We found 2011 to be a very good year for Upper Midwestern food, overflowing with potential nominees for our annual Silver Whisk Awards, but that may just be the bountiful era we’re living in.
We’re proud to offer up for your consideration our 2011 Silver Whisk Award winners. Collectively, they inspire us, stoke our imaginations, make us proud to hail from the Upper Midwest — and create some of our favorite food.
Without further fuss, our 2011 choices for Best Purveyor, Best Chef, and Best New Establishment.
Best Purveyor: FROZBROZ
Cotija cheese, tomatoes, Ritz crackers, fresh goat chevre, pita chips, and apple crisp: These aren’t really the types of flavors most people consider when pondering their ice cream options. But in an area chock full of culinary artisans, that type of anything-goes creativity is what sets FrozBroz apart.
Started by friends Ben Solberg (left) and Erik Powers (right), in many ways FrozBroz has been in the works for a decade. The pair have cooked together for 10 years and often considered going into the food business together or collaborating on a cookbook, but no plan really stuck. Then, three years ago, both received ice cream makers as gifts and the competition to make the best flavors caused something to click.
Solberg got a suggestion from food website editor Lee Zukor to start a blog about their efforts, and in May 2011, they followed through, with the vow to create a new flavor every week.
The result has been impressive — not only have they played with traditional flavors such as caramel, chocolate, and butterscotch, but they’ve concocted tastes that are new to the ice cream world. For example, honey Dijon and pretzel, or vodka blueberry and basil. Their latest (as of this writing) is chocolate-peanut butter with Medjool dates and pecans.
As a classically trained chef, Powers brings the sharp execution that comes from training and experience, while Solberg is more of the “nothing is impossible” type. They may have started out as friendly competitors, but now each values the unique perspective of the other when it comes to brainstorming flavor ideas.
Every Wednesday, they meet to discuss new possibilities and usually come up with about a dozen potential flavors. Powers says, “Ben is always dreaming up flavor ideas that are oftentimes really out there. He’s not a classically trained chef, so he’s never been taught to put any limits on anything he does with food. To him, the impossible is possible until he’s proved wrong.”
Solberg adds that it’s Powers who takes some of the craziest ideas and gets them to the point where they work. For example, they’ve had some skirmishes with ingredients like Ritz Crackers, but Powers figured out how to make that one shine.
“I’m usually the one that throws all the wrenches in because I want to do something that isn’t supposed to be done and it’s Erik’s skill that gets us there,” Solberg says. “He’s too modest. Really, he’s a star.”
With such obvious brotherly affection for each other and their creations, it’s not hard to see why their venture is working. They both emphasize that they’re friends first and business partners second. “Our friendship will not be jeopardized and that will always come before the business,” Powers says. “It’s a crucial element to what makes FrozBroz.”
Their high level of ingenuity and sense of adventure has led to significant grassroots support, which is what they’ll need to get to the next level: actual distribution.
Everything in the ice cream is made completely from scratch, including their ice cream bases. Many ice cream stores buy pre-pasteurized ice cream from another source and add ingredients, says Powers. Since the FrozBroz partners need to pasteurize the homemade base themselves, it makes it more complicated to get their creations to market. They tried using Kickstarter to fund their efforts, but got denied (obviously, no one at Kickstarter has tried their ice cream, or this story would have a different ending), so now they’re looking at different funding directions to get off the ground.
In the meantime, their flavors are drawing crowds online instead. Every week, they post the new flavor on their blog and Facebook page and tell their 600+ fans that two lucky commenters will get a pint in a random drawing [editor’s note: corrected from “two pints for one commenter” 2/29/12]. For the last creation, almost 70 people chimed in for the chance.
Once they have their pasteurization ready for commercial distribution, it should be interesting to see how they whittle down their flavors list, if that’s even possible. No matter what happens, it’s likely that they’ll retain the enthusiasm, local ingredient sourcing, innovation, and optimism that truly do elevate FrozBroz as a purveyor.
— Elizabeth Millard
Best Chef: ALEJANDRO CASTILLON OF SONORA GRILL
We are very pleased to announce that Sonora Grill‘s Alejandro Castillon is Heavy Table’s Best Chef of 2011. His accessibility and out-of-the-box creativity are radically expanding our conceptions of what the food of el mundo hispanohablante could be, consistently surprising us with the scope of his imagination.
Castillon, a native of Hermosilla, Sonora, immigrated to Minnesota 10 years ago on a whim. “After college, I came here for a 3-month vacation,” says Castillon. “I liked it so much that I decided to move here for good!” He put in his time at his first job as a line cook at the now-departed Parkview Cafe in St. Paul, building onto the basic vocabulary he carried with him from Mexico. “I never worked at restaurants at home. I learned everything just from paying attention to my mom.” Three years later, he moved into the kitchen at Solera; from there, he moved up the ranks to Barrio, Be’Wiched, and Bar La Grassa, the James Beard Award-nominated restaurant where he achieved the rank of sous chef.
