An Interview with Restaurateur Brenda Langton
With restaurants on both sides of downtown Minneapolis, Twin Cities native Brenda Langton is making her mark on the local restaurant scene. Langton got her start at age 15 at Commonplace, a cooperative vegetarian restaurant in St. Paul. Since then she has grown into a chef devoted to organic foods and loyal to local farmers. After 20 years working on Café Brenda, her Warehouse District restaurant with a reputation for gourmet vegetarian cooking, Langton opened a new restaurant in the summer of 2006. Her new “baby” is Spoonriver, a stylish and modern gourmet eatery that fits in well between its neighbors along the Mississippi, the Mill City Museum and the Guthrie Theater. Langton, author of Cafe Brenda Cookbook: Seafood and Vegetarian Cuisine, recently spoke with Where about her experience as a restaurant owner and natural foods lover in Minnesota.
Where do you get your inspiration for your restaurants and for your menus?
I like to travel and my cooking is very worldly. I do a lot of ethnic cooking. We sometimes interpret classic ethnic recipes and substitute beef or pork with either mock duck or lentils or some sort of bean or nut or eggplant. My lifestyle and my philosophy of cooking embrace healthy cuisine, so I do a lot of seafood, a lot of fresh fish.
What made you decide to open Spoonriver?
I was very drawn to the location because it is so beautiful on the plaza with Jean Nouvel’s new Guthrie Theater. I adore the Stone Arch Bridge and the whole history of the grain mills here and the beauty of it. From a business standpoint I felt like it was a win-win situation for the location.
What makes Spoonriver different from Café Brenda?
I wanted to broaden it a bit, because a lot of critics have pegged us as just vegetarian and we are not. We sell more fresh fish and chicken and win awards for our seafood, but we are very, very good with our vegetarian cuisine. So at Spoonriver I introduced the locally grown lamb and duck. We sort of wanted to branch out and have a little bit more to offer customers. We really just want to teach people about what we do and have fun with farm fresh ingredients.
Where do you spend most of your time?
The first four-and-a-half months were just extremely intense in starting up a new business and I was really at Spoonriver almost all the time, day and night. I have my staff in place at Café Brenda; they knew this was coming and they were prepared to take on my duties. They have been just remarkably wonderful. It was a lot to learn. I didn’t remember how to open a restaurant because 21 years was so long ago. It’s just been fun and exciting to be in a new space. I am not in the kitchen much in terms of on a daily basis. I mean, I consult with my chefs daily and we talk about what they are going to make, but I have such a wonderful staff that they understand what I am looking for, so they are able to manage the kitchen. I am in the front of the house pretty much and working with everybody. I’ve always relied heavily on a wonderful, trusting staff.
Is there a distinct “Minnesota palate”? Are we as picky and bland in our taste as some people say?
That’s not a totally misconceived idea, no. There’s some truth to that. I feel as though my clientele is looking for new flavors, new tastes and new experiences, and they know that I am doing something different so they are a little more open to it. Spicy is not real big, though. I can’t do spicy dishes, and that’s OK. I’m not a huge spicy fan myself, but I like to think about all the great new flavors that we have available to cook with.
Where do you get your ingredients?
For years we have had connections with farmers that grow for us. Sandra Jean has grown for me for 15 years. Before that I would always go to the farmers’ market, and I always had other farmers. Since we’ve opened the farmers’ market here on the plaza, we have even more farmers to work with. [The Mill City Farmers’ Market, located between the Guthrie Theater and the Mill City Museum, opened for the first time last summer.] It’s just that we thoroughly embrace organic and sustainable agriculture. We feel that it’s a must for the best of our world. The environment needs this and we are committed wholly to it.
Why do you focus on organic and vegetarian selections?
I have been in the business since I was 15. At my first restaurant, Café Kardamena, which goes back 29 years ago (that was eight years prior to Café Brenda), we always were involved with the co-ops and buying all organic rices and beans as much as we could. It’s always been a commitment of ours. That was the way I learned.
What drove you to help create the Mill City Farmers’ Market?
I thought that the plaza would be a lovely place for the market and was just envisioning a small farmers’ market, maybe like 20 farmers. Then we were at a meeting with the Mill City Museum and the director, John Crippen, says, “Well Brenda, what about the train shed?” I didn’t really know what he meant, and it took me a week to get back there and look at the train station. When I did I was blown away, because most people don’t even know it exists. It’s part of the Mill City Museum and it’s just a beautiful train shed. And so I saw this, and I just cried. I just thought, “Oh my God, this is it.” So they are a founder as well. It’s really so sweet and the vibe is great and I love being, once again, a part of the community in this wonderful venue.
What are your favorite dishes at Spoonriver and Café Brenda?
I would have to say the Duck Confit is one of my favorites here at Spoonriver now and the sautéed sole with roasted grapes and stuffed turnip. And then at Café Brenda, probably our sesame walleye with a homemade blackberry ginger teriyaki and our vegetarian specials.
With its place between the Guthrie Theater and the Mill City Museum Spoonriver must get a lot of hungry guests who are also visitors to those attractions. What specials or recommendations do you have for those visitors?
We actually offer discounts when they come in for dinner to come back after a show and have dessert or drinks or a late-night snack. Otherwise, if we are full at Spoonriver, we offer 10 percent off at Café Brenda. I’d recommend maybe the red curry raviolis. We have homemade potato, East Indian potato stuffed raviolis with a red curry sauce and vegetables or the lamb ragout. The lamb ragout is just amazing. It’s grass-fed lamb and it’s so delicious. It’s from Hutchinson, Minn.
What do you like about the Twin Cities?
I think that the Twin Cities really offer a wide selection of great music. We have some wonderful venues for music. We have the Dakota Jazz Club, we have the Varsity Theater, the Minnesota Zoo, and many more great venues for music. Of course the Guthrie is wonderful, a total destination for sure if you are visiting. I find the art museums to be tremendous and the local movie houses are great. We now have quite a good number of wonderful, little, independently owned restaurants that are unique to our city. Because when people travel, they don’t want to go to the same chain restaurant they have in their own town. They want individual, unique independent restaurants that really offer the local fare. The people in the Twin Cities, Twin Citians, are generally really wonderful people.