Location: Travail, Pig Ate My Pizza, Umami, the Rookery
Experience: Le Cordon Bleu, Victory 44, Saffron, Porter & Frye.
Style: “Standards. We are about not cutting corners. We are about using product correctly. Follow yourstandards and don’t deviate. Cleanliness and organization. If you have no fundamentals, you have nothing and you have failed.”
Signature: “The 15 pop-ups we have just done have changed the thought process of what we are capable of doing in a restaurant, or anywhere for that matter — in a house, on a rooftop, in the woods.”
Plenty of college students fail under the siren song of excessive partying, but Mike Brown is one of the few to parlay the yen for revelry into a successful career. “I’ve always loved connecting with people and throwing parties and having a good time, and it’s just carried over to what we do here.” “Here” being Brown’s unique and growing, Robbinsdale-centered restaurant empire, known for high-minded cuisine mixed with modernist technique with a heavy dose of whimsy and fun.
“And the guys I work with are no fucking slouches when it comes to partying, either,” Brown adds, referring to Travail partners Bob Gerken and James Winberg. Collaboration keeps their endless procession of great, crazy ideas coming. The whole crew sits down for “family meal” twice daily, and it’s here where menu and concept innovation takes place.
Failing to rise to the occasion at Winona State on a football scholarship, Brown switched to Le Cordon Bleu, and that was the ticket. Brown gives most of his career credit to an Arizona restaurant called Binkley’s, a forward-thinking modernist temple, for “beating the shit out of me and making me a cook” — and to Tilia’s Steven Brown, who once gave the fledgling cook a chance at Porter & Frye.
Location: Pastry chef at Borough
Style: “Childlike. Or, ‘reminds you of your mom.’ Everybody’s so serious nowadays. There’s no reason to be so serious about life!”
Signature dish: “I’ve perfected an idiot-proof mousse — no matter what your experience level, or what flavor you put into it, you can’t fail with this mousse.”
A onetime culinary student by day, Mickey’s Diner graveyard-shift short-order cook by night, LaShaw Castellano says going the pastry-chef route was an easy choice. Come morning, she needed a break from meat, potatoes and grease.
“I like it because the savory chefs say they can’t do what I do, but I secretly know that they could, and do,” she says. “It’s the same thing, using different ingredients. And meanwhile, I get to be in my own little world.”
Which is not to say that the job isn’t a challenge. Creating desserts at Borough that can stand up to some of the most innovative dinner menus in the country is a constant test. “The chefs make me redo things four times sometimes before it’s right. But it’s honest feedback. They make you work for it.”
While Castellano plans to remain on the sweet side of the kitchen for the foreseeable future, she admits that she hopes to land in a bakery of her own someday. Why? “Nobody likes getting up in the morning to go to work, and it’s nice knowing you can go around to the corner bakery and pick up two or three of this and that and have something that can make you happy.”
Location: Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant
Experience: Canoe Bay (Wis.), Nick and Eddie, Porter & Frye, Trattoria Tosca.
Style: A visual artist and a sculptor, Moran thinks of food as a medium, allowing him to use all of his senses.
Signature dish: “Never a signature,” he says, but he does like to take an ingredient and play with it until he’s tired of it. Right now it’s sunflower seeds, which he recently added to the Dakota menu as a sunflower risotto.
Derik Moran boasts the résumé and tenure of a chef at least a decade older. He snagged his first job at age 11, peeling potatoes and washing dishes. Working his way up the ranks, he landed in some of Wisconsin’s best resort kitchens, where he gained essential European fundamentals. “I feel like I learned the right way by learning to use my knife properly first,” says Moran. “I didn’t learn backwards.”
Fundamentals in place, the second decade of Moran’s career meant delving into the modernist cuisine he’d only previously dreamed of. Now a co-chef at the Dakota, he holds a place in his heart for both the old school and the new. He wants to someday call two places his own: a comfortable bistro and a fine-dining powerhouse.
