We sat down with four famed local chefs at St. Paul’s Heartland Restaurant for a casual chat about the James Beard Awards — from star sightings to the Susan Lucci of Midwestern chefs. Our expert panel included: Isaac Becker, Tim McKee, Alex Roberts and Lenny Russo.
The James Beard Awards are held each spring at a grand concert hall primarily inhabited by the New York Philharmonic. The awards themselves are the highest accolade for an American chef in food-dom. What’s it like to be there?
Lenny Russo: It’s pretty much overwhelming. I remember the first year I was there, my wife and I are standing in the plaza at Lincoln Center and I’m still not fully grasping the moment. I’m astounded that I’m here and that I somehow got invited in. I mean, nobody knew who the hell I was, but I somehow was in this clique. And then there’s this swarm of famous chefs. Last year we walked Jacques Pépin across the street and Danny Boulud was standing at the door and I thought “that doesn’t happen every day.”
Alex Roberts: The mass of it is definitely cool. There is a red carpet outside and us little guys in our tuxedos. They’re like, “Come on, come on, move through,” because here comes Lidia Bastianich or somebody, and they want to put the camera on her for like 10 minutes straight. So it’s really funny. My wife was like, “What was that about?” And I said, “Hey, we’re just the little people.”
Any close encounters with cooking royalty?
Isaac Becker: I remember when Tim [McKee] got his picture taken with Alain Ducasse. I thought that was pretty sweet. That was the one time I was seething with jealousy.
Tim McKee: Well, he’s one of the most important chefs on the planet, and he’s just standing there by himself. And I was wearing the medal, and I just went up and asked if I could get my picture taken.
So that was you being a little starstruck?
McKee: A little bit. But the cooler thing was there was an after-party across the street at Bar Boulud — and Danny Boulud is one of my absolute favorite chefs in the country — and I was standing there and he comes walking in, and he had a couple of medals. I met him, like, once. I’m sure he would never remember that in like a million years, but he sees me with the medal and clinks the medals together and shakes my hand.
Becker: Who was it that came in when we there? [Jean-Luc] Boulay, right?
Russo: Yeah, he came in with his entourage while we were there having dinner. And we were like, shitfaced at 3 in the morning. We’d been drinking and celebrating Alex’s deal. Plus, we sat down and someone said, “You won!” and all this food came out. Remember that?
Roberts: It’s really the perfect place to have the awards. Being in New York makes it really cool, especially for people from around the country who don’t get to spend a lot of time in New York. We all make plans to have special meals while we’re there. Maybe the density contributes to this, but when you have that medallion around your neck, a fair number of people actually know what it is.
Russo: Yeah, the people at the desk at the hotel asked why I was in town, and I said the Beard Awards. And they said, “Oh, are you a nominee?” They knew what it was.
Roberts: Not where I stayed they didn’t.
The awards themselves go on for three hours or longer. What’s it like to sit in those seats when you know you’re a finalist?
Becker: The year [Alex Roberts] won, I sat next to Suzanne Goin, a big-deal chef out in California. Somehow she knew when my name came up on the thing that she was sitting next to me, and she went like this to me [crosses fingers]. And then when [Alex Roberts] won, the whole rest of the presentation she never looked at me again. (laughs) She didn’t want to deal with the uncomfortableness of the whole deal.
Russo: Last year my wife was like, “Oh, they sat you on the end. You’re sitting behind Rick Bayless.” And I’m like, I don’t think they engineer it like that. Like I’m going to tap Rick Bayless on the shoulder and go, “Rick, did I win?”
Becker: I will say there’s nothing in my mind that made me feel like it was my year last year.
McKee: For me, some of the most stressful times ever [was] sitting in those damn seats.
How many times were you a finalist before you won?
McKee: I think four as well.
Tell me about winning Best Chef: Midwest.
McKee: If I had it to do over I might spend some time with Toastmasters or something. I pretty much crumbled. I seriously thought I was going to pass out. It’s the most intimidating thing I’ve ever been through in my life.
Russo: You’re blushing now just thinking about it.
McKee: It was hard enough to think about standing in front of all the guys in the industry who I have just huge respect for, and I finally do turn around and who’s in front of me? Thomas Keller and his entourage. It was just ridiculous.
Russo: Who handed you your medal? [To Roberts] I think Wolfgang Puck handed you yours.
Becker: I have no idea. I didn’t know who they were before they said my name.
