Chef Secrets of the Twin Cities

Local pros share their best kitchen tips, tricks, and tools

chef jamie malone, scena tavern & brut; (far right) dan oskey, tattersall distillery. Photos by TJ Turner. Illustrations by James Kloiber.

Brian Crouch & Andrew Ernst

Red Stag Supper Club
What’s nice for making a lot of soups is a Vita-Prep, high-powered food blender. No one else makes anything like it. Instead of relying on a sharp blade, you rely on an extremely powerful motor to get the job done quickly. A juicer is also an interesting tool. We juice beets and use it to turn pasta a deep red. It’s our take on a beef stroganoff, a play on borscht. 

When it comes to sausage in the Cities, Kramarczuk’s is the place to go. You’ve got to go with quality and great customer service, and they’ve been grinding out those delicious sausages since the late ’40s, so they’re doing something right!


Ann Kim

Pizzeria Lola, Hello Pizza
My favorite is cooking with fire: in a hearth, on the grill, or in the coals. 

I go to Patisserie 46 for their amazing miche and Trung Nam French Bakery in St. Paul for authentic banh mi rolls and the best croissant in town.

Landon Schoenefeld 

Nighthawks, Birdie, Haute Dish
You’d be surprised how many unconventional uses there are for plastic wrap. Besides obviously keeping the air off of prepared foods, we use plastic wrap for molding terrines, shaping cuts of meat, and balling anything from meat to vegetables.

I love shopping at United Noodles, an expansive Asian market—and the ramen at Unideli is top notch, so I can get lunch while I shop. 

Cornstarch can be a good substitute for Gold Bond Medicated Powder if you’re chafing and in a pinch.

Johnny Michaels

The Alchemist 
To balance out your cocktails, and enhance them with bubbly, try adding a Spanish cava to the mix. 

When saving an open bottle of champagne or sparkling wine, you don’t need expensive equipment to keep the bubbles in the bottle. Just get those $2.99 plastic stoppers with the little handle on the top. They’ll keep the bubbles in the bottle for several days in
the refrigerator.


Arwyn Birch

Glam Doll Donuts
Drumsticks are the only tool to flip a donut in the fryer with. If we can deep fry it we’ll try making it into a donut.

Diane Yang of Spoon and Stable is a genius. She blows our minds on a weekly basis. Sometimes we’ll just skip dinner and order the entire dessert menu.

Susan Dunlop 

Joan’s in the Park
We use our rolling pin for our biscuits, steam buns, and other pastry. It is honed from a single piece of maple and is over 150 years old. It has been passed down in my family for generations. I think about all the hands that have touched it, all great recipes it has had a hand in creating, and can’t help to think that it brings with it a special gift, almost like a magic wand. It’s a symbol in our kitchen that great food comes from many hands and is built from the hard work of generations before us.

I admire chefs that cook at home on their days off. Not that I don’t love what I do, but on my days off, I’d rather have someone cook for me! However, every summer we roast a whole pig and invite 100 of our closest friends and family. It’s a lot of fun and I have to say, it is my favorite meal at home.

Alicia HinzAlicia Hinze

The Buttered Tin
As a baker, you have to sift everything, but instead of using a sifter, I use a whisk. I’ll put all my dry ingredients in a bowl, and then just whisk it all together. This brings air in, takes lumps out, and gives the same effects as sifting, but it saves 20 minutes of sifting each individual ingredient.

When baking dough, all recipes ask you to “cut in” the butter, or cut it in really small chunks. And then you grind it in the flour with your hands, or use a food processor, until it’s a cornmeal consistency. Instead of taking the time to cut up butter, I use a cheese grater and grate the butter. Make sure the butter is really cold before grating.

Purées are quite expensive, especially exotic ones, so I buy them at a Mexican market, like El Burrito Mercado. They have everything all natural in the freezer section. Asian markets also carry fruit purées, but the Mexican markets have more exotic flavors like mango, passion fruit, and soursop.

Jorge GuzmanJorge Guzman

Surly Brewer’s Table
We use sharkskin to grate ginger, wasabi, and garlic. It has a porous skin, almost like a pumice stone, but it’s on a wooden board. You rub the ingredients on it back and forth, turning the ingredients into a fine purée. 

I use cilantro like it’s going out of style. It’s my go-to. I also like dill. Those two ingredients can brighten up a dish with a vinegary punch. In the summertime, we have farmers where we get our herbs from, such as Eduardo at Sin Fronteras Farm & Food.

Sharkskin Graters. Photo courtesy Korin Japanese Trading.

Christina NguyenChristina Nguyen

Hola Arepa
I love our tilt skillet [a large, grill-like cooking machine] at Hola that allows us to braise 100 pounds of meat at once. I want to write a love song for it.

Something I learned from our Mexican cooks was to create a makeshift steamer with six inches of stacked stripped corncobs and cornhusks lining the bottom on a stockpot, if you don’t have a steamer insert. It is so resourceful and it makes whatever you’re cooking smell fragrant.

From traveling to Asia and Latin America, I learned to (and love to) wrap things in banana/plantain leaves before grilling, steaming, or roasting them. It imparts a beautiful aroma and tropical flavor on dishes like tamales, cochinita pibil (a roasted pork dish), and steamed fish or rice preparations.

My favorite knife is my Kikuichi Gyuto with dimples.

Kikuichi Gyuto Knife. Photo courtesy Kikuichi New York Inc.

