All the News: Don Saunders, Landon Schoenfeld, and the Byzantine Hierarchy of Tim McKee’s Unnamed Sustainable Seafood Place!



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I was too traumatized about Fugaise closing to write about it. The now defunct northeast Minneapolis fine-dining restaurant was one of the Twin Cities’ standard bearers for traditional French technique. I don’t know why it upset me so much. I knew from the second I walked in the door, three and a half years ago, that the place was operating on borrowed time—that’s how catastrophically ugly the dining room was. Still, I thought the chef, Don Saunders, who made his name at St. Paul’s long-gone Au Rebours was a phenomenal talent, and it hurts my heart when talented people doing good work suffer. But Saunders seems to have landed on his feet, so I feel better.

Fugaise, Saunders told me, “was always financially viable, not making a ton of money, but supporting people, paying bills, and it felt justified to at least keep it going and keep building. I’m so sick of everyone talking about the bad economy, but here I go: Last fall was nothing like the first couple years. Things just fell off a cliff. Then when we got into January and February sales were just dismal, and it went from being just all-right to being: Okay, that decision has been made for us; let’s close it. It was really cool though, we announced we were closing and then a lot of regulars started coming in two or three times a week.”

And if they had been doing that all along you wouldn’t have closed? I asked. “No comment,” Saunders said, before telling me about the exciting things coming up for him. Like what? Like the way he has signed up John Rupp, an owner of W.A. Frost and St. Paul’s University Club, to take over the kitchen at Stout’s Island Lodge, in Wisconsin. (The magazine did a story on the place last summer.)

Saunders starts with Rupp next Monday, and the first order of business will be to come up with a new menu for the lodge. I asked Saunders if he was going to tackle wild-rice soup, and he said: Maybe. We talked about the difficulty of getting past the clichéd versions of that north-woods staple, and about the version Porter & Frye opened with, with the pork belly, puffed wild rice, and celery bisque. He said that if anyone on the blog has ideas for new directions for wild rice soup, he’s all ears. So, Anyone?

Also, he told me that he couldn’t fathom a beer cheese soup that he’d want to put his name on. To which I say, Anyone? Why not rescue north-woods cuisine from its laziest clichés? Think of how much “comfort food” has improved in the hands of other chefs.

Interestingly enough, Saunders actually worked in the Stout Island Lodge kitchen once before. He “staged” there—it’s the kitchen equivalent of a short internship—when he was trying to work for Lenny Russo, current chef of Heartland, when Russo was at W. A. Frost. The sad news? Saunders had planned an August wedding that must now be postponed. “I know a lot of people have their weddings up at Stout Lodge,” he said. “I think I’ll be catering some when we were supposed to be getting married. Are you going to print that? Well, I think she’s calmed down a little.”

Once back from setting up Stout’s Lodge, Saunders tells me he’s going to be in charge of opening the Commodore Club, the famed Art Deco bar in St. Paul, as a sit-down restaurant for Rupp. I’m going to file this one in the believe-it-when-I-see-it category. Why? I think I first heard of the Commodore Club being turned into a restaurant in the early 1990s. The place is a gorgeous, mirror and gilt, streamlined wonder that would fit in your vest pocket. It was originally the private bar to an upscale apartment building, and now it’s a 200-square-foot bar smack dab in the center of a vast, innocuous, nursing-home looking restaurant space up near the University Club off Summit Avenue. Getting the nursing-home part to match the gorgeous-part will be no small feat, and no small investment, so: Good luck! I’ll write about you if you pull it off! But till then can’t wait to find out more about Stout’s, and I’m glad Saunders is staying in the region.

Speaking of people staying in the region: When last we left Landon Schoenfeld, the wunderkind who opened the Bulldog Northeast and has subsequently blazed a trail through seemingly half the kitchens in town, he was going to be the chef at Tosca, the decade-in-the-making restaurant in the eastern half of the original Turtle Bread space in Linden Hills. Well, that cookie crumbled. Adam Vickerman, chef at Café Levain and the Chicago Avenue Turtle Bread, will now be chef at Tosca. Landon is… wait for it … Starting at Nick and Eddie! Oh, Landon.

So, as of next week, Nick and Eddie will have the cooking team of Steven Brown, Christian Aldrich, and Landon Schoenfeld, which may be meaningless to many of you but is very meaningful to me, because that was the all-star lineup that saw Levain through one of its most auspicious periods.