Despite enviable positions in some of the most acclaimed restaurants in Minneapolis, Castillon felt stifled. Working for other people just wasn’t doing it for him: “I felt tired all the time, working for somebody else.” Like many young chefs and cooks, Castillon had a restaurant incubating inside of him, waiting for the right time to hatch; and like many young chefs, he lacked the resources to make it all happen.
With nary a pinch of business experience between the three of them, Castillon and his partners and fellow Sonorans, Conrado Paredes and Fernando Arnanda, sought assistance from the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC), which provided them with loans for equipment, help with formulating a business plan, legal aid, and an affordable space at Midtown Global Market.
Since Sonora Grill opened in the summer of 2011, Castillon’s refreshing and versatile take on Latin American street food has been slowly but surely accumulating positive reviews and fanatical customers. The menu is uncannily familiar: instead of tortas and tacos, there are bocadillos and caramelos. Instead of sour cream, there is a rainbow of house-made, flavored aiolis. “Go ahead and keep eating your beloved burritos, but you’ll be missing out if you don’t expand your repertoire to include pinchos, caramelos, and bocadillos,” writes Rachel Hutton in a review for City Pages. In a way, it feels like we’ve graduated to the next level of culinary awareness, and Castillon’s menu is the reward.
“There are so many places in Minneapolis that are ‘Mexican,’ but it’s more like Texas-style food,” Castillon says. “I don’t like Mexican food that is not really Mexican. It’s better to have real food, not nachos with cheese all over them.” One could compare Castillon to Chicago’s Rick Bayless in that regard: Their passion lies in resuscitating the image of Mexican food in a world gone Crunchwrap-crazy. But while Bayless rarely breaches the Mexican border, Castillon feels no such obligation toward authenticity.
Castillon cites the cuisines of Cuba, Peru, Spain, and Mexico as influences, but there are also surprising injections of Korean, Japanese, Italian, and Chinese techniques. In the past year, we’ve seen a surge in Asian-Latin fusion cuisine, but Castillon’s menu goes beyond merely stuffing bulgogi into a tortilla and calling it a day. More importantly, he values simplicity above all: “At other restaurants, I would see these dishes with 12, 13 components and think, ‘I can do this with four or five.'” His is a more subtle touch befitting a 10-year veteran of fine dining.
“The ideas just come,” says Castillon. “I like always being able to think of new recipes and try new stuff.” Owning his own restaurant has set his mind free, and it’s gone in some very unusual directions. He’s paired tempura-battered shrimp with cilantro aioli on one dish and Korean short ribs with chimichurri salsa on another. Earlier this year, he came out of left field with shrimp spring roll-style flautas accompanied by a touch of jalapeño and a soy sauce aioli.
Angharad Guy put it best in a review for Metromix: “Sonora Grill might be one of the most authentic examples of ‘fusion’ dining we have in the Twin Cities as its menu juggles Peruvian rice, Spanish pincho with an Argentinian twist and Sonora hot dogs without missing a beat… Alejandro Castillon and his small team at Sonora Grill clearly have talent and aren’t afraid to flaunt it.”
He could rest on his intellectual laurels, but Castillon is just as particular about his ingredients. The hot dogs, horchata, turkey chorizo, salsas, and fries are made by hand in their tiny kitchen. “I didn’t train with stuff from cans,” he told us earlier. He gets his bread from Salty Tart, the James Beard Award-nominated bakery across the way, and his tortillas from a local family.
The thoughtfulness and skill in Castillon’s kitchen speak to a deep shift in post-recession American dining, wherein the upscale standbys of old are becoming more and more unattainable — or, at least, occasional — for a growing class of urban gourmets. We are finding more brilliant chefs practicing their craft in humble settings, snubbing posh prices, Vegas offers, and television deals in favor of simpler pleasures. Other renowned chefs may only dip their toes into casual dining; for many chefs of this new generation, smaller establishments are their biggest ambition.
Castillon’s eyes light up when we ask him how it felt to finally own his own restaurant. “Every morning,” he says, “I wake up and cannot wait to get back to work.”
— Soleil Ho
Best New Establishment: TILIA
When Steven Brown mentions casually that he has been reading Steve Jobs’ biography, the first question that comes to mind is, “In what spare time?” Brown waves that question away; sleep is apparently not something chefs value.
