cook for me. I’d be with my wife. (We were married in Italy, in the middle of Tuscany.) The food wouldn’t need to be fancy. It would just need to be good.
Scott Pampuch of Corner Table and Tour de Farm
When Scott Pampuch moved to Minneapolis at 18 he had $400, a two-door Toyota Corolla, and one month of rent paid. When he pictured his future, visions of broadcasting came to mind — a far cry from being a vocal leader in eating and using local foods from sustainable farms. “I got into cooking because I was fired from a sales job at a hotel, went home, and started to drink with a friend who was a waiter. Now here we are,” he says.
Where he is right now is gaining continued success and praise for his restaurant, Corner Table. “The tasting menu is the complete expression of what we stand for: the food of the moment, the farm it came from, the mood, the restaurant, the style. It’s what excites me most right now.” But, Pampuch is also known for another successful project, Tour de Farm, a literal translation of farm to table that brings diners to farms so they can have a first-class meal where their ingredients are sourced from. He was also featured in Primal Cuts, a cookbook and Q&A with 50 of the nation’s best butchers. “This year, from what I remember, I carried a pig around a number of times. Sometimes in my kitchen, sometimes on a farm, and sometimes walking across Nicollet Avenue.”
He references many big plans for 2011, but his vague response to a query for details leaves much to the imagination. “Let’s just say there are some changes ahead, and it going to connect me to my customers and farms even further than I have ever been able to go,” he says. Most recently, he’s stepped out as a spokesperson for Muir Glen tomatoes.
He hopes to have more collaborative experiences in the new year, with both local and national chefs. Expect to see a few new names on his Tour de Farm schedule. “I want to keep having moments in food that surprise me,” he says. Perhaps collaboration can be his assigned theme of the year, as it includes his hopes for the local culinary scene, as well. “I really want our city to learn how to celebrate great strides and successes together.”
Whatever these plans may be, don’t anticipate them including a move. Pampuch, a native of Winona, seems settled here. “I really do enjoy our state. I love the seasons. I have no reason to live anywhere else.”
Personal cooking philosophy: Being a chef is an honor and I am trying to do more to live up to the title. I do not believe that cooking is an art, I believe it is a craft. It has a set of rules and principles. It is a craft. When someone gets to a level of knowledge and experience, they are able to elevate their craft to a level of artistry.
One word for the local culinary scene: TBD (to be determined).
Words of wisdom for a young chef: Go to work. Always read something. I prefer old books, the basics. Cook your food from what you feel, and know when to stop with a dish. It’s easy to continue to add ingredients. Have the confidence to stop and say a dish is done. Make your flavors true to who they are. A potato should taste like that exact potato, that variety, that time of the year, in that season.
Ideal meal: I am a sucker for eggs. I am also a big fan of Jonathan Waxman. His peaceful approach is impressive to me. I don’t desire certain foods, I work with what I have. I do desire to walk into restaurants and just ask them to cook more often. If I can do that more often, I will be a lot happier this year.
Tomorrow: Nominees for Best Purveyor. Wednesday: Best New Restaurant. We’ll announce the winners in each category near the end of February.