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Fire and Nice

Tim McKee is the state’s most accomplished chef. So why isn’t he more of a jerk?

Fire and Nice
Photo by Thomas Strand

(page 1 of 2)

Great chefs, almost invariably, are a piece of work. For instance, I’ve had the privilege of talking to Thomas Keller a few times, but I can’t say I’m any good at it. You see, Thomas Keller is generally thought to be the best American chef in the history of time—the impresario behind French Laundry and Per Se—and he has a grave, stately, and rather irritated Zen-master air about him, and he doesn’t talk much. So I find myself fluttering and flabbering and nervously filling up all the empty space. Imagine Lucille Ball chasing a flock of chickens around an angry Mount Rushmore head.

I’ve also been lucky enough to interview Jean-Georges Vongerichten, one of the world’s greatest French chefs, the force behind New York City’s Jean-Georges and Minneapolis’s Chambers Kitchen (among others). He is a man of such dark-star, superhuman intensity that you get the sense that he could just press his arms to his sides and rocket off to another city.

And I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to Eric Ripert a few times. He’s the French chef behind the Western world’s greatest seafood restaurant, Le Bernardin.

Yet, I’ve always gotten the sense that while he’s talking to me, he’s also reading e-mails, signing checks, and being photographed by Annie Leibovitz while sitting on a chestnut mare.

But then there’s Tim McKee, the chef behind most of the Twin Cities most-acclaimed, mind-blowing haute cuisine of the past decade. If you know anything about dining, you know McKee as the chef and originator of the state’s finest white-tablecloth restaurant, La Belle Vie. But he’s also the force behind Solera, one of the country’s finest tapas bars; Smalley’s, the first Jamaican barbecue restaurant in America to use real pimento wood; and Barrio, the new downtown Minneapolis tequila bar that’s hotter than a sun flare. Yup, that’s all McKee and his business partner Josh Thoma.

So you’d think he’d have earned the right to be as peculiar. And yet, I’ve talked to him dozens of times, and while I’d argue that his cooking is in a league with any of those great chefs—it’s delicate, thoughtful, bold and nuanced, surprising and satisfying all at once—Tim McKee isn’t a piece of work. He’s not brooding. He’s not fierce. He’s not tormented. He doesn’t shriek, scream, or terrorize. He’s just a nice guy. He really is. He’s just good old Tim! Our own Tim!

It’s not that he didn’t know screaming was an option. “I remember one place we worked where, when something went wrong, we could count on a pan of mashed potatoes flying across the room and exploding on the wall,” says Thoma. “But Tim’s never been like that. It’s hard for someone to understand who hasn’t been in his kitchen, but the cooks who work for him, they truly work for him. The work they are doing is to please him, and because they want to please him, he doesn’t need to get excited for someone to get the message. Just him getting very quiet says, This isn’t right, or he isn’t happy.”

This may be good for those who work for him, but it makes my life difficult. Initially, writing a story on McKee seemed like a no-brainer. After all, he’s the most accomplished chef in the history of Minneapolis. In 1997, while helming D’Amico Cucina, he was named one of America’s best new chefs by Food & Wine magazine. When La Belle Vie opened in Stillwater in 1998, it was one of the best restaurants in Minnesota, and it got even better when it moved to Minneapolis in 2005, eventually earning a place on Gourmet magazine’s list of the best 50 restaurants in the country, a James Beard–award nomination, and general recognition as the best restaurant between Chicago and the Rockies. And that’s to say nothing of Solera, or Smalley’s, or this year’s sensation, Barrio.

So why, why, why hadn’t anyone written much about McKee?

Now I know. What would you call it? “Nice Guy Works Hard, Does Well”? “Talented Man Esteemed in His Community”? In journalism, we talk about a “man-bites-dog” story—a story that shocks or upends conventional wisdom, and is, therefore, news. Tim McKee’s isn’t even a dog-bites-man story—he’s a man-walks-dog story. Or worse: man walks dog, checks e-mail, sets alarm, checks on kids, turns in.

But this is a Minnesota magazine, and sometimes the most Minnesotan of stories don’t involve men biting dogs, pans of mashed potatoes flying across a room, or irritated Zen masters. In fact, if you can find a great-chef story that’s more Minnesotan than this, I’ll eat my hat—earflaps first.

So how Minnesotan of a story is it? Get ready. McKee was the oldest of eight children born to an Irish-Catholic family in St. Paul, and grew up in the leafy, bungalow-lined streets between William Mitchell College of Law and Interstate 94. His father owns a neon-sign company. “You know that Pillsbury’s Best Flour sign,” across the Mississippi from the Guthrie, McKee asks? “I spent summers painting that damn thing.”

When young Tim wasn’t pressed into service painting signs, he was sitting down with his family, all eight kids and both parents, at the dinner table, every night. “My mom was a big cook, but not in the way that most people mean it,” notes McKee. “Feeding 10 people a few times a day is a big endeavor. Now it seems people tend to eat when they eat, but we all sat down at the same table, at the same time, everyday.”

McKee worked at a Domino’s in high school, but food was far from the focus of his life. He went off to college, at the University of Minnesota (of course), and got an apartment in Uptown. “I knew the basics from my mom, but I didn’t start cooking until I moved out of the house,” says McKee. “I had to make the decision: I could either eat all right, or eat crappily. One of my friends bought me my first cookbook, James Beard’s American Cookery. I worked my way through quite a bit of that, and then I got 365 Ways to Make Pasta. I would recommend that book to anyone who doesn’t have much money and wants to eat well.”

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