Roberts: For me, it was almost more of a relief to win than a thrill to win. Because you know, there are those people who get nominated a bunch of times and then that’s it. And you kind of would like that moment. Being nominated four times, you kind of think, Well, that’s why I’m here.
If you could turn back the clock to the year you won, what would you change?
Russo: [To Roberts] You had a baby with you.
Roberts: Yeah, but that was actually one of the sweetest parts of the win. After you leave the pressroom, where they take a picture of you, you come out and it’s like going to the bathroom in the middle of class — all the hallways are empty and silent. And I came around the corner and there was my wife, and she was wearing this black dress and our newborn baby in this black wrap. And after four years and all the drama of it, it was actually a very sweet moment.
Becker: For me, the whole thing was great, but I kind of didn’t believe it, though. There were a few seconds when I was walking across the stage that I thought, did he actually say my name? I brought Nancy [St. Pierre, his wife and business partner] up with me, and that was really fun. Of everyone in my family, my dad’s been my biggest promoter. I mean, he does our website, and he follows my career closer than I do. And I called him right away and he was coming home from a trip; I could just tell that he was really pumped.
Wow, you’ve got such a thick Minnesota accent, it’s fun to think about you on the phone with your dad. Does he have a thick accent?
Becker: Nah, not really.
Russo: So yes — yes, he does.
Does anybody wear their medallions long after everyone else has taken them off? Who sleeps in their bling?
Becker: Who’s that big guy with the black beard? Drew Nieporent? The first year we were there, Nancy and I were by ourselves at Bar Boulud before the deal, and Drew Nieporent is in there wearing his medallion going, “You ever seen one of these before? You ever seen one of these before?”
Russo: [Robert] De Niro’s his funding partner; I wonder if he goes around with his Oscar.
Do you think there’s any way to turn the tide in your favor, beyond just being a fantastic chef?
McKee: I do think there could be a bit of strategy involved. Some guys are involved with events all over the country. Adam Siegel, Bartolotta’s chef who won in 2008, was the first to say that he spends upward of 12 weeks a year doing special events.
Russo: Who has the time to do that?
Roberts: It does make sense, though. If you do Miami and Aspen Food & Wine and you do a station there and you meet everybody and hobnob, then people are going to say, “That’s a good guy. I’ve had his food.”
The Beard Foundation adamantly denies that the chefs who put on dinners at the Beard House have a better chance of winning. But it doesn’t seem like it would hurt. Have any of you done a Beard dinner, held in New York to benefit the Beard Foundation?
Russo: I think we’ve all been invited, but it’s a matter of whether or not you can afford to do it.
McKee: I’ve cooked there a couple of times.
Is it a very limited budget?
Russo: You are the budget.
McKee: You have to buy all the food for 80 people for whatever you’re serving. You also have to assemble your crew, fly them out, put them up, and you’re probably going to go out to some dinners and carry on a bit. I would guess it averages about $10,000 to $12,000 to do a dinner there.
Becker: 112 Eatery got invited two years ago, and there was just no way. We’d have to close the restaurant just to have enough people.
Russo: Even for us to take a vacation at the old place we’d have to close the restaurant. There are only 12 employees, and my wife and I were two of them.
Let’s talk about this year. Tim, you won Best Chef: Midwest in 2009, and now you’re a semifinalist for Outstanding Chef, a national category.
McKee: That to me is a little ridiculous.
McKee: Because I’m not a national player.
Russo: Well, you know, that’s bullshit.
Roberts: Your commitment to excellence is no less than any of those other people.
Roberts: Your chances to win are less because you’re from this market, though.
McKee: But if you look at the guys on that list, those are the guys who are really making a difference on a national level. You read about them all the time.
Russo: Well, José Andrés won last year, and he’s in D.C.
McKee: José Andrés is the perfect example. Do you think he would have won if he hadn’t opened a restaurant in Los Angeles [The Bazaar] or Las Vegas [é by José Andrés]? Would he have been in the same consideration?
Russo: No, but I don’t think he would have had the opportunity to do Los Angeles or Las Vegas if he wasn’t in D.C. They have a lot more opportunity than you have — or any of us have — to do more, and it’s because of the market.
McKee: And they also put themselves in a position that I’m not going to put myself in. I have no interest in being on TV. I’m not going to do that, and that’s the difference. I’m interested in running a restaurant.
As far I know, no Minnesotan has ever advanced to the finals in a national category like Outstanding Chef or Outstanding Restaurant. What would that mean if Tim or someone did win one of those categories?
