Q&A With Tullibee Executive Chef Grae Nonas
Executive chef Grae Nonas. Photos by Tj Turner.
Chef Grae Nonas, of the new restaurant Tullibee inside the North Loop’s hot new Hewing Hotel, recently traded in Austin, Texas’ milder climate for freezing Minnesota winters. Nonas and his staff are constantly working to evolve the menu at Tullibee, with a few guiding techniques, to reflect the flavors and ingredients native to Minnesota, in combination with Nonas’s international influences.
MNMO: You’ve had the opportunity to cook on both of the coasts, how would you say Midwestern cooking compares?
NONAS: I think that Midwestern cooking compares relatively well to New England cooking, being more of your good, wholesome, rich, heavy-handed food, probably to soak up the night before, as well as to endure the cold weather. Midwestern food is the kind of food I like to eat on a regular basis.
MNMO: You have a bit of Norwegian heritage, so did you grow up with any Norwegian recipes?
NONAS: I did, more so around the holidays. I saw more Norwegian touches from my great grandmother and my grandfather. My great grandmother being from Bergen, Norway, so we had a lot of traditional, Norwegian-style dinners mostly on holidays or on Sundays. We had a prayer every time we ate dinner growing up that was actually in Norwegian.
MNMO: Do you incorporate any of those touches into your cooking at Tullibee?
NONAS: I do, and I feel like it’s paved the way and created the food that I cook today. I’m a big fish guy in general and have been, so between that climate of cooking and the very thoughtful, more minimalistic ways, I think it's really great. And there’s also a lot in common with Scandinavian and Japanese cooking, and I take a little bit of both from that. As far as ancestral cooking, it’s definitely shaped my palate—it’s helped create a foundation of what tastes good to me.
MNMO: You have a background in Tuscan and Italian cooking as well. Are you able to incorporate those techniques and flavors into Midwestern cooking?
NONAS: Everything I’ve ever done or cooked with has somehow touched the way that I perceive food. I think there are always Mediterranean touches in my food just because that’s where I learned a lot about cooking. There’s definitely that minimalistic and thoughtfulness of not overdoing a dish that comes from that as well.
MNMO: Does the weather in Minnesota help shape your cooking as well?
NONAS: Yes definitely, the menu is reflective of the outdoors as far as what we have available, what we can procure, as well as our general mood and general feeling; on a colder day I want heavier items. I have the ability every day to change the menu around as much as I want. I just finished up a menu meeting with my chef about what we are serving tonight, so every day is constantly evolving.
MNMO: Would you say you’re more excited for Tullibee’s winter menu or are you more so looking forward to spring ingredients and dishes?
NONAS: We have a lot of stuff now, meat-wise, that we are aging for the dead of winter to reflect a different time. Overall, I love cooking in every season because by the end of the season, I’m ready for something new. That’s the fun of cooking. I’ve also never been in a place that had celery root for a while—in Texas we never consistently had celery root because it wasn’t cold enough, so there’s a lot of things like that we are incorporating. (And I’ve missed the cold and snow. It got cold in Texas but we still never had snow.)
MNMO: Tullibee’s menu really focuses on techniques such as foraging, fermentation, and butchering. Have you worked with these techniques before, or is this your first foray into some of those?
NONAS: I have in the past, and it’s winter so we’re not really foraging right now, but we’re currently doing a lot of butchering. We just got a whole calf, we’re serving whole mutton; and we had lambs in the week before. We’re trying to use every part of the animal. That’s something I’m used to doing—butchery and fermentation is a way to give us a different taste and experience. It’s not necessarily something I want to flaunt or showcase much more than we’re already doing because it doesn’t necessarily depict who we are, it just adds another level to the food that we’re creating.
MNMO: As a new Twin Cities resident, have you been able to do some sightseeing yet?
NONAS: I’ve been to a Twins game, and have been to the Como Zoo, but not much else. I’ve just been working since I got here, so I haven’t had much time to step away and explore. I’m going to try to do some ice fishing and snowmobiling, because I did that as a kid in New Hampshire, but I would like to try those as an adult.
This new year is really about exploring where I am. We’ve just barely hit the surface with our menu of what we could be doing with local products. Building ourselves into the community and the ability to be in Minnesota longer will give us a better approach and a better cuisine.
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