No Flash, All Pan

The Modern and its hardworking Chef Phillip Becht define what it really means to be a Midwestern cook

"Then I met Steven Brown. We had a lot of things in common—he came from the Black Hills—and for many, many moons I worked with him. He's my best friend in the world. I also worked at the Loring with Doug Flicker [now of Auriga], another true genius and a beautiful human. I always viewed myself as a student of those guys. I always felt very proud of being able to ask them questions. They could always have said, Get away from me kid, I'm busy, but they never did."

Thirteen years of being a "student" ticked by: Becht went to Rockstar with Brown, then quit cooking for a spell in order to work as a food runner and bartender at the Minneapolis Aquavit. "But that didn't take," Becht explains. "I was so impressed by the kitchen and the cooks at Aquavit, I started having dreams about cooking. That's when I knew I had to get back to the stove."

Soon enough, which is to say, nearly 20 years after picking up that fateful broom in the Loring, Becht landed his first job as top chef in his own kitchen.

Don't your pancakes taste sweeter when you know that the folks who brought them to you have health care? Phillip Becht (front right) and the Modern staff
Daniel Corrigan
Don't your pancakes taste sweeter when you know that the folks who brought them to you have health care? Phillip Becht (front right) and the Modern staff

In these Food Network and glossy cookbook days, the idea of what a chef is seems to have evolved in the popular consciousness into one of a celebrity who gets to yell at people and be beloved at the same time. But that's not what it means at the Modern. At the Modern it means someone who, for lack of a more delicate phrase, hauls ass in pursuit of hospitality, art, and brussels sprouts for all.

There are usually only three people in the kitchen at the Modern at any given time—including the dishwasher—and they put out 100 to 150 dinners a night. Most fine-dining restaurants serve the same number of meals with two to five times as many people in the kitchen. At the Modern they have just a single, six-burner stove, two burners of which keep the pot roast warm, and one of which keeps water boiling for pasta. So Becht basically feeds the assembled throngs from three burners, an oven, and a grill.

"At first I couldn't believe how busy it could be, how many souls could be in here," Becht told me. "I was frightened. I thought I was not going to make it. The physical limitations are staggering—with the staff as well as the equipment. If one person's sick, one person works a double, that one person being me. In the end, I got the hang of it. A lot of it just comes down to moving really fast—what I saw J.P. doing all those years ago, just being organized and good. You figure out how to do—if you don't there's nowhere to hide."

At the end of his shift, Becht goes home, checks in with the love of his life, Sarah, who waits tables at the Modern and also at Lucia's, peeks at his three-year-old son Hugo, and unwinds while watching some PETA videos on public access television. These, he feels, spur him to remember not to take lightly his role as a buyer of meats and vegetables. To that end, Becht has developed a network of ethically minded local farmers who provide the Modern's meats, and, in summer, almost all of its produce. (This summer the Modern hopes to host a farmers' market in its parking lot.)

Does a double shift feeding 150 souls with the help of a single cook and a dishwasher, ending in a PETA video, sound like the stuff of Food Network dreams?

"If I had this same situation with other ownership, I'd probably have been long gone," Becht says. "But it's actually [Modern owner] Jim Grell that makes it all work. The number one thing that keeps all of us at the Modern is something that nobody ever talks about: We're all paid essentially living wages. We have a health plan and access to health care. If someone falls down the stairs or gets thrown out of their apartment, we pass around a hat, and Jim's always got a few bob to throw in.

"Jim could probably just drive here once a week from Minnetonka and throw a bag of money into the back of a Porsche, but he's not like that. He lives in the neighborhood and rides a bike here most of the time.

"I'm also sure everyone who eats here could get a pot roast at Applebee's for a lot less. But I like to think they think it's worth it to pay a few dollars more and support a place where the workers can afford to have children. Me, I'm willing to work more and not have every material thing I might want because I have respect for this place and what it means in our lives."

That respect that is expressed in various ways: through health insurance, sure, but also in a worker who keeps service flowing by fixing a malfunctioning appliance with duct tape instead of calling in the owner, or going to Target on his day off to replace a broken spice grinder.

"I don't think a lot of kids who watch the Food Network get what it really means to be a cook," Becht concludes. "There's this attitude like: I finished school, so when do I become Bobby Flay? Let me tell you: about 16,000 hamburgers from today."

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