By all logic, the kitchen at the Birchwood Cafe should be a disaster zone.
The cramped space, barely larger than a food truck, was designed to support a coffeehouse menu of scones and soups, not a crushing volume of customers and three full-out daily meals. Yet physical limitations don’t seem to get in the way of chef Marshall Paulsen.
“Anyone who sees our kitchen is amazed that we can do the menu that we do,” said owner Tracy Singleton. “I never thought of us as chef-driven, chef-identified, whatever the term is. But that’s one thing that Marshall has brought to us. He has put the food in the spotlight.”
It’s true. Now approaching its 18th year, the Birchwood has never tasted better.
Diners can set their calendars after eating Paulsen’s hyper-seasonal menu. Sweet corn lover? Paulsen inundates his dishes with the stuff in August and September, and then it disappears until next year. Same with rhubarb, tomatoes, watercress and countless other veggies and fruits. Right now, his abiding affection for the orange means a blood-orange gastrique here, a tangelo-cranberry jam there and vividly colored Minneola garnishes everywhere — all fully exploited at their peak.
“And then we spend the rest of the year looking forward to their return,” he said.
Paulsen’s vibrant, accessible cooking redefines what a neighborhood restaurant can be. Picture tender wheatberry waffles, lavishly topped with hazelnut-honey butter, smoky bacon and a meticulously poached egg. Or a delicately flaky savory pie, garnished with a sweet pear chutney and filled with puréed sunchokes and a harmonious medley of diced root vegetables.
Or a juicy and wildly flavorful turkey burger, topped with tangy pickled onions and a generous swipe of lemon- and rosemary-fortified mascarpone and served on a house-baked buttermilk bun.
Or a golden-crusted pizza dotted with a colorful, sweet-savory assortment of beets, kale, oranges and sheep’s milk blue cheese. Or a vegetarian’s crunchy-chewy dream sandwich, layering tamari-glazed tofu with pickled radishes, roasted fennel and a sweet potato purée inside a textbook-perfect focaccia. Family-friendly, vegetarian- and vegan-focused and pretense-free. That’s the Birchwood.
Some chefs make a cursory attempt to source locally and then market the heck out of their minimal effort. But for Paulsen, maintaining an intricate supply chain of 40-plus Minnesota and Wisconsin producers is the only way he knows how to do business.
To gain firsthand experience and knowledge, he and his fellow Birchwooders routinely get out of the city. One popular outing is the monthly warm-weather visits to Riverbend Farm in Delano, planting tomatoes, weeding cucumbers and harvesting onions, hundreds of pounds at a time.
“A little bit of my philosophy is that if all my customers visited the farm and learned more about what we do, they would be better customers,” said Riverbend Farm owner Greg Reynolds. “It builds a level of involvement or buy-in that you just can’t get any other way. It’s good for their business, and it’s good for our business.”
Paulsen recently spent some quality time at Callister Farm in West Concord, Minn., the source of the restaurant’s chicken. He caught a chicken, cut its head off, drained its blood, feathered it, gutted it and butchered it.
“You get a sense of how valuable that life is that you just took, and that none of it should go to waste,” he said. “It goes back to knowing where your food comes from, that connection. You should know that it’s an animal, that it was alive, that at one point you took care of it and at another point you cut off its head. It’s life.”