The Kitchen Insider series gives Heavy Table readers a peek at the personality and processes of well-known kitchens around town.
“And…action!” exclaims Chef Scott Pampuch of Corner Table moments before the first diners arrive for their dinner reservation. Although the declaration is made in jest, the statement defines a transformation in this intimate South Minneapolis restaurant; a change from prep to service.
Long before action is formally announced, however, the kitchen is alive and busy with the lengthy prep list to be completed by the four-person kitchen team (three regular staff and one intern). There were savory tarts and sweet desserts to be baked, proteins to be portioned, and vegetables to be peeled, cleaned, diced, and sliced. But before moving forward, first the night’s music must be chosen.
Some kitchens are quiet and others require noise. This kitchen, with four speakers that pulse with music all night, is grouped in the latter. Pampuch takes a quick poll to determine the night’s soundtrack, then decides on a station that is guaranteed to please all. Well, almost. As a song comes on that isn’t a group favorite, a quick shout is given to Chris Olson, prepping salads, who switches the station and says, “Yup, I’m on cold station tonight as well as deejay.” Music selection decided, it’s back to cooking.
In Corner Table’s kitchen, prep takes on a whole new meaning. The menu changes monthly to reflect the seasonality of ingredients. Vegetables arrive to the restaurant, not in pre-packaged bags but as whole produce that require attention. This evening there are fava beans that need de-podding and blanching to remove them from their inner shell. Plus the beautiful French breakfast radishes need to be de-stemmed and washed, to then wait for paper-thin slicing for garnish on the salads.
New ingredients that arrive are thoroughly discussed and sampled — tonight it’s the watercress that Pampuch and the staff taste in order to accurately describe the garnish to diners. Also in the kitchen are ingredients that you may be hard-pressed to find in some other restaurants — edible flowers (such as chive blossoms), morels, and wild ramps. Among all the fresh vegetables available, however, it’s abundantly clear that it’s asparagus season. It is bountiful in this kitchen as the go-to vegetable for many of this evening’s dishes.
Prep lists click along, and soon places are taken as dinner service begins.
With a small staff of four, the role of each team member, while defined, remains flexible throughout the evening. Olson, for example, works the cold station that evening, but easily moves between plating starters and salads to desserts when necessary (as well as the aforementioned deejay role). Another cook, Steve, remains at his spot throughout the evening, working half of the hot station and plating entrees that require his full focused attention. Unlike some kitchens, where the call of food to be finished by table rings out frequently, the communication in Corner Table’s kitchen, while equally vital, is a more subtle interaction between the kitchen and the waitstaff. Dishes are continuously plated and placed in the window for service per tickets, but how this is accomplished remains a mystery to this writer, even after watching the kitchen in full rhythm for a couple hours.
In the center of it all is Pampuch, head down, working the hot station. Despite the dinner rush, Pampuch often shares his broad smile and easy laugh with the staff and makes time to visit in the dining room. But don’t be fooled, even with his concentrated cooking style, Pampuch doesn’t miss a detail. Whether to discuss the cheese that was ordered as an extra on the bison burger or the portion size of a dessert, he oversees every dish that leaves his kitchen. Busy or not, Pampuch strives for perfection.
In the midst of the regular service buzz, which keeps the kitchen hopping throughout the evening, tonight also requires additional attention to be given to the kitchen table reservation that is seated at 6 o’clock. For $125 / person, diners are seated at a table tucked into the corner of the kitchen and served small tasting courses and wine samples throughout the evening for as long into the night as they can last (or until close). The menu is at the whim of Pampuch, with dishes spontaneously created throughout the evening. He describes this, saying that he gauges how the evening is going, how much they are eating, what they are liking, and determines the dishes as the night unfolds. He tries to keep the progression of food from light to heavy and wines from white to red, but beyond that, there is only a minimal plan.
Dishes spontaneously created during the busy kitchen rush… is it even possible? It sure is. Perhaps the epitome of Corner Table and Pampuch’s spontaneous creativity and farm-to-table approach lies in this dish that was created for the kitchen table on the evening of observation — braised pork tongue with gnocchi and pickled onions.
Previously in prep that evening, two beautiful casseroles emerged from the oven, the contents of which were immediately recognized by this writer as the pork tongue from the Hidden Stream pig that was broken down the previous week and featured on Heavy Table in this article. Braised with leeks, carrots, and herbs, the tongue is now tender and ready to adorn the plates of the evening’s diners.
An hour into service, when asked what his plan was for the pork tongue, Pampuch responded that he wasn’t sure, but he was planning to work it into the tasting menu at the kitchen table at some point. With only a short time left for this writer to be onsite, Pampuch quickly set out to create the pork tongue dish. He turned his back for a few minutes to think, then a quick five minutes later the dish was plated and ready. The tasting dish consisted of a small helping of sauteed gnocchi topped with thin slices of pork tongue and finished with pickled onions macerated with herbs and then a drizzle of olive oil. A truly spontaneous creation that, when served to the table, was met with exclamations of delight and thumbs up of approval.