Meanwhile, Tosca is set to open, with the wine and beer license, a full staff, and everything, says owner Harvey McLain.

Why did McLain and Schoenfeld part ways? I think the old line about creative differences is actually pretty apropos here. When I talked to Schoenfeld, he told me he felt he was being set up for failure by a restaurant owner who wanted everything and nothing. When I talked to McLain, he told me that Schoenfeld is young, and doesn’t respond well to criticism. Sounds about right on all counts to me. Meanwhile, Landon searches for a restaurant space of his own.

And before the comment-space fills up with armchair career counselors, let me ask you this: Do you know how much restaurant cooks in Minneapolis earn? Between $8 and $15, with most fine-dining cooks earning a mere $10 or $12 an hour. Do you know how much itinerant grape-pickers in California, those symbols of contemporary repression, earn? I read an article last week that jogged my memory: Grape-pickers in Napa Valley earn $11–$13 an hour for the lowest status positions, and in the $20 an hour range for supervisors.

I told this to Schoenfeld, and he told me: “Really? I’m moving. There are all these people out there watching what I do, all these middle-aged Yuppie people, and I’m like: ‘Look, I make under $12 an hour. I don’t have benefits. I have two jobs—so take that, Recession!’” Those two jobs being: One at Nick and Eddie, and another helping out at the Wienery, the West Bank hot dog place that was recently featured on the television show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. “It’s all people from Eden Prairie in fanny packs now, just jammed in there,” Schoenfeld tells me. “And cooking that menu is hard: 200 items, and nothing is prepped.” So, Schoenfeld fans: To Nick and Eddie!

McLain, Vickerman, and Turtle Bread fans: Start your countdown clock for Tosca! I’ll be there; look for a real review once they’ve had time to get on their feet, probably in June or July.

Kind of a correction. But a grudging one:
Readers of the comments section from the last blog will notice that someone got all in a huff and accused me of inaccuracy when I wrote that Matt Holmes and Erik Andersen will both report to Tim McKee at the new, still-nameless sustainable seafood restaurant going into the soon-to-be-former Cue space. (Yes, Cue is still open, but in June it will be something else. I think referring to it requires a tense that English doesn’t have. I’m sticking with soon-to-be-former unless someone has a better idea.) So, someone huffily wrote that I was wrong, that Andersen would report to Holmes, who would report to McKee, thus making Holmes more important than Andersen. I wrote back that I specifically asked McKee about that, and he said otherwise.

Well, eventually I spoke to McKee seeking further clarification, and he told me: “Technically, we all report to Culinaire, but as far as Matt’s position, he is the executive chef of the whole operation, so technically Erik would answer to him, and everybody’s answerable to me, but Erik’s main area will be the restaurant, and Matt’s main area will be outside the restaurant, and I anticipate there will be very little, or no, overlap,” McKee said. “It’s a little difficult for me to be perfectly clear about [the heirarchy] because more than anything, the restaurant will be a collaboration with all of us. Matt will definitely be involved with putting together the restaurant, and everyone will answer to me. But I want to make sure that Matt wasn’t upset by what I said last time, or Matt’s girlfriend, or mother, or whoever wrote that.”

Also, McKee’s favorite restaurant names from the suggestions in the last blog post: Tim McKee’s Life Aquatic, and Big Fish, Small Pond. Keep them coming!

Start an affair:
Finally, I was helping a friend book tickets to New York for a weekend and showing him my favorite little insider secret, a hotel reservation site called quikbook.com. (They took off the logical inner ‘c’, for cavings! I mean savings!) Anyhoo, Quikbook now has hotel listings for Minneapolis and St. Paul, and a quick search for next Saturday night turned up rooms in the W Foshay for $149, and in the Millenium (on the South end of Nicollet Mall, near Ichiban) for $84. So, there’s your ready-made staycation: Book a table at Vincent or the Oceanaire—or if you’re just having the best indulgent night ever—start at Oceanaire for oysters and then toddle down to Vincent for your meal. Or go to Manny’s and add a room for the night. So start an affair, with Quikbook! Not the other kind. This is a family blog.

One last thought: If staying in Minneapolis is not appealing, you could always use Quikbook to find a room in New York, and if you go be sure to stop in Times Square and try a brand new barbecue restaurant they’ve got: Famous Dave’s. Who says Minnesota can’t do barbecue? Not people in New York City’s theater district. What next? Let’s start a betting pool on when Salut opens a branch at the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute. I don’t see how that’s any less random.

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