As we look back at 2010, the theme that strikes us is “abundance” — despite challenging economic times, there seems to be no end to the creativity and courage out there in the Upper Midwestern food community.
So we’re very pleased to present 2010’s Silver Whisk Award winners. These are the Upper Midwestern food institutions and people that most caught our imagination, most inspired us, and made us most grateful for the privilege of eating their fine foods. Here we present our 2010 choices for Best Purveyor, Best Chef, and Best New Establishment.
Best Purveyor: UPLANDS CHEESE COMPANY
Uplands Cheese Company inspires a remarkable level of passion in its believers.
Carlos Souffront, Zingerman’s cheese guru, describes it this way on the website: “Sometimes I think this is the best American cheese being made today. Like a European mountain cheese, it’s fruity in an apple sort of way — rich, deep, and sweet. It’s great paired with slices of pear, cubed on salads or all by its lonesome. If I had my pick of the world’s cheeses to enjoy, I’d come back to this one again and again.” And this is from a guy who pretty much does have his pick of the world’s cheeses.
Molly Harrington, supervisor of Surdyk’s cheese shop says, flat out: “It’s my favorite cheese. And it’s the favorite of a lot of people here.”
Jonny Hunter, who uses Uplands products in his Madison restaurant, (The Underground) Kitchen, says: “It’s pretty mindblowing.” He’s referring both to Uplands’ products and to the meticulous process behind them. In Hunter’s small restaurant, which has maybe 15 dishes, “there’s not a night that goes by that Uplands isn’t in six of our dishes.”
Despite all those superlatives, the people behind Uplands Cheese Company are soft-spoken, sincere, and deliberate. Two dairy farming families, Mike and Carol Gingrich and Dan and Jeanne Patenaude, began making cheese together 10 years ago in Dodgeville, WI. Andy Hatch (pictured above, right, with Mike Gingrich), a self-described city boy looking to get into farming by whatever means necessary, joined them about four years ago. Hatch started out as a cheesemaker and now manages the operation.
That operation, by the way, is tiny, even by artisanal standards. Last year they produced about 90,000 pounds of cheese from a herd of about 140 cows. Uplands produces just three primary products: Pleasant Ridge, a subtly floral, nutty, hard raw milk cheese; Pleasant Ridge Reserve, which is aged an additional year; and, as of last fall, Rush Creek Reserve, a spoonably soft and slightly tangy washed rind cheese.
Nevertheless, Uplands has earned a solid reputation both locally and around the country. “In the Madison area, it’s like a classic already, in just 15 years,” says Hunter. “It has established itself in both consistency and flavor.” In the Twin Cities, Uplands cheeses are carried in Surdyk’s, France 44, the St. Paul Cheese Shop, Heartland, and Lunds and Byerly’s. Hatch says he ships cheeses from East Coast to West Coast and north to south.
Uplands has also taken home a remarkable number of prizes in its short history. Pleasant Ridge Reserve took best in show at the American Cheese Society’s annual competition last year. It won the same honor in 2001 and 2005 (it’s the only cheese yet to repeat, let alone three-peat, the honors) and took the US Cheese Championships crown in 2003. Hatch and his team are waiting on tenterhooks to find out how they will fare among the 1,600 cheeses entered at the US Cheese Championships, being held in Green Bay, WI, right now.
Well, no. Actually, Hatch says, characteristically, “You never know what’s going to happen with those. It takes a lot of luck. It’s a point of pride when you win, but….” But, there’s an awful lot of work to do at home.
Early spring is a frenetically busy time on a seasonal dairy farm like Uplands. Calves are born and the cows head out to pasture for the first time. At Uplands, they get hay out on the pasture at first, then “they stop touching the hay sometime in May, when they’re just eating grass, and that’s when we know that they’re ready for milking,” Hatch explains. “We let the cows tell us when they’re ready… Then we’re pedal to the metal making cheese seven days a week.”
When the Gingriches and Patenaudes first decided to make cheese at Uplands, they looked around for models for their operation and decided that what they had — and what they wanted to achieve — most resembled cheesemaking in the Swiss Alps. They milk only in the summer, when the cows are entirely grassfed, and when the quality of the pasture declines — say during a dry spell — they stop making cheese and sell the milk instead. Harrington and Hunter both say they can taste differences in the cheeses based on when the cows were milked — that first May milk is sweet and grassy — and even where they were grazing.
Until last year, Hatch sold off the fall milk, when the cows were transitioning from pasture to hay. Then he decided to try an experiment, a soft washed-rind cheese in the tradition of the Swiss Vacherin Mont d’Or. He worked closely with Souffront at Zingerman’s as he was developing it, sending him frequent samples. The result was 3,000 precious rounds of Rush Creek Reserve (above), available only from November through February.
