Big Changes at Victory 44: No Servers! New Chef! Home-Made Tofu! Wait, No Servers?

I got a reader tip that there were big changes afoot at the best restaurant in North Minneapolis, Victory 44. I finally put my big Cheap Eats package to bed this afternoon and was able to follow up the tip, and there’s so much news I barely know where to begin.

Well, first things first: There’s a whole new crew of chefs running this little gastro-pub now. Their leader is James Winberg, a 32-year-old Grand Rapids, Minnesota native who recently was cooking at a Washington-state restaurant named Nimbus. Second in command is Mike Brown, both assisted by Jeff Houseman and, on weekends, owner Erick Harcey (who also owns The Kitchen in Stillwater). They’ve redone the menu to be all—as Winberg tells me—“Farm-to-table local, a mix of old-world and progressive cuisine,” mostly presented by chalk-board, and comprised of such ambitious dishes as a sous-vide cooked tri-tip steak with homemade pappardelle noodles with an herb crème fraiche sauce, homemade mortadella, homemade cured lardo, and homemade tofu. Did I mention homemade? The homemade tofu is made from fresh soybeans, by the way, so it’s totally different from the shelf-stable varieties and a legendarily tricky pain-in-the-neck version to make. One of the dishes currently on the menu, with homemade tofu, Winberg tells me, is essentially tofu two ways; first the tofu is pressed into a torchon (that is, compressed and poached so that it becomes a long cylinder, which allows it to be cut into slices). The torchon slice is then seared and served beside fresh tofu curds, pickled butternut squash, and tempura-fried slices of avocado. So that’s kind of mind-blowing and news-worthy in and of itself. New chef makes fresh tofu at Victory 44!

But that’s not even the most shocking news. The most shocking news is that the restaurant has done away with all servers and all managers! The chefs come in in the morning, prep the food, cook, do all the things chefs do, and then when the customers come, they leave their stoves to seat them! They pull beers for them! Then they go back behind the stoves, fire the apps—and run back to the tables with the apps! Sorry for all the exclamation points, but this is making my mind teeter inside my fragile skull. Then when the customers leave, the chefs bus the tables, refill the sugar bowls, sweep the floors—you get the idea.

On top of that—as if fulfilling some crazy cliché of what servers think chefs would do with tips—they’re not even keeping them! They’re putting all the tips into a pool to buy kitchen equipment. They want a Paco-Jet (a super-blender), an ice-cream maker, a curing box for salami, and a lot more. Like stainless steel tables. Chefs. Winberg tells me that his whole little crew has been putting in 13-hour days since they started, arriving at ten o’clock in the morning, and leaving at eleven or midnight. Is this sustainable? I asked him. “It’s a lot of work,” he told me, “But it’s a lot of fun. It’s always fun when you’re cooking good food. It’s been a great opportunity to cut out the middleman, and we have been getting really interesting questions from the customers, and getting immediate feedback. I don’t know if this would work in many restaurants, but this is an appropriate setting to be able to do this, because it’s such a small place.”

All right! Victory 44 has now moved to the top of my list of places I must re-visit soon. Anyone who has been in the last six weeks, please post in the comments and let me know how this grand experiment is going. And trend-watchers, yes, I am aware that Piccolo, the new Doug Flicker restaurant that just opened, announced a very similar experiment. Which leads me to ask: Will 2010 be the year chefs dump all the servers? Will the very fabric of the universe rupture if servers can no longer complain that chefs don’t know what it’s like to deal with customers? Can a restaurant function if servers can’t blame delays on a mysterious, unseen, invisible “kitchen”? What happens when a kitchen of chefs gets all the toys they want? How many chefs does it take to roll up a silverware bundle? Watch this space for the answer to these questions and many, many more.

Victory 44
2203 44th Ave. N., Minneapolis