Interview: Hyacinth Chef Rikki Giambruno
The St. Paul chef is nominated for Rising Star at the 2019 Charlie Awards
photos: courtesy of charlie awards and hyacinthstpaul.com
The return of Rikki Giambruno (above) to Minnesota has so far been a delicious homecoming. After spending most of his 20s building a culinary career in Brooklyn, he’s back in his home state with Hyacinth, a forward-thinking Italian restaurant in St. Paul’s Summit Hill neighborhood. And he integrated his family and friends—old New York coworker Paul Baker is the chef de cuisine, you can drink beer from Giambruno’s brother Joe’s Bad Weather Brewing, and sister Gina helped develop the visual aesthetic. Along with the Bird's Shannel Winkel (interview here) and Lat14's Joshua Walbolt (interview here), Giambruno’s creativity and drive have landed him a Rising Star award nomination (chefs must be under 30 to be eligible) at this year’s Twin Cities Charlie Awards, coming up January 27. (See all nominees here.)
Minnesota Monthly caught up with the chef and talked about eating at his place of business for the first time. (Spoiler: It went well.) Also, the Victoria native was super eager to talk about celery.
How old are you, and how many restaurants have you worked in?
I’m 29. I will turn 30 in June. I’ve worked at seven or eight or nine. Enough that I don’t have the number at the top of my head. I’ve been doing this for my whole adult life at this point.
How did working in Brooklyn and then coming back to Minnesota impact your career?
It’s worth a lot. I didn’t necessarily do it with the decision of coming back here. I wish I could say there was more foresight about it. I was 20 years old and it seemed like a really great first step. As I’ve gotten older I’ve been able to see the value of working in New York. It probably always will be the premier dining city in our country. I have the chops, skill, rigor, and the work ethic of a New York chef, and still have the sensibility of someone who grew up in a small town in Minnesota. This is my first exposure to the Twin Cities restaurant scene, and it’s exciting how many opportunities there are here.
More 2018 from Paul and me 1. Salt fish and potato croquettes with mayo and a bunch of pickles 2. Roasted steelhead trout with a potato terrine, celery root, dill and mustard greens 3. Maccheroni with beef shank ragu 4. Risotto al salto with a bunch of squash preparations and sage 5. Venison carpaccio with tonnato, celery, shallot and Parmesan reggiano 6. Raw celery salad with roasted celeriac, spiced pecans, pears and goat/cow blue cheese 7. Chicory salad with anchovy dressing, Parmesan reggiano and breadcrumbs 8. Pole beans, boiled and grilled, with white fish tonnato, sunflower seeds and summer herbs 9. Tomato salad with anchovy, basil and Parmesan reggiano 10. Fried romanesco zucchini with Thai basil and chili mayonnaise
A dish we’ve been doing for a while that I’m really proud of and is indicative of my style is a celery salad that we’ve had on the menu for a few months now. I like working with really modest ingredients. I grew up in a rural town and was not introduced to luxury ingredients until I was an adult working in a restaurant. The things that are true to me are the things we could grow in our yard, or things my mom would cook for dinner. The celery salad is a great example of making a really dynamic dish out of really ordinary ingredients. What we try to do with everything is identify a focal ingredient, think of the characteristics that we really like, and make a decision, “Are we going to accent this focal ingredient or add stuff to it that exaggerates its existing qualities?” We decided to go the route of accenting it. What do we really like about celery? We really like that it’s crunchy, it’s watery, it’s fresh, and people eat it year-round. Can we treat celery in a way like we would treat a spring vegetable? Can we give someone a bright, fresh salad on a 10-degree day in Minnesota and have it feel new and exciting—and it’s just a bowl of celery? You just come up with contrasting textures and flavors and play with the balance of acid and bite, things of that nature. People have really loved it. It’s the dish we’ve had longest on the menu.
How have your travels inspired your work?
I went to Italy with my family when I was 17. It was the first time I had cacio e pepe. It was the first time I had seen a culture where food was just as important to the public as it was in my household. Also, not really eating a ton of authentic Italian food growing up in rural Minnesota, getting to try these flavors was unbelievable. I was also able to go to Paris for the first time a few years ago with my siblings. It really informed what I wanted to do in our little restaurant. Going to these pretty incredible, but casual, low-key restaurants. When we were there, we were like “This is what we’re trying to do.”
Since this Rising Star nomination speaks to a bright future in the Twin Cities restaurant scene, what do you have in store?
Whatever other peripheral goals I have will branch off of the success of the restaurant—and we’ve been open five months. Within that, creating a culture where we have long-term employees. I’m really fortunate to get to work with one of my best friends from New York [chef de cuisine Paul Baker]. Watching him grow, and give him the opportunity for his first chef job, that’s really gratifying for me. We also have a really young management team at the restaurant. I don’t think anyone at the restaurant is over 34. My dream has been to be a one-restaurant chef and constantly reinvent the place and make it better and better. We’re just scratching the surface as to what our potential could be. I want to cook better, learn better techniques, learn how to use product in different ways, I want to learn how to waste less, and I want to keep cracking the shell on new ways to motivate a diverse and different group of individuals. Hopefully pass on the love and excitement that I have and was given for the restaurant biz to my staff. So they can go on and do that for more people. I just got to eat at Hyacinth just a couple days ago, which was great.
Did you order the celery salad?
I got a citrus salad, which is something that I love that we get to serve here. It’s a variation of a dish that we served at Franny’s [in Brooklyn]. It is not my creation at all. Something I ate there as a patron before I worked there. I love any time we can serve a direct or derivative dish from the menu at Franny’s. That restaurant doesn’t exist anymore. I had some salumi, a couple bowls of pasta, a really nice piece of roasted fish, and some mussels. And I had a panna cotta. It was a great meal. It would’ve been a real drag if I had gone in and been like, “Aw man, not right.” Maybe it would’ve felt that way after we had been open just a few weeks. But it felt so amazing to eat there and be like, “Wow, these guys are really executing what I want to do, but at the same time putting their own spin on it.” I really trust the people that I work with, and the best thing you can do is get out of the way and let them do it.
What’s it like to get this recognition right away?
It means a lot to our restaurant. It’s such a morale boost. It feels like the Twin Cities have welcomed me with open arms. People are just getting to know me and my style and what I like. My goal is to take the little bit of good will that I’ve build up and just keep expanding on that
The 2019 Charlie Awards are Sunday, January 27, at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis. Tickets and more info here.