There's a scene in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" in which Ferris, Cameron and Sloane try to talk their way into a lunch reservation at the posh fictional Chicago restaurant Chez Quis -- but are memorably stymied by the sniveling, ridiculously moustached maître d'. He is a caricature of old-school fine dining: snooty, stuffy and inaccessible to most.
This is precisely the opposite of Isaac Becker's version of fine dining. If Ferris and friends had come to Bar La Grassa, Nancy St. Pierre -- Becker's wife and partner, who runs the front of the house -- would have greeted them with her expansive smile and promptly ushered them into a warm and casual, food-driven dining experience, full of character and ambience, but minus the snoot.
It is hard to believe how rapidly the Twin Cities restaurant scene has grown and diversified in the past five years. The very multitude of options, along with the rise of social networking, food blogs and food television, have made it easier than ever for us to identify as "foodies."
Becker has been influential in this movement by being one of the first to make brilliant food (great ingredients, excellently executed) more affordable and come-as-you-are casual than ever before -- first with the 112 Eatery in 2004, then Bar La Grassa in 2009. This year, he received the James Beard Award for best chef in the Midwest after being nominated four years in a row.
I had the opportunity to chat with him in the sumptuous environs at Bar La Grassa, at a table overlooking a giant black-and-white rock 'n' roll photo of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, which attests to Becker's hipness (also check out his restaurant's playlists, posted on their websites). More than anything, though, Becker is down-to-earth, sincere and serious about food.
Q: Why did you start cooking?
A: Well, it's just something I got into in high school. I worked at a couple of places while I was in a band; the schedule worked out with being in a band.
Q: What kind of band?
A: It was early-'90s punk music.
Q: Do you guys still play?
A: Nope, I still play in the basement by myself, but not in a band.
Q: What was the local restaurant scene like when you decided to open 112 Eatery?
A: It was a different scene. I would never take credit for creating a scene, but I was maybe one of the first to sense what was happening. A lot of chefs opening restaurants at that time were offering a "fine dining experience," and I could have gone in that same direction, but I was tired of it and so were diners. Creating a restaurant with some fine dining sensibilities but in a casual atmosphere and with reasonable prices wasn't happening here.
Q: Was it a self-conscious decision to have 112 Eatery be a place where food-industry workers would feel at home?
A: Back in '97 or '98, when I was at the James Beard event in New York, I asked around to find out where chefs eat. And that was the first time I went to the Blue Ribbon in New York, which is open until 4 in the morning. That's where I had beef marrow and oxtail marmalade -- things that cooks like to eat. And I loved it and it stuck with me forever. So that was the idea in opening 112 -- it would be a place where cooks could come and eat.
Q: Why did you open Bar La Grassa?