He already sounds like an old saw, lamenting about kids these days. “They’re afraid to work for it anymore. You’ve got to be more humble than that. Never pretend that you’re bigger than anyone else. You can learn something from anyone, even the dishwasher.”
Location: Borough, Coup d’Etat (coming this fall)
Experience: Porter & Frye, Bar La Grassa, Travail.
Style: “Ripping out sauté pans on the French top is pretty fun.”
Signature dish: “I love creating beautiful, artistic plates.”
Tyler Shipton says he “really hasn’t done too many things or been too many places” because he’s always been in the kitchen. Well, not unless you count being chef and partner at one of the hottest new restaurants in the country, Borough in Minneapolis’ North Loop.
Shipton got a relatively late start in the cooking game at age 22, though he’d always harbored a deep hankering to get into the kitchen. “No one would hire me because I didn’t have any experience,” he says. “It sucked.” So he spent a long stint with the After Midnight Group (where, fatefully, he met future Borough owners Jacob Toledo and Brent Frederick), working at a suburban sports bar called Mad Jack’s. “I’d get out of school and go work long hours there. It was brutal, in the grind, and in the pit.” Which is, he says, much of what cooking is all about.
The chef says he “loves touching great ingredients,” but says there’s nothing all that glamorous about the chef’s life. “Kitchens survive on work ethic. A chef likes to tell you to clean the fryer and tell you once. I think growing up on a farm and working really hard helped me understand those kinds of things. You just work every single day. Consecutively.”
Location: Cafe Levain
Experience: Le Cordon Bleu, Trattoria Tosca, Sea Change, Haute Dish.
Style: “Simple food done right.”
Signature: “Roast chicken breast. Some people might think it’s boring, dull or stupid, but to me each chicken breast is an opportunity to prove those people wrong. It’s an ingredient that can easily be messed up or ruined, and it takes a lot of repetition and dedication to get it right.”
If ever you are in a position to disprove the stereotype of the egocentric, megalomaniacal chef, you needn’t point further than Adam Vickerman of south Minneapolis’ Cafe Levain. He’s about as humble, as “a nice young man” as they come.
The Le Cordon Bleu graduate grew up poring over the restaurant sections in city magazines. He took the no-brainer path to chefdom, and became the head of the kitchen at Levain just two short years after graduation. After a few stints at other lauded restaurants, he landed back at his original home. He says it feels “right” to be cooking at this hybrid French bistro/contemporary neighborhood restaurant, because it’s the food he most enjoys eating himself. Besides, Vickerman says, he refuses to cook at home. “You cook at home and make a big mess, smell the same things you smell at work, I tried it. It’s terrible.”
Location: Saffron, World Street Kitchen
Age: Turned 30 on Sept. 29 (so sue us).
Experience: Solera, Bayport Cookery, Cafe Europa.
Style: “My cooking [is] influenced by the use of complex spices, aromatics, and it’s very layered, forward-flavored food. At the same time it’s very basic and simple.”
Signature: “We’ve been making yogurt at Saffron for seven years with the same starter. I use it like milk, butter, cream, as a marinade, in soups and stews, and as a cheese. I also like it with fruit on the bottom. I’m eating yogurt right now.”
“My cooking is a reflection of myself as a person and of my journey,” says Sameh Wadi. Indeed, Wadi’s story has become rote to those of us who love a good American Dream story. The Palestinian-born chef emigrated to the United States as a teen and worked in his brother’s convenience stores, saving money, honing his formidable work ethic —and, he says, staying attached to his mother’s apron strings in the kitchen. Inspired by the flavors of his homeland, Wadi enrolled in cooking school, did a brief stint or two in local kitchens including Solera, and wasting no time, opened the Mediterranean gem Saffron with his brother Saed at age 22. It wasn’t long before the baby-faced Wadi was receiving national attention — perhaps most famously getting tapped by “Iron Chef” and losing by the hair of his chin to Morimoto on national TV.
Saffron is still going strong, and the Wadis’ second restaurant, World Street Kitchen, takes street-food influences from around the world and serves them fast and casual-like on Lyndale Avenue — not to mention in the food truck of the same name.