One of the most controversial opinions I’ve adopted since becoming a restaurant critic in Minnesota is this: I think Marianne Miller, the chef who opened and closed the wonderful, crazy Red—and then had a brief, spectacular, and then spectacularly messy exit from Bobino—is a home-grown genius, and an incredibly gifted chef.
And like everyone, after she left Bobino, I spent a long while expecting an announcement of her next fine-dining venue. She has such a gift for the genre; I couldn’t quite believe she’d do anything else.
So, it was a bit of a head-scratcher when, oh, some nine months ago, I received news that Miller was opening a cooking school in Wayzata called Saga Hill. Really? The feisty young chef who prided herself on executing the finest of fine-dining cooking was taking herself out of the game? Nine months later, the cooking school debut isn’t a head-scratcher: Turns out that the cooking school was the solution to a particular problem that male chefs never confront. Congratulations Marianne, and fiancÃ©e Jeff, on the arrival of their bouncing baby boy, Braun!
“It’s weird,” Miller told me, when I caught up with her. “I’m 35. I’ve been working in kitchens since I was 15, but I don’t know if in all these years anyone ever thought I was a girl—I was just a cook. Working in kitchens, you’re not around a lot of people that have babies, and it never occurred to me: How do you have a baby and stand behind a line?” (The line, of course, being the place where chefs work, between stove, prep station, and window, where waiters pick up the food.)
“I was actually looking into other executive chef positions when I found out I was pregnant, and everything changed at that moment. What am I going to do?” she says. “I was born in 1972, and I’m definitely a product of those times. It’s all well and good to believe you can do whatever you want, but it’s another thing to, like, confront reality. The bad thing about being a cook is: You have no social life. At any given point you’re like, I know what I’m going to be doing for the next fourteen hours, I’m going to be standing here, cooking. And the good thing about being a cook is you have no social life: You never worry about where you’re going to get lunch, when you’re going to see your friends because you’re going to be standing here for the next fourteen hours, cooking.
“I’ve talked to other chefs who have been pregnant and, later, breastfeeding from the line (like last year’s best chef in the Midwest James Beard winner Celina Tio, who heads the American Restaurant in Kansas City), and while it can be done, it requires an enormous amount of support from the restaurant.”
Knocked-up and restaurant-less, Miller decided she needed to create something where she was the boss, where she would be guaranteed a family-friendly workplace. As fate would have it, there happened to be a full-fledged cooking school lying dormant above the Five Swans kitchen store in Wayzata. One business-plan later, Miller’s new cooking school Saga Hill was up and running.
At first, Miller says, making the switch from Minneapolis to Wayzata was a bit of a culture shock: “I was putting together a menu for this one woman, for a private dinner. She was very Junior League, and as I was explaining things to her she was like: “No, I don’t want you to use leeks. They’re too dirty,” she says. “I was like, ‘Lady, I have the technology. I can clean them.’ She was like: ‘No, they’re just dirty. I’d rather we just didn’t have any leeks in our home.’ I felt like what she was really telling me was: Leeks are of ill-repute, they will not be included.’”
Miller and I got a good laugh over this; leeks are a foundation of French cuisine, and exiling them from the kitchen is like forbidding salt because it’s too common. “It’s a different world out here,” Miller told me. “I think Cargill should market pasteurized self-cleaning Franken-leeks. There’s a demand.”
Speaking of Cargill, a lot of what Miller’s been doing are corporate team-building nights, where groups of executives from local companies come in and do battle in Iron Chef-like competitions. Some secret ingredients so far? Parsnips, jicama, and uglyfruit. She tells me that two of her classes have become very popular. One is for gluten-free cooking, which she says is big with young moms with gluten-intolerant children.
The other is sort of upper-level, philosophical class, which is popular with Wayzata world-traveler/empty-nesters. For instance, she offers a “culinary antanaclasis”, which is where you go and explore cilantro—also known as coriander—in every possible incarnation in world cuisine, from gin to pad thai to salsa. (The next one of these is offered March 28th; and it costs $65 a person.) Sound a little food-geeky to you? Perhaps, but I actually find the idea of an upper-level class like that more appealing. How many times can you learn to boil water or make Hollandaise?
I’m not the only one who thinks the Twin Cities are ready to leave the How-to-Boil-Water-Basics behind. In April, Miller might just be the food person on KSTP-TV’s new top-secret afternoon show. The station isn’t releasing information on what the show will be called—or who the two hosts will be—but Jen Leach, one of the show’s producers, tells me the program “will be showcasing the people and places that make the Twin Cities unique.” And while things aren’t 100 percent confirmed, Leach says Miller is testing very positively so far. “I said to them, I’m not Rachel Ray,” Miller told me. “I’m a chef through and through. I’m going to say what I really think. They told me, ‘That’s great. We don’t want something dumbed down and cutesy-cutesy. We want something current, and useful. So I said, ‘Okay.’ It’s been really fun so far.”
If Miller does make the transition from chef to television personality, it won’t be the first time she has followed in Andrew Zimmern’s footsteps: The kitchen she cooked in at Red was once Zimmern’s, back when he helmed cafÃ© un deux trois.
Whether you were a fan of Miller’s cooking—or simply aware of her as one of the local food world’s more outsize personalities—it’s fascinating to see her trajectory: Top chef, to sidelined-chef, to cooking-school-owner-mom, to TV-chef. “I never thought I wanted to do anything but cook,” she told me, while baby Braun cooed in her arms. “But this last year has been the coolest thing that ever happened to me. The second he arrived it just put so much of my life in perspective. I thought I knew what love was, but I had no idea.”
Saga Hill Cooking School
307 East Lake Street
Wayzata, (612) 281-1846