Thomas Boemer and Nick Rancone of Corner Table
Vincent may be the only local restaurant more thoroughly intertwined with its founding personality than Corner Table was with Chef Scott Pampuch. Pampuch drove the restaurant’s relentlessly seasonal and local menu, enforced its standards, and worked the room like a champ — dine there once and you knew him, dine there twice and he was an old friend who could hook you up with foraged mushrooms.
When Pampuch departed last summer for fame and fortune (Dara’s recent profile on him is a fine recap of his current projects), Corner Table’s demise or radical transformation seemed to be a foregone conclusion. Previously loyal diners ducked the place. “It will still take time to recover from the void that Scott left on the name of this restaurant,” says 29-year-old owner Nick Rancone (above, left), who purchased the place with his wife Chenny. “We knew it would take time, and the hardest thing about that is sticking to your guns, and right now we don’t get to share what’s going on here with as many people as we’d like on a weekly basis.”
But stick to his guns he has. Backing him up from the kitchen — or leading the charge, if you prefer — is 32-year-old Chef Thomas Boemer (above, right), a rambler with Minnesota roots, a lover of Low Country cuisine with a Southern upbringing, and a survivor of a Las Vegas trial-by-fire under the tutelage of renowned Chef Alain Ducasse.
The food is first-rate, the pork belly (above) still the best in the Cities, the plates edited and balanced with wit and grace but without pomp or fussiness. A recent meal at Corner Table (at the suggestion of the Lucid Brewing guys) was persuasive enough that we stopped by Corner Table yesterday to chat with Rancone and Boemer.
HEAVY TABLE: What was the restaurant under Scott [Pampuch], and what is it now… or what is it becoming, at least?
NICK RANCONE: It was always a very collaborative restaurant. I think Scott put a team together better than a lot of people do in town — he was very adept at procuring and utilizing talented people. I think that’s a very admirable trait for someone to have, to have that eye for talent.
It was really on the front end of farm-to-table. He had always done it on a radical edge of the thing, and he was unrelenting in his standard for that.
The restaurant and the menu was always related to that hyper seasonality and that locality thing. To take that and keep that mentality relevant — there was a tradition, a legacy almost, that he put forth. The menu would change a lot and he explored a lot… to continue on with that mindset is important. That’s the legacy we wanted to perpetuate.
THOMAS BOEMER: Scott laid down the groundwork for what Corner Table is, over the last seven years, and we want to take it that next step. We want to refine it… to take that feeling, that service, that food to the next step. The local aspect is part of that. He was a huge part in this town in showing people what is right in our backyard.
The next step is me believing that the awareness is there is to dial it in and focus. That’s going back to the purveyors and getting the very best of what they have through developing the relationship and having very high standards.
I see us as a strong, European-influenced, technique-rich approach to classic Americana. That’s Low Country, that’s Minnesota cuisine… I’ve been all over the United States and you can never get more American than a piece of pork belly. It’s so immediately identifiable. You see it and you imagine the flavors.
HT: But where do you guys diverge from Scott’s method of doing things?
TB: Nick’s presence is a huge factor in terms of what’s different. I’m in the back, and I get to stay there. Now, I love to talk to people, we have people come in the kitchen and we get to connect, and we have a fun bar crowd: We had someone come in recently at 5 o’clock and leave at 2am, which is just crazy.
But I don’t have to come out here … Scott was this personality, and this presence, but with Nick here, I don’t have to fill that void, and my focus is, from start to end, being with every plate of food that passes through here. And that’s a plus. With Nick’s presence here, Chenny’s presence here, that’s two people focusing on that integral part of people’s experience.
And I think Nick is poised to be one of the new wine gurus here in town — we change the menu and the wine menu constantly. We reprint the menu two, sometimes three times a week and he’s keeping up with the wine menu. If you order a dish and you want the perfect glass of wine to go with it, he will tell you what that is and why it’s so wonderful.
HT: The concept of cooking farm-to-table, which includes working with animals that you have a somewhat personal relationship with, is key to what you’re doing. Is it old hat? Has everybody caught on to it by now?
NR: It’s weird to us because we’re so immersed in it that we sometimes lose sight of it. Last week we were carrying a pig in — a 180-pound hog — which is a weird, awkward thing to carry… right in the front door in the middle of the day, and these two older ladies were walking down the sidewalk and they were just like: “That’s a real pig!”
I was getting crushed by this thing. I’m not a butcher, that’s not my body type. But I’m like: “Where do you think the pork chops come from?”
HT: Tell us a bit about the new pork belly and chow-chow dish you’ll be adding to your summer menu.
TB: This is a confit crispy pork belly on a sweet and spicy pickled cabbage with chicharrón. This hog is from northern Iowa. It’s just a beautiful hog. When you see the belly — it was just incredibly massive and intensely rich and marbled. And the sweet and spicy cabbage is done chow-chow style, so going back to that Cajun type of spice.