Diane Yang

Spoon and Stable
We use a blowtorch for quite a lot of things—for browning the top of meringues, getting desserts out of ring molds, and using it to start our stove and grill. Ace Hardware carries it. I like the industrial one because it’s bigger, faster, and lasts longer. 

Of course everything in the winter is imported from California, but I can go buy fruit and vegetables in bulk at Hmong Village in St. Paul: Mustard greens, bitter melons, persimmons when in season, passion fruit when in season, bok choy, and Chinese cabbage.

Kat Melgaard 

The Rabbit Hole
Doenjang is a fermented soybean paste made in a similar method as Japanese miso, but Koreans sun-dry and ferment soybeans to produce a more robust paste that is stronger in flavor and smell. Gochujang is a fermented paste similar to doenjang made with the addition of sun dried chili peppers. You can purchase gochujang and doenjang from most well stocked Asian markets—I go to Kim’s Market in St. Paul or United Noodles in Minneapolis.

Mixing gochujang with sesame oil, sugar, vinegar, and soy sauce creates a mildly spicy sauce that goes well with practically anything. It is an alternative to sriracha that Koreans use in everything from dipping vegetables to topping rice bowls. Doenjang is a wonderful base to create soups and stews.

I use wine corks to protect the tips of sharp utensils such as my Japanese Moribashi or oyster knife.

Patti Soskin

Yum! Kitchen and Bakery
I guess ski goggles would work, but if you’re sensitive to onions, get onion goggles—specifically made for the job. I happen to have pink onion goggles, but they come in different colors. I’ve given them to many of my girlfriends as a fun gift.

Doug FlickerDoug Flicker

Hop bags are used to steep hops when making beer, but we use them to strain stocks, soups, purées, etc. Another tool we use is a microplane. It’s originally used for woodworking, but we use it for cheese, freeze bacon, or bresaola, and grate it. Lately we have been using it on nuts and it created something like sawdust shavings. Really cool.

Arrosant, which is the French word for basting, is used a lot for fish and meat cooking. A lot of whole butter, garlic or shallot, and thyme is added to a hot pan with the meat or fish. The butter browns and infuses with the garlic and herbs. The pan is tilted and the browned butter is spooned over the meat/fish in a repetitive, rhythmic manner. But we use it on vegetables—a carrot or parsnip, or a chunk of cauliflower—it’s a great way bring a new dimension to dishes.

Of course we use purveyors like Coastal Seafoods, D’Artagnan Foods, Peterson Meats, and Great Ciao, but it’s the “urban” ingredients that I’m most proud of: spruce tips, young pine cones, apples, chive and allium blossoms, green juniper berries, and chanterelles all picked from people’s front yards, city parks, and even cemeteries all in the city limits.

Lenny RussoLenny Russo

This might sound silly, but I use my hands more than anything. I encourage people to stick their hands in their food. It’s important for gauging texture and consistency, and that just allows one to connect better with the food.

I am pretty traditional. A basic French cook’s knife is probably my go-to blade for most of what I do, but I have an Italian utility knife that takes and keeps an edge really well that I use for more intricate work. I also have several bird’s beak paring knives, also called turning knives, which I use for small vegetable prep. I like to use a wood handle boning knife for butchery tasks. Think of a chef’s knife kit as a mechanic’s toolbox. You wouldn’t want someone working on your car with only a screwdriver and a hammer. The same goes for cooking. Specific tools are need for specific tasks.

Brenda Langton

My stainless-steel pressure cooker is wonderful to use for its speed and results. It makes the creamiest beans in 25 minutes, soft and supple brown rice in 25 minutes, and in just 50 minutes, lamb shanks in Moroccan spices that melt in your mouth.

I order many different spice blends for Spoonriver and at home, from our friend Lior Lev Sercarz at La Boîte in New York. He is a spice god. Noga is a wonderful lemongrass blend. Shabazi is a blend with dried cilantro, jalapeños, and more. This one is also good to have on hand since fresh freeze-dried cilantro maintains its flavor beautifully. We make a chicken salad with both of these, which is dressed in a coconut lime dressing. Bloody Mary spices are terrific too, just to name a few.

JD Fratzke

Strip Club Meat & Fish, Saint Dinette
I can’t live without my fish spatulaIt can be used on every protein and every surface in my kitchen, can withstand high heat, and can be used as an ad hoc strainer or a whisk. Every month or so I take the slanted flat edge of my spatula to the coarse side of my sharpening stone to remove the nicks and dings, and give it a “sharper-than-a-butter-knife” edge for use in separating proteins or breaking up cold starches like potato purée, risotto, or polenta.

Beth Fisher

Wise Acre Eatery
I cook almost exclusively in cast iron. It is indestructible (when treated with care), cooks evenly, has health benefits, creates an awesome sear on meats and vegetables, makes a killer grilled cheese, and is a blast to collect. Some of my favorite pieces of cast iron have either been handed down to me or scored in thrift stores—each and every cast iron pan I have has a story.

I love Bill’s Imported Foods for cheese (and olive oil, and mustards, and pastas).

When I am craving a meal at home, I toss organic vegetables (carrots, half an onion, a head of garlic, cauliflower, broccoli, beans, and whatever needs to be eaten in my vegetable bin) in extra virgin olive oil and roast. Meanwhile I put on a pan of brown rice, and another of lentils or beans. Then, when all are cooked, I reach for my trusty cast iron pan, and bring it all together, seasoning the lot with Bragg Liquid Aminos. It is simple food that hits the spot time and time again.

Read more: Go inside the homes of local chefs to get recipes and tips for their favorite date night, happy hour, and family dinner dishes