The Best Chef nominees exemplify the Silver Whisk award criteria, which emphasize creative, memorable food, local impact, and actions reflective of the current culinary landscape. It was a tough decision to narrow the field to three. Below, in no particular order, are the Best Chef nominees, as well as a little about what makes them tick.
Silver Whisk nominees for Best Purveyor and Best New Establishment will be announced on Tuesday, November 17 and Wednesday, November 18, respectively.
Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery and Bar La Grassa
Isaac Becker, chef-owner of the 112 Eatery and the recently opened Bar La Grassa, is a Twin Cities native. Starting at a sandwich place in Southdale Mall, Becker moved through well-known restaurants such as the former Lowry’s, D’Amico Cucina, and Campiello before being promoted to executive and opening chef of Cafe / Bar Lurcat. In 2005, he and his wife teamed up to open the 112 Eatery, which continues to rank as
a Minneapolis must-dine spot thanks to popular dishes that range from homemade tagliatelle with foie gras meatballs to the much-craved 112 burger (with truffle oil and brie). Then, this fall, Becker stepped up once again. He opened his take on Italian food in Minneapolis’s Warehouse District, a place that he describes as his “dream restaurant”: Bar La Grassa. A recognition of the difficulty of opening Bar La Grassa to very positive reviews while maintaining a high quality dining experience at 112 underpins our nomination of Becker for Best Chef.
Bar La Grassa embodies the whole of Becker’s cooking, cooking that he describes as Mediterranean. Influenced by “the guys I’ve worked with, the cookbooks I read, and the traveling I’ve done,” he’s developed a focused, straightforward approach to food.
An illustration of this approach is the dish that Becker says most accurately represents him as a chef: silk handkerchiefs (squares of fresh pasta) with basil pesto on the current Bar La Grassa menu. “For me, it’s the simplicity of it, yet the layers of flavor — I love it. It is probably one of my most favorite dishes right now.” He describes the dish as “just pesto with white wine dough pasta” but goes on to describe the effort he takes to treat these simple ingredients right. “The pesto is made with a mortar and pestle. It takes effort; it’s all in the execution.”
Although sometimes modest, Becker’s food is often stunning. “I think that simple things executed [well] are fantastic. That’s kind of my whole philosophy of my cooking… A solid, honest dish that’s there to taste good and not to try to use as many ingredients as you can. I’m not interested in that and I never have been.”
Mike Phillips of The Craftsman
Mike Phillips’s restaurant career began as a dishwasher in the cafeteria at the Walker Art Center. Curious to explore the kitchen beyond his current task, he began asking the chef
a lot of questions and soon was given a chance to cook. From there, he moved to the cafeteria at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and then to chef de cuisine at northeast Minneapolis’s Modern Cafe, before opening Chet’s Taverna, a former St. Paul restaurant focused on local cuisine. Six years ago he moved to his current position at The Craftsman, where he continues his dedication to creating locally sourced cuisine.
Phillips grew up in small farming community in northwest Iowa. Traveling in Europe during a semester off from college, he took notice of how European towns create identities through regional food. “When you go to Europe you start to see that every little place has their own cured ‘this’ and their own cheese named after the place. People fight each other about it, because theirs is the best. And I just identified with that for some reason.”
The concept of a culinary sense of identity stuck with Phillips and he now lives this concept in his cooking. “I’m very interested in trying to create some sort of regional identity for Minnesota.” His inspiration, he says, are the farmers and the products he works with. “It’s pretty easy with the product that we have here to be inspired. It’s amazing stuff and we’re lucky.”
Perhaps Phillips’ most well-known example of this is his house-made charcuterie. For his part in reviving the art of preserved meat (mostly pork) in the Midwest, Phillips says his motivation came from what others were doing with our local animals. “They [Alice Waters and Paul Bertolli] were taking Midwest pigs out to California and curing them and making these really great things with them. And I was like, hey, these are our pigs. Why don’t we do that?” It’s this kind of thinking that sets Phillips apart as a culinary pioneer.
Russell Klein of Meritage
The final nominee for Best Chef began his restaurant career outside the Midwest, and in fact, not even in the kitchen. Starting in the front of the house at the early age of 16, Russell Klein says he was “always that server
who would stand by the window and pester the cooks with questions.” This interest in the kitchen’s activity blossomed and led to his eventual enrollment in culinary school at the French Culinary Institute.
But it wasn’t his time at culinary school that, Klein says, really taught him to cook. Instead, he notes that “every chef has influences beyond formal training.” For Klein, influence came from working in France and Italy and then at his first restaurant job, upon his return to his home state of New York, at La Caravelle. “In a sense, I would say, that’s [La Caravelle] where I learned to cook — as a chef, you know, more than just someone who liked to cook.”
Moving through several New York restaurants like Picholine and Danube, among others, Klein decided to move to the Midwest, specifically to St. Paul, in December 2001. Locally, he first worked for Aquavit, then shortly thereafter moved to W.A. Frost as sous chef and was then promoted to executive chef. Desiring a restaurant of his own, Klein soon teamed with his wife Desta to open Meritage in downtown St. Paul in late 2007, featuring his version of French-inspired food.
His first year open, Klein nailed his goal of creating a welcoming French bistro as well as a menu that not only impressed his sophisticated clientele, but that earned him several local accolades. In 2009, the second year in business as Meritage, Klein continued to up his game, resulting in a draw of regulars and newcomers to visit for one of his unforgettable meals.
Whether for a seasonal dish, like the menu’s seasonal venison dish, or a menu mainstay, like the crispy half chicken, Klein has accomplished what many new, occasion-type restaurants struggle to do: keep them coming back for more. Better yet, upon returning to the bustling bistro, the diner will usually find that the experience just keeps getting better.
“I try to think a lot about the food and try to achieve balance in every dish,” Klein says and references the aforementioned current menu venison dish that features grilled gingerbread, chestnut puree, braised Belgian endive and cranberries. “It’s clearly very French in influence — it’s seasonal, it’s complex, and it’s really well thought out.”
Klein uses this philosophy of thoughtful creation as he forms Meritage’s seasonal menus. The result of his efforts is food that connects the diner to a deeper emotional identification; a key to creating memorable meals. “Fundamentally, the food that I create tends to be something that people can relate to. It’s got a foundation in classic cooking so, whether they realize it or not, there’s something in the dish that they’re relating to that makes it accessible for them. Even though it might not be anything they’ve really had before or something that they necessarily understand, somewhere in it, there’s something that connects to something in the past that they’ve eaten.”