It’s a very substantial piece of pork belly that’s paired with the chicharrón. After we confit the belly, we pull the skin from the belly region and then through a number of processes fry it to make a garnish that gives you a very substantial textural contrast to that tender belly, with an intense crispness. Sometimes, as it comes to the table, it’ll actually crackle.
You’re dealing the richness and intensity of the pork with that cabbage — it’s that constant — in Minnesota cuisine and Southern cuisine; it’s always there. Here you’re using that sweet and spicy to set off the richness of the pork.
The technique of cooking belly this way is really unique. We really wanted to bring the quality of that through with a light brine and then a confit process that allows us to crisp it. It doesn’t fall apart, it doesn’t melt down, it just maintains its identity and gets very crisp and vibrant. This is pork, and you know it’s pork.
HT: I love the texture contrast with the pork skin, I’m really enjoying the sweet versus vinegar versus mustard versus salty pork flavor tug-of-war, and I’m thrilled by the fact this is only $10. This plus a beer is a hell of a nice light supper.
NR: Or that plus a Riesling.
HT: Thomas, what’s one of the tricks you picked up in Vegas working with Ducasse?
TB: One of my favorite techniques that we use here a lot is the way we treat vegetables. A vegetable on the plate is as important as the meat on the plate. A way we utilized a lot of the vegetables there is to make an emulsification of butter and high-quality olive oil and some of the stock, with a certain amount of acidity to help bond that emulsion over high heat and bring it to a specific dish.
The fruitiness and complexity of the olive oil will really bring out and accompany the delicate flavors of even the simplest vegetables like carrot or parsnip, and take them to levels you hadn’t tasted before.
It’s a core technique. Every ingredient is so important, and so there tends to be very few ingredients. In the kitchen we’d say “show your work, show the beauty of the thing.” That’s your presentation — not what I construct out of this food that’s beautiful, it’s the food itself. That takes skill and craft to bring it to a state where you can’t stop eating it.
HT: It’s interesting to see some of your Southern food memories get plugged into the menu here. What’s something that clicked for you in childhood that you’ve rediscovered?
TB: The black-eyed peas, I used to always eat them when I was in Missouri. And you’d just get like a bowl. Black-eyed peas and a chunk of cornbread — usually Jiffy mix, I’m not going to even lie to you. And the cornbread would soak it up and fall apart and you’d get the sweetness of the cornbread with the rich, intense minerality of the black eyed peas cooked with a little bit of salt pork.
To us, we’re using the best ingredients here, but we get to explore food from different regions. The importance of doing that is that you have to cook from a spot of honesty. When I’m cooking [a dish of andouille sausage, greens, and black-eyed peas], I’m cooking from a memory. And I talk to my sous chef about that all the time. He’d say: “Oh, it needs more of this or more of this…” and I explain, I’m cooking from a memory.
I have to connect — it has to taste like the black-eyed peas I’d eat once a week with cornbread at my friend’s house. And if you cook from a point of your own experience of food that you really enjoy and care about, more than cooking from an egotistical viewpoint: ” I’m going to blow somebody’s mind with this!” It’s more: “This goes with that. These two things taste great together.”
HT: What’s the background of this Chicken Galantine dish?
TB: It’s deboned leg and thigh, wrapped again around a farce of fermented black garlic, herbs, and chicken. We stuff that, wrap it, slow poach it, and bring it out of the pan to crisp the skin and finish it in the oven. It’s with polenta, pea shoots, ramps, and these beautiful [shiitake] mushrooms. The sauce is a chicken jus with preserved lemon.
HT: Whoa. The skin is really crispy, and the meat is really tender and rich. And the brightness of the ramps plays off of the polenta excellently. Tell me a bit about this sauce — it’s brighter and lighter than I’d expect.
TB: Traditionally, people will often make a chicken stock and reduce it down until it has a certain body and finish it with butter. Our approach is a bit different: We actually use a jus. Instead of stock, this is made from a fond of caramelized meat, not from bones. In a stock made from bones, when you reduce it, you get a really dark flavor that comes from the marrow of the bones and a long cooking period.
One thing I learned when I worked with Ducasse is that with these reductions, prolonged cooking times actually kill any remnants of the vegetable flavor. Here we make an very intensely flavored jus and we use so little – one or two ounces in pan. Bring up the heat, whisk in the fermented black garlic, preserved lemon, and then add a touch of butter, a touch of olive oil, maybe a touch of lemon juice, emulsify it, and that’s the sauce.
It gives body, and then we finish with olive oil. I use olive oil as you would use salt and pepper.
HT: Where does your chicken come from?
We went through about five farms to get this chicken. This is Kadejan farms. Their chicken, I think, is in a different world from the other stuff out there. They’re smaller, the joints are tucked in there a bit more – it’s actually different to butcher. After all these years, it’s second nature for me to butcher a chicken, but with these, you actually have to add an extra turn of the knife. They’re tucked in almost more like a duck.
The meat you can see is a deeper color with nice rivulets of yellow fat – and there’s never moisture introduced.
