We’re familiar with what local chefs serve in their restaurants. What about the food choices they make at home? This series offers a glimpse into what chefs are eating when they step outside their own establishment.
Rather than focusing on one chef at Victor’s 1959 Cafe, it was important to owner Niki Stavrou (right, above) that the whole team be highlighted. Darnell Williams (middle left) has worked at Victor’s for nearly four years. Rudy Gomez (middle right) has worked at the restaurant for a year and a half. Niki’s stepson Vic (far left) has been in the kitchen at Victor’s a little over two years.
As a child, seeing my mom and dad in the kitchen made me want to cook. Every Sunday we’d cook a big family dinner. We’ve been doing it since I was young and it’s still going. It’s mostly soul food, like collard greens and smothered potatoes. But now, since I went to school, they’ll let me do the cooking. Now I always need to put my two cents in.
I started working at Victor’s because I was looking for a cooking job, not specifically in Cuban food. But my mom is from Jamaica, and that’s so close to Cuba, so a lot of the food is alike. But there is a difference; Jamaican food had a mild spice and Cuban food is not spicy. Working in a Cuban kitchen has brought me to different ingredients. I’ll try something here, like the Creole sauce or cumin, and it’s like, “Oh, I should have tried that a long time ago!” We have a lot of plantains on our menu, and now I cook with them at home all the time. They have to be soft enough, almost like butter. I make my own version of the sandwich Cubano at home, but instead of ham, I use pork. I don’t like to make them too much, because once I do, people want them all the time.
I don’t like to eat out. I’d rather make it at home. Cooking is like a meditation for me. My girlfriend will say, “Let’s go to a Chinese buffet.” My response is, “Why would we, when I can cook what’s at the buffet?”I like to create things, and I don’t like to make the same thing twice. I like to change things up and put my own blend to recipes, so every time you try something it tastes a little different. Every now and then I’ll cook for someone who works at the restaurant. I make little surprise. This morning I made someone a steak omelet. I also made something I called “Best of Both Worlds”: a miniature corn pancake and regular pancake with mango sandwiched in between. I put some whipped cream and chocolate in there too.
I was married to a Cuban (Victor) for 12 years. We started this place together. Originally he was doing the cooking. Then in 2005, he injured his back and wasn’t able to stand in the kitchen anymore, so I was thrown into the kitchen unexpectedly. I had cooked at home, but never in a restaurant. I knew the ingredients that went into our recipes, but Victor never wrote any measurements down. The first day I was in here I was on the phone with him, saying things like, “I know green olives go into this, but how many?” His response would be something like, “Two handfuls,” and I thought, “Your hands are bigger than mine!”
Before the restaurant I’d throw a lot of good parties with good food. I’m Greek, so before I got married most of my parties had Greek food, like spanakopita or grilled lamb. Once we opened the restaurant, my dinner parties stopped. Now I keep it pretty simple at home. I get home late and I’m usually exhausted. Some of my best meals haven’t even started getting cooking until really late at night. My boyfriend and I just kind of wing it. Then to make up for eating so late, we’ll stay up later. We eat a lot of seafood. I also love grilling Halloumi cheese. It’s from Cyprus, where my dad is from.
I grew up in Minneapolis eating Greek food. My dad is a professor at the University of Minnesota and he would take groups of students to Greece in the summer. I went too. I would always complain about not having a cabin up north, like all my friends. They told me that was something I would understand one day, and now I do. So, I suppose I learned that I liked a Mediterranean diet from my time in Greece. I went back last fall for my 50th birthday. It was my gift to myself. I was a travel agent for 20 years prior to getting into the restaurant business, so at one point I was going a few times a year. I don’t go as much now and I miss it. When we were over there I was ordering seafood all the time. Grilled octopus with a little ouzo is an amazing combination. In Greek restaurants, they grill up the whole fish. You put your fish order in by pointing to whatever fish you want. And oh my God, the tomatoes in Greece were so fresh and ripe.
Lately at home I’ve been playing around with making limoncello. I started doing it a few years ago with my friend Michael, one of the chefs at Broders’. I’ve found that organic lemons make a big difference in the flavor – it’s much more lemony. I’ve gone off the charts and started experimenting. We’ve tried it with tangelos. Oh my God, is that ever good. We call it tangelo-cello.