Roberts: I think a better question is, what would it mean if one of the smaller markets got it — period? The answer is, I don’t know.
McKee: Well, just to win Best Chef: Midwest changed things. There’s a lot more focus on the Twin Cities as a food town. There’s a small number of people who actually take trips to eat at Beard Award–winning restaurants. We’ve seen some of that at La Belle Vie.
You [Becker] won last year, you [Roberts] won the year before, and you [McKee] won the year before. So [Russo], you’re up, right?
Russo: I wouldn’t go that far.
Well, they say the Beard Awards are pretty predictable.
Russo: I have friends in other cities who have been nominated and made it to the finals two or three years in a row, and then all of a sudden they don’t even make it to the finals.
What about Colby Garrelts, chef at Bluestem in Kansas City? If he makes it to the finals, this will be his sixth year in a row.
Russo: He’s like Susan Lucci. And now he’s got a new cookbook out that he hopes will put him over the top. Last year he told me, “I can’t keep coming back here.”
Who in the Twin Cities has never been a Beard finalist or semifinalist and really should be?
Russo: Koshiki Yonemura at Tanpopo; she’s totally overlooked. Everything she makes is just killer. And Hai Truong at Ngon Vietnamese Bistro is turning out some awesome food.
Roberts: The irony about Truong is that he was attempting more creativity and his business wasn’t going anywhere. And then he changed Ngon to focus on traditional food, and his business took off — but he won’t get noticed from awards like that.
Russo: The best chef in the Twin Cities is probably some Mexican lady on the west side cooking out of the back of a truck. Choosing who’s the best at something like cooking … it’s really not an exact science.
Beef with the Beard
Like the Oscars, the Beard Awards get plenty of flack. Here’s what detractors say about food’s biggest badge of honor.
The James Beard Foundation Awards have been around for 22 years, but things didn’t really heat up in Minnesota until 2007.
Because that year the awards committee carved out the Great Lakes region and reformed the Midwest region to include Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Suddenly Twin Cities chefs, who had been competing with Chicago heavy hitters, were the new big fish.
“No longer having to compete against Chicago essentially allowed us to get into the game,” says Tim McKee, chef at La Belle Vie and 2009 Best Chef: Midwest winner.
With Chicago out of the running in the Midwest category, the Beard Awards cracked open like a coturnix quail egg. In the first contest since the changes, Minnesota claimed two of the top five finalist slots in the Best Chef: Midwest category. In 2009, McKee was the first Minnesotan to ever win the category outright, followed by Alex Roberts (Restaurant Alma) in 2010 and Isaac Becker (112 Eatery) in 2011. The 2012 Midwest region semifinalist list boasts six Twin Citians, making our lakes-centric metropolis the metro to beat.
Some Beard watchers, such as Texas food writer Mike Riccetti, have criticized the new territories, noting that that population of the Southwest region, for instance, has 48 million people and six major metro areas, compared with 25.6 million people and just two major metros in the Midwest.
“An award for Best Chef: Midwest … does not seem nearly as notable at Best Chef: Southwest,” he wrote in December.
Like the Oscars, the award to which it’s most often compared, the Beard Awards have plenty of detractors and critics. Anthony Bourdain, the Jack Nicholson of the food world, recently grumped on his blog that the Beardies are a “self congratulatory goat rodeo.” (Goat rodeo?)
Josh Ozersky, the gastronomy columnist for Time magazine, made a little more sense last spring when he worried that the awards have become little more than a litmus of buzz. “If you look at who wins most of the regional awards, they tend to be the places that get the most hype,” he wrote. “Everybody has heard of it. So it wins. Which makes it more famous and more successful. Meanwhile, some gifted schnook somewhere in South Bend, Ind., sighs, turns back to his stove and prepares a plan to escape his creditors.”
An anonymous judge writing for the foodie blog Eater.com made a similar case last May, arguing that because the awards enlist more than 500 judges from across the country — most of whom have only eaten at the most hyped restaurants, the awards are thus based on a “statistical absurdity.” The Beard Foundation “could probably achieve the same results by counting restaurant mentions in magazines, newspapers and online,” wrote the judge. This argument perhaps goes a long way to explaining why Lucia Watson, the doyenne of local fare at Lucia’s in Uptown Minneapolis, was a finalist in 2004, 2005 and 2006 but has since fallen off even the semifinalist list.