After the New York Times published a short piece on Rush Creek in early November, cheese shops couldn’t keep it on the shelves. Surdyk’s kept a waiting list of eager customers. “It was just explosive,” says Harrington. She describes Rush Creek as “just the most luscious cheese I’ve ever had. It has a lactic tang, a kind of a bite, but it’s so smooth. It’s wrapped in spruce bark, which makes it a little piney.”
Hunter’s Underground Kitchen put a 12-ounce round of Rush Creek on the menu as an entrée and tweeted when they had half dozen or so available. Customers got wise and ordered it to go.
In the coming year, Hatch says he plans to make more Rush Creek. And Uplands is expanding, in tiny ways, into other operations as well. They are using whey to fatten pigs, several of which are turning into sought-after salami in the Underground Kitchen as we speak. (“I just begged him for more,” says Hunter.) They’re experimenting with pastured veal, bonding bull calves to retired dairy cows — both of which have very little value on a dairy farm — and raising them for meat. “You avoid some of the ethical concerns and you don’t get that bland, gray all-milk veal,” says Hatch. “We sold a few calves last year to a restaurant in Madison and he was just over the moon.”
And, when I spoke to Hatch over the phone, he was taking a quick break from a buttermaking class, which may augur even more new ventures in the future.
There’s no reason to believe Hatch and Uplands will rush headlong into anything, however.
“There’s no sloppiness in the operation,” says Hunter. “They test and make sure every batch is what they want…. When people ask where I draw inspiration as a chef, I say, ‘Uplands.’”
— Tricia Cornell
Best Chef: SAMEH WADI OF SAFFRON AND WORLD STREET KITCHEN
Sameh Wadi must have been exhausted at the end of 2010. He had spent another year on the line at Saffron, the Minneapolis restaurant he runs with his brother, Saed. Together they delved into the evolving urban street food scene with their internationally inspired cart, World Street Kitchen. They wrapped up their second year of Spice Trail, a line of handcrafted, gourmet spices. He made an appearance on Iron Chef as a challenger versus Chef Morimoto. His cooking and accolades earned him another semifinalist recognition from the James Beard Foundation for Rising Star Chef (followed by yet another in 2011). What’s next? “World domination, obviously,” he says. “I’m joking. Absolutely not. Dominating my own world is more accurate.”
“As a chef, I don’t cook for recognition. I cook because I am passionate and I love what I do. Of course I’m happy to be recognized, but it doesn’t drive me.” While some might daydream about culinary success as a flurry of restaurant openings, Wadi plans to focus on nurturing what already exists. “My restaurant is heavily influenced by my childhood, my upbringing, and my life travels,” he says. “So I need to be here daily.” The only growth he sees is finding a permanent location for World Street Kitchen — a locale that will offer regulars quality eats at a reasonable price.
Whether preparing kofta (meatballs) at Saffron, or a bahn mi at World Street Kitchen, Wadi employs the same cooking philosophy. “I try to use the best ingredients and stay true to them.” But for Wadi, using the best ingredients doesn’t always mean local or organic. “I came from the Middle East, where, on some days, people have a hard time finding food. They can go for weeks without being able to leave their homes. I’m not going to turn my head because it’s not local. I know there are people who would kill to have anything nutritious, regardless of where it came from.”
Wadi lived in the Middle East the first half of his life. His parents were exiled from Palestine in 1948, and the family lived in Kuwait, Jordan, and Canada. “My father was a writer and an artist, and we travelled the world,” he says. “We had a home in Madrid, Spain. When we visited we usually had to stop somewhere else on the way.” They moved to Minnesota 13 years ago and he’s been here since. He became an official citizen in 2010. “I am living the American dream right now.”
Given Wadi’s continued success, will he remain in Minnesota rather than venturing out to the larger coastal markets? He’s certainly had offers. “My family is here. Without really any choice, I have to stay,” Wadi explained to us earlier this year. Family clearly provides a grounding foundation for him, to the point where it’s not uncommon for his mother to come to the Saffron kitchen and help with food prep. “It’s scary as shit to have her here. I don’t care who I am cooking for, I won’t break a sweat as much as I would with my mom. You know when she’s unhappy. She doesn’t budge.”
Wadi grew up in a household centered around food. So much so that he is now, along with his brother, reworking a lost encyclopedia of Palestinian cuisine, first compiled by his parents in the late 1980s. It was set to publish in 1990, but after a move from Kuwait to Jordan, they simply did not have the emotional energy to continue with it. Unpacking after their move to the United States, the brothers discovered the book in its raw form. They’re adding information to highlight the “then versus now” of Palestinian food.
In addition to his family here, Wadi has also weaved a collection of colleagues that would make it hard to leave. Wadi points to the local chef camaraderie and sense of community in Minnesota. “I’ve cooked in New York, and never felt the the warmth that I feel here with chefs who are supposed to be my competitors,” he says. “It makes me proud to be a chef in this city.” An example of his feeling of community in actualized form lies in Saffron’s relationship with its neighbor, 112 Eatery. “We eat at 112. They eat here. If we’re short on something, we ask them, and vice versa. It’s a historic barter system.”
