Fire and Nice

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

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.”
 

 

At the U, he studied anthropology and geology, and worked two volunteer jobs: one sorting rocks in the basement of Ford Hall, and another at the Institute for Minnesota Archaeology. But he needed a gig to pay the bills. He ran into someone who told him he could probably get a job at Ciatti’s, an Italian restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. “I thought: I wouldn’t mind learning how to cook at a restaurant,” he says. “So I worked at Ciatti’s for three months. I worked every station in the restaurant. While there, I decided I really liked cooking, and somehow concluded that Pronto [in the downtown Minneapolis Hyatt] was the best restaurant on the planet. My second favorite restaurant in the world was Figlio, and I realized it was owned by the same company that owned Pronto, and it was closer to my house. So I got a job there.”

Figlio’s kitchen was a scene of barely controlled chaos. “You’d walk in and the first thing that would happen is you’d go on break because, legally, they had to give us a break, but there was never a time for a break. So you’d go in, take a break, and cook as fast as you can for nine hours,” McKee says. In time, he worked his way up to Figlio’s sauté station, which is often the most-high pressure, technically demanding position in a kitchen: Frequently the greatest number of dishes come through the sauté station, and it requires the ability to sauce and pan-sear proteins like fish or chicken.

He eventually quit Figlio, bought a Eurail pass, and traveled to Germany for a summer. When he returned, he tried, and failed, to get his job at Figlio back. He then tried to get a job at Tejas, when it was the hot restaurant on Nicollet Mall. “But every time I scheduled an interview Mark [Haugen, the chef] missed it,” McKee says. “One time, I got so mad I went across the street and dropped off my resumé over at Azur,” the Mediterranean restaurant D’Amico & Partners had opened on the top floor of Gaviidae Common. “They asked me what position I was interested in, and I said, ‘Well, I worked sauté over at Figlio, I figured I’d go for sauté.’ And the chef just looked at me like: What the hell are you talking about? That’s the chef’s position. I went back for another Tejas interview, and Mark wasn’t there again. I went back to Azur and told them, ‘I’ll take anything.’ Jay [Sparks, Azur’s chef] came out and said, ‘Where do you work now?’ I said, ‘Figlio.’ He said, ‘I like their calamari.’ I think he was humoring me. He said they’d hire me on as their prep cook. I was a little mad. I took a dollar cut in pay, and went from having the best line-cook position at Figlio to a prep-cook position?”

Yet, from that prep-cook position an empire was born. McKee credits Sparks with teaching him about real cooking, about ingredients, about cuisine. Now executive chef of D’Amico’s fine-dining restaurants, Sparks remembers McKee as a serious kid who was also an ace line-cook. “Being a good line-cook takes two things: speed and accuracy,” he says. “You have to juggle a lot of things. It’s hard. But the day I met him I got the sense he was pretty serious. He seemed really interested in a deeper way. He read a lot; that’s one of the things we shared. Back then—this was well before all the hubbub about food—there wasn’t anyone great you could go work for. You had to figure it out on your own. Much of what you did was you read. And we’d stand on the line talking about what we were reading. We’d talk about food all night long while we were cooking, then we’d go to the bar and talk about food.”

McKee eventually climbed the ranks at Azur and then at D’Amico Cucina. At the same time, he managed to complete his degree at the U. Even while he was head chef at D’Amico Cucina, he figured he might someday need to get his act together and find a job as an archaeologist. In fact, it wasn’t until Food & Wine named him as one of the top 10 young chefs in America that he realized that perhaps cooking was his real calling.

Eleven years ago, McKee and Thoma left D’Amico to open La Belle Vie in Stillwater. At the time, the two thought the only difference between running a restaurant and cooking in one would be that they’d get to keep all the money. The idea now makes McKee laugh; he misses the days when his life was all about cooking, rather than budgets and staff meetings. But now he boasts a restaurant empire with some 300 employees and a reputation as the best chef in town—a guy who everyone wants to work with, or be friends with, because he’s just that nice.

The realization that McKee has an empire at all seems odd to me. Why? Because McKee and Thoma have never been about empire-building. The idea for Solera, for instance, was proposed as a way to ensure stability: La Belle Vie was in Stillwater, which inherently does seasonal business. Then, with Solera up and running, they had to move La Belle Vie to Minneapolis, because they couldn’t have La Belle Vie endangering Solera, now could they? Smalley’s was created for two reasons, McKee explains: because he loves Jamaican barbecue, and—just as importantly—because Shawn Smalley, a longtime cook of McKee’s, needed a restaurant of his own. Barrio was explained in the same language: On the one hand, McKee finds Latin American street food fascinating. On the other, he wanted Bill Fairbanks, another longtime McKee cook, to have a kitchen of his own.

When McKee initially told me these reasons behind the new restaurants, my instinct was to discount them. You took on how much debt to create a job for some guy I’ve never heard of? But Thoma says that he and McKee see opening restaurants to help employees as a self-evident strategy: “Otherwise they go somewhere else,” he explains, without adding (but implying): duh. “Most of our cooks, they could start at TGI Friday’s tomorrow and earn more than they do right now. If they don’t want to work for you, you’re done. But if they have the same vision we do, if they want to uphold the same standards—it’s a really great thing.”

So that’s the story of how the Cities’ best chef also happens to be one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. Of course, into every happy life a little rain must fall. And McKee does have one great worry right now. It has to do with this very article. “They were taking pictures of me with angel wings for this,” he says. “I am hoping those don’t come out. All the cooks are hoping those are the ones that do come out, so they’ll have something to make fun of me—forever.

“Did you ever see those chef trading cards?” he continues. “God, I hated those. Every once in a while, one of those will pop up in the kitchen and I have to grab them and throw them away. Someone found the photo from Food & Wine and made it into T-shirts to completely embarrass me. Angel wings: I’ll never live that down.”

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.

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