HT: Are you guys worried that your food will be too challenging for the general mass of diners out there?
TB: We did a Tour de Farm and Mike Phillips [of Three Sons Meat Co., formerly of the Craftsman] was there. We were talking, and we were talking about my background and why I wasn’t working [regularly as a chef] anymore.
I said “I just don’t know if people would want to want to eat the way I want to eat. I look at the restaurants, and they’re flashy, and there’s something going on that I just don’t understand.” And he just told me: “You just do it. And you just keep on doing it, and don’t worry – people will eat there.” That was kind of encouraging. To me, the way I eat and look at food is a very simple: A + B = C ; A + B = tasty.
The response has been excellent. People don’t know that they love this food, until they have it. I think what we’re doing is missing and needed – it’s food done at a very high level, and a very honest, genuine level that I think is undeniable.
I think this what’s going to be very interesting about the Twin Cities food scene over the next 5-10 years. I think you had a lot of restaurants that were opened with chefs that came from one place in the Twin Cities – they all learned and came from this one place – a big one would be D’Amico. How many chefs that now run pinnacles came from there? You had this transference of food knowledge.
But now I think over the past five years or so, you’re seeing chefs who traveled all over the world come back and open restaurants here. I think over the next 5-10 years, you’ll see some real depth added to our culinary world. You’ll see it succeed in a way that makes sense.
When I came back from Las Vegas, I think people were trying these amazing things, but if I could list the restaurants that were closing when I came back here…. you had this flood of high-end restaurants closing … Aquavit, Auriga, Levain, Five, A Rebours … You’d hear that people here aren’t ready for fine dining or real restaurants, and I don’t buy that, that’s not it at all. You have to approach your clientele – it’s that simple. There’s a Midwestern way that things are done, and that doesn’t have to mean steak and crappy burgers.
NR: It’s value driven. Not value like coupon clipping, but there has to be an honest exchange.
I feel like that Spartan approach has really taken hold – servicewise, what we do here isn’t like La Belle Vie, which is ornate. We ask: “What is enough, and how do we polish that without adding extra cost?”
TB: I feel like the Midwest has a lot to contribute to food as a whole. I’ve worked in the opulence of a Michelin-level restaurant, and I understand what some of these things are, but it’s like the Midwest approach is very simple – “I don’t need all that.” The food quality is there.
HT: Certainly we’ve got some good beer to work with, and good cheese…
TB: We use [Sartori] SarVecchio [from Wisconsin] here in the restaurant. Nick said, “What do you think of this cheese?” and I said “we’re getting it.” I’ve used that for probably 12 years now, and it’s so – the quality … why would I ever, ever buy a wheel of parmesan for this restaurant? From the first time I tasted it, I knew there was something special about it. If you’re a restaurant and you buy enough Reggiano parmesan – don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful cheese – but it’s night and day different every time you buy that cheese. Sometimes it’s cardboard, sometimes it’ll blow your mind.
NR: It’s the supply chain to get to here – I mean, how many times does it change hands?
TB: And where does it sit? For how long? How much time does it stay on the road?
Now, it’s unbelievable we wouldn’t be using that Sartori cheese – with that intense bite of salt, and that nuttiness – you can taste that, you can taste the other, and if you get them both on their best day, they’re both great cheeses. But for us, I can’t justify buying parmesan, when I can get SarVecchio. You finish a plate with that, and it does so much work for you. Olive oil to dress a plate and that, and any gnocchi that you do, just try to keep up.
We go through a hog every two weeks, and we’ll talk to the farmers and they’ll say, oh we’re shipping them off to New York. We’re shipping off our highest quality stuff! And you see it on menus in New York – you’ll see Wisconsin cheese at highly award winning restaurants, and they don’t label it as our pork, but this is our region, and we’re exporting it to everybody else and they get to take credit. So for me, I want to show our region off with the quality of our products. We have the best here – we’re the heartland. We’re in the middle of it.
HT: A lot of people define fine dining in different ways, but for you – what’s the goal here? What are you shooting for, in terms of an experience for guests?
NR: When I was growing up, I remember when I would be at my grandma’s house – both my grandma and my mom were excellent cooks – and we were just always in the kitchen, hanging out – nothing existed beyond what was going on, and you were dipping bread… it was a place and a time of day when all that exterior pressure and stress didn’t exist.
And that’s an important aspect of hospitality, is to try to convey that and to give people that. The food is comforting in that regard – you’re going to get this unexpected surprise and it’ll set the tone for happiness. When people walk out of here and they’ve dined and they’re happy and relaxed, then I feel really good about what we’ve got going on.
That’s the biggest thing – that’s the goal, to make all that’s going on in people’s lives that they don’t want to think about go away for two hours so they can just enjoy their company, or enjoying sitting by themselves, and enjoy the fact that you’re genuinely immersed in a very basic and genuine activity.
Corner Table, 4257 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55409; 612.823.0011