One frequent grouse among chefs, including California cuisine champion Jeremiah Tower, is that only those chefs who cook at the Beard House actually bring home gold-plated medallions. (Cooking at the Beard House in Greenwich Village helps raise money for the nonprofit Beard Foundation; chefs who participate donate their time, their crew’s time, food and airfare, often totaling many thousands of dollars.) Roberts and Becker can disprove that one: Neither has cooked at the Beard House under the mantel of Restaurant Alma or 112 Eatery respectively, and both have walked away with the bald visage of Mr. Beard.
Lenny Russo’s Brush with Beard
I’m the first to admit that I get really obsessive compulsive in a kitchen. I like things a certain way. I want things done right.
It’s not a bad thing to be obsessive compulsive when you’re a chef — it’s probably even an essential quality. But there was a time in my past when I needed ultimate control if I didn’t want an out-and-out anxiety attack. I used to be the guy who said, “Just let me do it” and “Just don’t touch anything.” I’ve worked hard to give that up, because I realized pretty quickly that a lot of people have just as much knowledge and creativity and you’re really losing something if you don’t mine that.
That mantra tends to work great when I have people like Stephanie Kochlin (my former chef de cuisine) or Chad Townsend (my current sous chef), who are just as meticulous and insane as I am. But the restaurant biz can get real very quickly when your sous and chef de cuisine haven’t bought into what you’re doing.
In the fall of 2009, I hired a new chef de cuisine to replace Kochlin, who went out to find new adventures. This new chef came with a nice résumé, including a stint at a Michelin two-star in France. Almost immediately, though, it became clear that the chemistry — the food kind and the human kind — just wasn’t there.
I cut him loose, but not before he spent two whole months at Heartland giving me acid reflux. There were the inedible experiments, like the soup that had to be pitched. There was the cloudy consommé, the dessert coulis with bits of fruit skin, the mousse that tasted dull and grainy because the liver was overcooked.
There are memories that still get to me nearly three years later. Like when I asked him to use my recipe for Haralson apple mustard, which I wanted to serve with our house-made terrine. What I needed was a rich, slightly grainy mustard with bright notes of apple. What I got was a watery, acidic, horrible, hot, nasty mess.
The same week as the apple mustard, he was dishing out a cream-based sauce, oblivious to the beady little eyes of butterfat separating from the sauce.
“That sauce is breaking. Can’t you see that?”
“Oh, I’ll fix it,” says he, and he comes back with a big box of cornstarch, guaranteed to squelch any subtle flavors that were trying to survive in the sauce.
“What are you doing? Just leave it, just leave it!”
At this point, I had completely abandoned that old mantra about not squelching creativity. This was about serving food that didn’t look like amateur hour.
“Somebody go get me some cream from the walk-in,” I barked.
On the fly, I reduced some cream to whisk into the sauce, urging it back into form.
It had been a strange week, and on Friday, it just got stranger. At Heartland’s new 18,000-square-foot location in Lowertown across from the light rail, it’s not unusual for us to still be cooking at 11 p.m. or later. But back in 2009, at our 50-seat neighborhood spot in Mac-Groveland, 9:30 p.m. meant we were breaking down the line, cleaning up and calling it a night.
This night, though, the dining room was packed. I was at the sauté station working eight pans and eagle eying the window to see that each plate was going immediately to the table (I have a thing against heat lamps).
When the fury died down about 10:30 p.m., I glanced around the dining room and caught the face of a middle-aged guy in glasses. I’m pretty good with faces, and his went ticking through my mental Rolodex. I got my match: James Oseland, long-time editor of Saveur magazine. I walked over to the reservation book, and right at the top was Providence Cicero, the restaurant critic at the Seattle Times. (That’s an easy one. I mean, who else has a name like Providence Cicero?) I looked a little closer at the people in the dining room, and names start clicking: Victoria Pesce Elliott of the Miami Herald, Andrew Knowlton of Bon Appetit, Phil Vettel at the Chicago Tribune. Here, sitting at Heartland at 10 at night, were three tables of people who actually choose the semifinalists for the Beard Awards.
But it was over. They were sipping coffee and leaning over to chat with people at other tables, taking quick peeks at the bill.
I went to the tables to introduce myself and schmooze a bit, but whatever they thought of the food they weren’t saying — and I would never, ever ask.
After they left, I sat a bit in the empty dining room. My wife came out, and I told her, “They were all here tonight, and we weren’t that good.”
My wife always knows the right thing to say. She just put her hand on my shoulder and said, “You’re better than you think you are.”