Before I came to Victor’s I was a remodeler for about four years. But with the economy, all of that work came to a standstill. I had restaurant experience too. I used to cook at Nikki’s Cafe. Oddly enough, her name was Nikki. When I came here and met Niki, I thought, “Hey, this might work out.”
I’ve been in the kitchen since I was 16, so I’ve been cooking for about 21 years now. I’ve always been interested in learning new types of cuisine and different styles of cooking. I’ve definitely cooked more at home since meeting my wife. She’s a vegetarian, so I end up cooking two meals every day. I lean towards meat and grains. Quinoa is one of my favorites, the super grain. I eat a lot of spicy food. Really spicy food. My kids will pretty much eat everything, as long as it’s not too spicy. They’ve learned to not eat off my plate.
I’m remodeling my kitchen right now, so we’re not cooking a lot at home since everything is torn up. I’m making a lot of stuff on the toaster. I’m doing it all on my own, and I mean all by myself. It’s kind of a nightmare. In the meantime we’ve been eating out a lot. I’m getting tired of it. The food I’ve been eating isn’t as good as it should be. It’s bland, or raw, or the flavors aren’t there. Eating out also gets really expensive. I eat a lot of soup at Turtle Bread Company because it’s $4. We go to Broders’ Pasta Bar and get a big pizza for $12. Their pepperoni is real pepperoni, not Hormel. I like places that use good ingredients. I also need to look for a vegetarian-friendly menu for my wife. Most places have some vegetarian dishes, but the selection is sometimes small.
I’m happy it’s summer because I love to cook on the grill. I like grilling brisket and pizza. Everything tastes better on the grill. I love to throw on little packets of potatoes with some olive oil. I’ll roast garlic on the grill and then smear it on a baguette. I like easy food, nothing too complicated. I make salads for my wife and will grill more vegetables for her. She does eat seafood sometimes, so when I make it I tend to use local fish, like walleye or trout. There’s too much farm-raised salmon, and the wild salmon is a little too expensive. I like to cook with my hands. I think it gives the food a part of you. Since I started working at Victor’s I’ve been eating more plantains and tostones. I guess I didn’t give fried bananas a chance before I came here. I’ll also make our Cuban Hash at home for the kids. It’s delicious and you can make it on the fly.
Vic (Niki’s stepson)
I grew up interested in eating food before cooking it. I lived in Miami and moved out on my own when I was about 16 years old. Once I left home I started missing the Cuban recipes my mom and grandma used to make, so I tried to delve into Cuban cooking. I spent a lot of time on the phone with the two of them. I also used this old Cocina Criolla cookbook that is kind of banned in this country now. It came out of Cuba in the late 1950s. It was like the Bible. I’d follow those recipes when I didn’t have mom or grandma around. Every year I got better at it.
Victor’s is the only Cuban restaurant I’ve worked at. At home I cook dishes that I’ve learned at all the restaurants I’ve worked at. I make a lot of Italian, pasta dishes. Lately I’ve been cooking breakfast for dinner. Breakfast is one of those meals that you wake up in the morning and throw everything together, half asleep. You don’t really put the care into it that you do into dinner. I’ve been getting cage-free eggs, select meat that I put in a marinade, and different varieties of potatoes to make medleys out of. I just marinated steak tip in a balsamic vinaigrette and did a simple spin on O’Brien potatoes: boiled some baby reds, cubed them up, added peppers, onion, garlic, ginger, spices, and sautéed them up real slowly. We’ve been doing it once a week for dinner. We’ve experimented with some organic sausages. We like trying new breads, and put some local jams [on the bread]. My girlfriend and I have different schedules so it’s hard to sit down for dinner. We’ll brew a pot of coffee and have some orange juice, just like breakfast but at night.
I eat out more than I cook, unfortunately. It isn’t good for a budget. We ate at Los Andes recently and we’re definitely going back. I think we’ve tried every new place in our neighborhood. We try to hit Grand Cafe next door at least once a month. We go to Marla’s once in a while for takeout. Chinese is my favorite food, not to cook, just to eat. I’ve always enjoyed it so much I felt like I was going to ruin it. My favorites in Minneapolis are Village Wok in Dinkytown, a Malaysian restaurant called Peninsula, and Chang’s Garden on Nicollet and Lake.
Victor’s 1959 Cafe
Cuban food in South Minneapolis
3756 Grand Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55409
OWNER: Niki Stavrou
Breakfast daily 8am-2:30pm
Dinner Tue-Sat 4:30-9pm
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes for dinner
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $11-14