Then There Were None

Auriga has closed—and so have Five and Levain. Is Minneapolis over?

I went through all the stages of grief when chef Doug Flicker called to tell me that Auriga was closing. Denial: You can't be serious, you made it this far—you outlasted Five Restaurant & Street Lounge, you outlasted Restaurant Levain, both of which closed in the last few weeks; the customers will come back, they have nowhere else to go—just hold on!

Then, anger: What the hell is wrong with people that the Cheesecake Factory is packed and Auriga can't make it! And: What the hell is wrong with me, why didn't I write about how great Auriga is more recently, and stop this? Truth be told, I had Auriga on deck for a re-review rave next month, but I spent the last year putting it off, waiting for the pastry person to stabilize, waiting for the new front-of-the-house guy to get settled, and now it turns out that all that waiting was waiting exactly too long, and how I hate, hate, hate myself.

Next? Bargaining: Look, if you just let people know Auriga is in bad shape they will come in droves; I will write about you, everyone will write about you! In the end this conversation between Doug and I turned into nothing but a professional mess, with the chef comforting the restaurant critic with brave words: "Plenty of other restaurants have opened and closed," Flicker assured me. "The world will continue to spin."

But will it? Will it really? I'm not so sure.

Auriga played a unique role in Minneapolis. It was the chefs' think tank, the place young cooks went for inspiration and established chefs went to see what the kids cared about. As Jeff Pierce, of the restaurant supplier Great Ciao, told me, "We used to say, only kind of tongue-in-cheek, that if we wanted to launch something in this market we'd give it to Doug or Steven Brown for two weeks as an exclusive, and then everyone in town would clamor for it." Speaking of Steven Brown, he's out of a job too: Restaurant Levain closed on New Year's Eve.

This caps an altogether brutal season for Minneapolis fine dining: In the fall, Seth Bixby Daugherty left his chef job at Cosmos to pursue the work of his heart, improving food in the school systems. Who to blame for that? Why, look no further: "When I saw your story ["Carrot Invitational," 8/23/06] I said, What am I doing? That's who I am. That's what I should be doing," Daugherty told me. "Do I want to spend the next 10 years working a hundred hours a week, or do I want to follow my heart, and spend time with my kids? Life's too short. I read the story, I gave notice." Which prompts me to ask: What the hell is wrong with me? I set out to improve the restaurant scene in this town, and instead I execute surgical strikes on its top talent? Ahem. Then of course there was the late 2006 scandal of Five, of the zillion-dollar build-out and sky-high ambitions, which bought out chef Stuart Woodman, fired him, and then promptly collapsed, leaving a zillion-dollar empty shell.

"I didn't know that we were living in a gilded age, like, two years ago, but I guess we were," chef Marianne Miller told me. Remember Miller? She was chef at high-flying Red, and then Bobino, but both went out with the grace of the Hindenburg, so she now cooks only at private events for wealthy folks. As of February 2007, something like half of the best chefs of the Twin Cities are unemployed or simply not cooking in restaurants: Doug Flicker, Steven Brown, Stuart Woodman, Marianne Miller, Seth Bixby Daugherty.

So, what happened? In the case of Auriga, it turned into something of a battle between the restaurant and the building that housed it: In the winter the heating bill would shoot up astronomically, and the restaurant got socked with a number of massive costs for building repairs. "We had a horrific year last year, and, while we probably could have struggled along for a few more years, we decided we'd rather not go out owing our suppliers and the government, we'd rather go out with our heads held high," Flicker told me. That point about wanting to go out without owing the suppliers is a bigger one than it might seem, for two reasons. One, because it tips a hat toward a future—keeping honor with your suppliers is important if you ever want a restaurant in this town again. Two, and this is not a good thing, it gestures toward a Minneapolis restaurant scene that is very much an interconnected organism—an interconnected organism which just took a serious body blow.

What composes such an organism? First, there are the suppliers: the farmers, the foragers, the olive oil and cheese sellers, the wine importers, and so forth. When a restaurant closes, all those people lose out, in terms of customers, in terms of bulk purchasing power, and more. I talked to Pat Ebnet, who owns Wild Acres, a locally famous humane outdoor poultry operation in Pequot Lakes, and he explained that when a restaurant closes he can lose money every which way from Sunday. There's the product he's delivering to a locked door, sure, but there's also the pheasants or chickens in various stages of growth for future orders, the feed he's bought to raise those birds, the advertising the restaurant provides for that farmer to reach other chefs or retail accounts, and more. "The Syscos and Westlunds of the world have deep pockets, and they can just leave product in the freezer," explained Ebnet, but farmers like him process to order. So, the producers with the highest ethics, the most sustainable practices, and the highest quality take the biggest hit when leading restaurants die: Minneapolis's fine-dining infrastructure just got walloped.

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