The Kitchen Insider series gives Heavy Table readers a peek at the personality and processes of well-known kitchens around town.
It’s 10:30 on a Thursday morning in Spoonriver‘s bustling kitchen in the Mill District of Minneapolis. The kitchen is in full swing with the chopping, slicing, and dicing of fresh, seasonal ingredients destined for the day’s lunch service.
At her work station, Chef Heather Hartman scoops healthy servings of a whole grain mix into hollowed red, yellow, and orange bell peppers. Topped with cheese, this dish is the menu’s vegetarian feature. Hartman eyes her workstation, taking a mental inventory of vegetables, dressings, and dips to ensure everything is in place before moving on to the next task — preparing meals for the restaurant’s to-go section.
The chicken quesadillas are cooked, sliced, and stacked into containers that will be sold along with other meal choices and beverages in Spoonriver’s deli cases for the hungry passerby. The last of the containers is added to the display just minutes before the lunch craze begins.
Next to Hartman is Chris Bundy, straining the beets for the ravioli dish and mixing a large bowl of guacamole, a garnish for the fish tacos. Bundy is full of smiles and talks easily as he works, but glances seriously over to Hartman’s workspace as I ask her about her small container of chive blossoms.
She quickly places a protective hand over the bright purple flowers and her face lights up as she describes their freshness, hand picked from her garden that morning with her daughter. Although she is undecided how she will use them, her protective manner makes it’s clear that they are her prize garnish for the day.
Owner / chef Brenda Langton hurries in and begins preparing a catering order. Effortlessly, she mixes together whole grains, green onions, and seeds that create into a medley of textures and flavors. Also on order is Spoonriver’s popular Wild Mushroom and Pistachio Terrine. Langton pauses to teach a cook to assemble the platters of earthy bites of terrine topped with mustard, cranberry chutney, and cornichons.
The clock ticks 11:30 and, as if on cue, orders flow in. An order for the vegetarian special comes in, the previously mentioned stuffed bell pepper, which Hartman has decided to top with her prized chive blossoms. The purple flowers finish the dish in signature Spoonriver fashion — a vibrant spectrum of color on each plate.
Despite the busy environment, Hartman takes time to talk about the restaurant and its values. She emphasizes that the kitchen is a teaching environment, and that egos should be left at home. Almost in the same breath, she thanks Bundy as he points out that the fish she just removed from the oven needed a little more time. Although they each work on their own dishes, they frequently cover for one another if one gets the heft of orders.
An omelet order prints off and Bundy quickly goes to work on it, flipping the eggs expertly. It slides onto the plate alongside greens with raspberry dressing. Bundy steps back and decides something is missing. Reaching into the cooler below, he produces a bag of microgreens. A small handful completes the plate and Bundy smiles as he places the plate in the window for service.
Hartman does not miss a moment of this, as she eyes the microgreens enviously. Glancing back at her workstation, she says to no one in particular: “I have my chive blossoms.”
In the prep area in the back of the kitchen — a small room with tall, frosted windows that provide plenty of natural light — salads, sandwiches, charcuterie, cheese plates, and desserts are prepped. Salads are a serious business at Spoonriver, prepared with mounds of crisp vegetables that make the “I’ll just have a salad” lunch order a laughable occasion once the heaping dishes are served to the table.
A great example of this is the Greek salad (chicken optional). Bricks of feta are cubed, then rolled in an herb mix. The feta cubes, along with greens, tomato, cucumber and red onion are tossed with dressing in a bowl then piled onto a plate garnished with olives and pepperoncinis.
Dishes are run from the prep room around blind corners to the service window; the call of “Corner!” exclaimed almost every five minutes. But there is no time to slow down, the orders keep coming in. Besides the always popular salads, the fish special is in high demand. Herring fillets are breaded in cornmeal, one in blue and one in yellow, then pan fried and served over rice pilaf with almonds and topped with creamy dill sauce.
Lunch service continues with the running of salads and flipping of omelets while the outdoor seating area is a revolving door of customers enjoying the cloudless day.