Pantry to the Stars

Spanish cheese as a talent-retention tool?

In short, the food around here doesn't just seem better than it was five years ago, it is better, says Auriga's Flicker. "It's kind of like going from a VCR tape to DVD," he explains. "People don't remember what it was like cooking here five years ago. Just like there's a difference between frozen fish and 'dayboat' fish caught yesterday, there's a difference in olive oil. And now I might even put the name of the olive oil on the menu: It's Nunez de Prado extra virgin, and to some people, that means a lot.

"Nowadays when I go through the New York Times food section, I see a lot of things that are new to the market there, and here we are in the middle of the country, and Scott's had them forever."

(Keep your eyes peeled: Pikovsky says Great Ciao expects the first-ever legal shipment of the authentic French sausage saucisson in the coming weeks.)

Great Ciao's Scott Pikovsky: Big cheese in the culinary community
Michael Dvorak
Great Ciao's Scott Pikovsky: Big cheese in the culinary community

These super-premium ingredients don't just affect our high-end menus. They also act as an invisible partner in the kitchens of small neighborhood spots, allowing little places like Chet's Taverna, Marx Wine Bar, Margaux Limitee (again, I could do this all day) the opportunity to serve things that someone else is doing the legwork on. For example, two of the best cheese plates in town, at Marimar and Café Barbette, come largely through Great Ciao, where Scott Pikovsky has taken it upon himself to stock some of the world's best cheeses, including Great Hill Blue, selections from Sally Jackson's legendary line, and offerings culled from the French countryside by cheese guru Chantal Plasse. There aren't better cheeses anywhere, and yet they're being served in some of little ol' Minnesota's most unassuming street-corner restaurants.

Chef Mary Cashman of Marimar (the newish neighborhood spot down by Lake Nokomis) stops in at Great Ciao as often as twice a week, buying small quantities of cheese to go with Marimar's ambitious but cheap wine list and keep the place's getting-to-be-legendary cheese plate jumping. "There are a lot of burger places around here, and when we opened, we tried to establish how we're different, and what we do well, and that's one of the things," she says. "The cheese plate proves we are always interested in something new, and that we buy the nicest things we can find. We change it twice a week, and put on three cheeses, and some [Great Ciao] olives and [Great Ciao] French sausages. When customers come in twice a week, it's still interesting for them. And it lets the chefs focus and tinker where they want to."

When they're not getting smeared on bread, Great Ciao ingredients work hard to keep our old chefs from burning out, and our young chefs from leaving town. "Cooking is a profession of passion," says Alexander Dixon. "If boredom or lack of passion creeps into the equation, it becomes obvious on the plate. And since I've become a restaurant owner, I will use fancy ingredients sometimes just to keep my cooks' interest level up, and motivate them.

"Chefs in the Twin Cities don't cook just for the job; there are lots of places to make more money," he continues, "waiting tables being the obvious example. They do it because they're excited about the food. The same way that a painter in a gallery looks at a painting differently than anybody else, looking at not just the canvas on the wall, but at the individual brushstrokes, chefs look at a balsamic vinegar aged in cherry wood and know that it's different than any other vinegar on earth and are excited to use it." (Dixon featured some of Great Ciao's $150-a-bottle retail cherry-wood-aged vinegar on a salad at Zander last winter. It reportedly was a brief but thrilling experiment.)

Talk to chefs and you quickly determine that ingredients mean as much to them as instruments do to a musician. Young William Fairbanks, now sharing duties with Lisa Carlson in the kitchen at Café Barbette, has such definite ideas about why the Great Ciao Italian apple-cider vinegar he uses on his shaved fennel salad is so perfect, that he questions whether he would have returned to Minneapolis from a stint cooking in France if he couldn't have gotten it, or similar products. "These French and Spanish ingredients mean a lot to me personally," he says, "and having them here definitely makes Minneapolis more attractive. If I couldn't get anything wonderful to cook with, how could I work here? Not having access to good ingredients would force me to move somewhere else."

Italian apple-cider vinegar: It doesn't just taste good, it helps prevent Midwest brain drain.

To a large extent, that is the story I wanted to get at here: The point isn't merely that chefs get to shop somewhere that you don't; the point is that the food world we live in now is markedly different from the one we lived in quite recently. And maybe it changed so subtly and slowly that, like that legendary frog who won't notice getting boiled if the water temperature rises slowly, we never noticed. If you don't notice it, you can't appreciate it.

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