— Alyssa Vance
Best New Establishment: IN SEASON
One word summarizes why we liked In Season so sincerely: Balance.
Chef Don Saunders (below) has created a truly skillful harmony with this restaurant (located at 5416 Penn Ave South in Minnneapolis). The food is upscale and luxurious, but not fussy or vulgar. The servers are attentive and knowledgeable, but not pushy or overbearing. The decor is comfortable and classy, but not loud or absurdly posh.
And the menu is a minor work of art. The front is a list of ingredients currently in season that serve as the inspiration for the dishes served. “It’s a bunch of things that are not necessarily specifically in season, but are seasonally appropriate — like I’ll write down ‘grains’ right now, or ‘beans,'” says Saunders. “I had ideas of putting a chalkboard up with the ingredients on it, or even tying it into the artwork, but then I came up with the concept of the menu style. It’s not a new concept in terms of how I cook — it’s exactly how I’ve always written menus, but it’s telling the story to the guests.”
Born in Kansas and raised in Eden Prairie, Saunders comes from a culinary background that marries the local with the Continental. After attending Le Cordon Bleu London, he stuck around in England and interned at the Michelin-starred Chez Bruce.
“I made the right choice,” says Saunders. It was [Chef Bruce Poole’s] classic cooking style that I fell in love with. It’s super French with a little bit of an English twist to it. I definitely loved the classic side — offal, the fish preparations, stuff like that.”
Saunders’s French-via-England training served him well locally — he got his start at Vincent, subsequently jumping to La Belle Vie in Stillwater, A Rebours, and finally Fugaise, which closed in 2009. In Season is less obviously French than some of his previous ventures, but the techniques and sensibility are still there, driving the menu.
“I would say a common thread through all my experience is classical cooking,” says Saunders. “I’ve never really gone down the road of wanting to learn any of the gastro-molecular stuff… we do a little bit of it with foamed sauces, but that’s about it. My experience and my passion is definitely taking classic ingredients and combinations and creatively presenting them, or putting a new twist on that.”
Saunders deserves credit for creating a restaurant with a simple but profound story to tell — that of a chef cooking to suit the seasons. And he deserves extra credit for having the balls to open such a restaurant right in the middle of a brutal Minnesota winter.
“You find yourself putting kale on like five different dishes throughout the menu and that gets a little tiring,” Saunders says, acknowledging the challenges of winter. “While in spring you can’t even really keep up with all the new ingredients that are becoming available. But it’s also a fun challenge to come up with things that are tasty and comforting, like lamb with beans… or elk goulash. It’s as much about the technique and the cooking style as the ingredients — braises and stuff like that.”
Winter hasn’t made for dour food — on the contrary, Saunders brings a light touch and an eye for color to all that he serves. One of our favorites was a mussels special that soundly beat any of the many (sometimes excellent) mussels preparations I’d enjoyed while spending more than six years on the East Coast.
“We steam the mussels but there’s bacon, fennel, bay leaf, onion, and celery in the steam, and cream and white wine,” says Saunders. “Then you take the mussels out of the shell and basically blend that liquid so it’s a smokey bacon fennel broth. And you add back to that Israeli couscous, the mussels, fennel, tomato, and then finish it with a little torn basil.”
This is a dish so good that it motivates the diner to sop up every last bit of flavor using any means necessary — baguette if available, brute force if necessary. It’s the balance between smoke and cream and vegetable and seafood that makes the dish work — the proportions are perfect, the texture delicate.
Talk to Saunders about how he composes a dish, and that very concept of balance pours out through his answer. He balances color:
“[A dish] might just need a little color, so we’ll add something green, but super neutral in flavor — like the spinach on the monkfish. Spinach wasn’t set out to be a part of that dish, but you plate monkfish and roasted garlic and gnocchi and it’s all brown.”
He balances texture:
“…like adding crispy parsnips as the third element to that squab dish; that dish is in need of it because everything is pretty much cooked soft.”
And of course, he balances flavor:
“Every dish needs to have a balance of salty, sweet, and acidic. Even desserts to a certain extent. When I’m tasting a sauce or a dish as a whole, I ask: ‘Where is the acid coming from, or is it overpowering?'”
The result is food that is passionately flavorful but never off-putting; complex but not overwhelming; exciting but not gimmicky. If Saunders can keep cooking like this — and there’s no reason he shouldn’t — the future for In Season looks bright indeed.
“As far as where I’m at, if we can grow the business to sustain what’s going on, and tap into the excitement of the new patio in the spring, I couldn’t be happier in this location,” says Saunders. “It’s perfect…. everything’s clicking.”
— James Norton