Star chef Gavin Kaysen’s upcoming North Loop restaurant hasn’t yet opened its doors, but already it’s experiencing a big change – it will be called “Spoon and Stable” instead of “Merchant.” The press release on the change cites a bevvy of other Merchants as being a motivating factor – not so far from here, in Madison, WI, is one such place. The new website breaks it down fairly succinctly.
We’re currently living in an age of the chef — the Iron Chef, the Top Chef, the Master Chef. Celebrity chefs make cameos commercials and TV shows (HBO’s Treme managed a good three or four in a single episode), while dedicated eaters and food writers wait with bated breath for known commodities to open their next kitchen. It’s understandable to think that restaurants sink or swim with the skill (and reputation) of their chef — many high-end places, after all, are known simply by their chefs’ names: Daniel, Jean-Georges, or closer to home, Vincent. This fascination with chefs and their craft, their genius and madness, their principles and drive, can cause us to overlook the people who night after night, set the mood, deliver our orders, answer our questions, cater to our dietary restrictions, and patiently put up with our picture-taking, texting, and tipsy chatter.
Upfront is the Heavy Table’s effort to bring attention to the “front of the house,” and to generate discussion and debate about service in the Upper Midwest and beyond. Consisting of in-depth interviews, this series will focus on the experience of those who say, “Yes, Chef.” What, to them, constitutes “good service”? How do hosts, servers, bartenders, sommeliers, and managers navigate the dining environment as more and more self-identified “foodies” and self-appointed mixologists take to social media and dash off reviews on Yelp even before closing out their checks? How does front-of-the-house staff deal with the social, emotional, and physical demands of service? We really don’t know — so we decided to ask.
Q and A with Tim Niver
The subject of this series immediately brought to mind Tim Niver. The two restaurants that he’s part-owned and managed, The Town Talk Diner in Minneapolis (which closed in 2011 and re-opened under new ownership as Le Town Talk) and The Strip Club in St. Paul, have developed reputations as fun, lively spots that make diners feel like regulars. A successful restaurateur, general manager, server, (and tweeter), Niver has earned his reputation for openness and brutal honesty. Who better to kick off Upfront?
We met Niver at The Strip Club to talk about his career, personal life, and his life on the front lines of food. Niver was thoughtful, candid, and unsparing. After a lively discussion about his professional background, which ranged from counter service at McDonald’s to general management under Marcus Samuelsson at Aquavit, Niver dove into his approach to the service and dining experience of The Strip Club.
TIM NIVER: There’s a conviviality among everybody who works here. There’s also a sentiment that we do give a shit. We do care — really. But we also want to do this how we do it. We won’t compromise how you want it to be for how we want it to be. And so we’re asking [diners] to accept us how we are and for who we are. … I think people really grab onto that because it’s not fake. You can’t fake that. There are variables that we deal with that change every day. We’re kind of the same. You’re different. You walk in and you’re different. What you bring to the table is different. So we just try to be us, and you can hopefully accept us for us and [vice versa]. The shroud is pulled off, you know? This is where everybody can be themselves.
HEAVY TABLE: It seems that people today are really into food, serious about it. Have you seen a change in the clientele in terms of how diners interact with the front-of-the-house staff?
Let’s say it’s a long rainy day. Or an even longer snowy day. (Yes, that’s coming soon.) If you’ve got kids to entertain, you probably make a batch or two of chocolate chip cookies. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a delicious, time-honored boredom buster.
But think about it: You’ve got a whole kitchen full of chemicals — chemicals that not only make our food delicious but also expand and pop and fizz and change colors. And all that popping, fizzing and changing colors — well, that’s science.
That’s what Liz Heinecke wants you to think the next time you and your kids are staring at a free hour or so: “Hey, sweetie, let’s do some science.”
“My whole goal is to make it easy for parents and kids to do science at home,” she says, “so they’re not afraid to do it. They’ll dig in. They’ll get their hands dirty. And they’ll ask questions. ‘What if I do this?’ That’s what science should be, especially when you’re young.”
Heinecke is a molecular biologist and an Edina mom of three. She has been blogging at KitchenPantryScientist.com since 2009 and has created the KidScience iPhone app. This month, she published 52 of her kid-friendly, kitchen-centered experiments in Kitchen Science Lab For Kids (Quarry Books).
This week, the Toast heads out to Uptown’s Libertine to sip fall cocktails that will keep the coming frost at bay for at least a few more weeks. (Libertine fans should also be aware: this weekend is the restaurant’s pop-up Hiroshima Dogs event.) Wander North is using Minnesota grain to make its vodka, and we stopped by for a chat. We also ventured out to Stillwater’s newest brewery, Maple Island.
Fall Cocktails and Pairings From Libertine
There is more to fall beverages than the ubiquitous pumpkin spice latte. Fall spirits usher in the cooler months with a welcome, warm buzz and gently remind drinkers of flavors to come. And while many Twin Cities restaurants are still passing out worn and stained summer drink menus, Libertine earns our endorsement for seasonality and creativity.
Libertine is the newest of the Parasole restaurants with one twist — conceptualization by Chef Tim Mckee, Minnesota’s first James Beard award winner.
Johnny Michaels is the buzzworthy force behind the bar at Libertine, so it is no surprise that the cocktail list is comprehensive. Two particular cocktails rise above the rest due to their application of seasonal ingredients that echo the changing temperatures. The first is the Late November (above right), a sour-sweet drink perfect for sunny days or cool nights. White rum is added to pumpkin spice syrup and unsweetened lime juice, a potent and striking combination. The mint note from Nardini amaro and the rosemary sprig creates a spicy backdrop and brings a savory element into balance.