Hot Young Chefs
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You’ve heard it said, again and again: chefs are the new rock stars. And they’re rocking it right here. Forget what you’ve read about coastal cuisine. The Twin Cities has one of the country’s most vibrant original restaurant scenes, full of great food, fresh young talent, and a future so bright we ought to wear shades. Who’s in this Generation Next? Keep this issue handy for 20 years, because these are the chefs who will define the next taste of Minnesota.
Jamie Malone, 29
Chef de Cuisine, Sea Change
806 S. Second St., Mpls., 612-225-6499
Born: St. Paul
Raised: North St. Paul
Education: Le Cordon Bleu, Minneapolis–St. Paul
Famous for: Deftly helming one of the country’s premier sustainable seafood restaurants
Surprising restaurant job: Working as a server during the first year of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s former restaurant at the Chambers hotel. “They flew in corporate trainers. We had to know everything about the restaurant; every ingredient in every dish,” Malone says. “I realized how refined you could be without being overbearing. You learn so much at the table. As cooks, we may think something is great, but if it doesn’t translate to the guest, you’ve dropped the ball."
Top non-fish ingredient: “Jidori [chicken] eggs. They’ve got a super-bright-orange yolk, and a rich farmy flavor.”
On being a female chef in a notoriously male profession: “It’s been a non-issue. I grew up in a neighborhood that was all boys, and my first job was in a caddy shack. The one challenge is that it’s easier for people to call me a bitch than if I were a man. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about [New York City restaurant magnate] Danny Meyer’s [dictum of] constant, gentle pressure. It works both ways: it keeps me calm and sends a clear message of expectations.”
Sameh Wadi, 28
Chef and owner, Saffron
123 N. Third St., Mpls., 612-746-5533
Raised: Kingdom of Jordan; Blaine
Education: Art Institutes International Minnesota
Famous for: Being the youngest contestant to compete on Iron Chef at the time (he lost to Morimoto, barely), and for his fresh, innovative approach to Middle Eastern cooking—his lamb-bacon BLT is a must-try.
How it all began: “Right after we fled Kuwait [because of the first Gulf War], we didn’t have much going on, but we still ate,” Wadi says. “Some meals were very traditional, but my mother would also make dishes like steak au poivre. Instead of going and playing soccer with my friends, I would sit and cook with my mom. I loved doing things with my hands, and my family was very supportive.”
Lucky break: “My job at Solera. The menu had flavors I recognized—preserved lemon, pimentón—and I got to work with chef Tim McKee, who’s a rock star and an absolutely down-to-earth guy. That’s when I started to develop as a chef. Jason Ross ran the kitchen, and it was impeccable, the most organized kitchen system I’d ever seen in my life. It changed me.”
Favorite dish on his current menu: “The green beans. That’s a dish I wouldn’t have had the guts to put on my menu five years ago. It’s just green beans, tomatoes, olive oil, and spice, cooked till they’re soft. There are no foams, nothing to hide under, no ridiculous reductions: just the beans and handmade pita bread.”
Mike DeCamp, 33
Chef de Cuisine, La Belle Vie
510 Groveland Ave., Mpls., 612-874-6440
Education: First job was dishwashing at a Medicine Lake pizzeria when he was 13; started working for Tim McKee at D’Amico Cucina when he was 17, and has been cooking professionally ever since.
Famous for: Running the show at La Belle Vie, the region’s top fine-dining restaurant, and for his supremely delicate, routinely flawless cooking.
Where does Tim McKee, La Belle Vie’s chef and owner, end, and where does Mike DeCamp begin? “I’ve done all the menus here for the past few years, but I know what he likes and what he wants,” DeCamp says. “I am a little version of Tim. “Sometimes you want to be the guy, and sometimes you want to be the guy that guy counts on.”
On managing complications: “What’s hard about working here isn’t the ideas, it’s that every single thing you cook has to make someone’s night. That might take five pans, a couple squirt bottles, and more. If you’re organized and good, you’re fine. A lot of people realize they’re over their heads and bow out gracefully. We get almost no intern applications. They’re afraid.”
On VIPs: DeCamp has cooked for the king and queen of Norway, Rod Stewart, Nancy Pelosi, and countless local bigwigs. The most stressful? Vice-President Joe Biden. “We had to have background checks, they made us leave for the bomb-sniffing dogs, and when he came into the kitchen, all the knives had to go into a drawer.”
Mike Brown, 26, James Winberg, 33, & Bob Gerken, 30
Chefs and co-owners, Travail
4154 W. Broadway Ave., Robbinsdale, 763-535-1131
Born: San Diego
Education: Winona State and Le Cordon Bleu, Minneapolis–St. Paul
Career highlight: Travail was named by Bon Appetit magazine as the fourth-best new restaurant in the United States in 2011.
Career lowlight: Working the grill at Stampede Steakhouse in Camp Snoopy at the Mall of America. During one shift, Snoopy led a conga line of children into the kitchen. “Suddenly Snoopy’s giving me a back rub and the whole dining room is watching,” Brown recalls with chagrin. “I’m like, ‘Can I move these steaks, or will that burn all the small children?’”
Born and raised: Grand Rapids
Education: Bellingham Technical College’s Culinary Arts Program
Lucky break: “I was working at this old-school French restaurant in Tahoe, and I wanted out,” Winberg recalls. “I faxed my resumé to Bouchon. Every day. About 10 resumés later, they called me.”
On Bouchon: Working there changed me. It was understood that nothing you did could ever approach being good enough. The standards were past human understanding.”
Born and raised: Springfield, Missouri
Education: Le Cordon Bleu, Scottsdale, Arizona
On working with so many chefs: “The biggest positive is that you have three different opinions,” Gerken says. “If you get stuck on a menu idea, you look over your shoulder and ask, ‘What should I do with this rabbit?’ They shout ideas at you, and you use them or you don’t.”
Day-off fave: The Blue Door Pub “The Frenchy." “It’s so salty, you need two beers to finish it, but it’s so good it’s worth it. I could see myself opening a bar some day with great food. That’s the way I like to eat—I don’t like all the hands-on service of fine-dining. It’s just not me.”