“What struck me most,” he says, “were all the ideas that had long ferment times and just kept coming back.” He means in the Apple iEmpire, of course, but was Tilia one of those long-fermenting ideas, as well? “It’s something I thought about for a long time,” he says. “The first business plan I wrote, which is essentially Tilia, I wrote in 2004. You could say I was waiting for the right time and the right place.”
Brown looks so at home among the dark wood benches of Tilia, his Linden Hills eatery where he spends as much time in the dining room as in the kitchen, that it’s hard to imagine a more right place.
Brown officially opened the doors to Tilia — his first restaurant as co-owner, after bouncing around top Twin Cities restaurants for decades — on March 19, 2011. He soon was heard to joke that it took him 20 years to become an overnight success. And Tilia was a success from day one. No opening week jitters, no excuses made for a novice crew. The very first dishes to come out of the kitchen were exactly as good as they are today — and all 14 tables were full, seemingly day in and day out.
“I didn’t have a day off for six months,” Brown says. “I worked for 42 hours straight for the first brunch. There were a couple of other cooks here and we closed the place and had a beer and a coffee.”
“The first brunch we did was 45 tickets. We thought we were climbing Mount Vesuvius.” He laughs, because 45 tickets is nothing. In Tilia’s first nine months, Brown and his crew did 100,000 tickets. In fact, the only change made to the restaurant physically in its first year was the addition of long benches outside to accommodate those waiting for a table for an hour or more.
“That people are willing to wait is surprising,” Brown says. “It’s humbling to think there are so many options and people choose to come here, even when they’re told the wait is going to be — well, you know how long.” Still, he is reluctant to take reservations; customers walking in spontaneously for a beer and a bite is central to his vision of a neighborhood hangout.
If you visited Tilia in its early days you’ll probably recognize most of the people serving and cooking today. There’s been remarkably little staff turnover. The menu hasn’t changed much, either, and probably won’t in the near future, beyond some experimental or seasonal tweaks. That’s part of the neighborhood-hangout vibe as well. There’s no need to wonder whether those house-made hot dogs with their quintessential hot-dog-y snap will be on the menu tonight or next week. You can be sure to find the melt-in-your-mouth leeks and the mussels in their surprising, satisfying tomato sauce with chorizo and pickled peppers. The potted meat, ready to spread on crispy toast and now the Cities’ premier beer snack — also here to stay. It’s comforting.
“I once worked in a restaurant where we changed the menu every day,” Brown remembers. “I don’t know if that’s in the best interest of the customer. If the id and the ego of the restaurant outstrip that of the clientele, well… Sometimes the stuff we had would be spectacular — and then it was gone! People would ask me about particular dishes and I would have to say, ‘Uh, yeah, I guess maybe I remember that.’”
After 20 years in the restaurant business, Brown just found out that he has been nominated for a James Beard Award. Many people who have been following his career are thinking, “About damn time.” Brown’s own reaction: “Flattering. Incredibly humbling. To see this list and these people’s names on it — it’s hard to explain what it means personally.” Sure, that’s exactly what he’s supposed to say. But to sit across from Brown and see his fingers absentmindedly skittering on the wooden table top, his shoulders slumped from a day’s — many, many days’ — hard work, and to see life at the restaurant he has built buzz on around him — let’s just say that you don’t so much hear the words as feel them. This is a man who has worked very hard to get where he is, and he knows how good he has it.
In fact, the word that comes up most often when chatting with Brown is “humbling.” “Gratifying” is a close second. “Lucky” is third. These are the words he uses when he talks about his chef de cuisine, Sam Miller, about his whole staff, about the customers who have filled the seats in the restaurant’s first year.
“I’m most proud of the kitchen staff. Our availability to cope with that” — he motions to an open kitchen smaller than most suburban home kitchens — “and to maintain a consistent quality, it’s very gratifying.”
With the first year of business behind him, Brown says it has passed “exactly like we hoped, though we’ve been pleasantly surprised at the volume…
“Having opened a lot of restaurants, I can say that there’s an incredible focus on the preparation, leading up to the opening. As a father, I compare it to having a baby. You’re focused on getting ready and then all of a sudden there’s a baby and everything changes.”
And, after bouncing around Twin Cities restaurants for years, is he pretty comfortably ensconced where he is? Or will he eventually get itchy feet? “Well, I bought a house around here. One of my personal goals for Tilia is that it has some longevity.” That, Brown observes, is not something restaurants are known for; bars, on the other hand, tend to stick around. (Thank goodness, then for the lovely curved bar at Tilia and its wide-ranging beer list.)
While a constant line out the door isn’t always an indicator of quality (witness the downtown Minneapolis Chipotle), sometimes the crowd gets it right. This is good food in a good place, and, as Brown is fond of saying, “Good food tastes good.”
— Tricia Cornell