Then There Were None

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

Another karate-chopped arm of this interconnected organism? Our next generation of chefs. The line cooks at Auriga, Levain, and Five are just the people who would have been opening new restaurants here in the 2010s. Auriga had a staff with young cooks who are already veterans of some of the most important restaurants on earth: the Fat Duck, Allinea, and French Laundry. They were working at Auriga specifically to learn how to run an independent restaurant in Minneapolis. Instead they learned how to close one.

I asked some of the other orphaned Minneapolis chefs, Steven Brown, Stuart Woodman, and Marianne Miller what they think about the future of fine dining right now. "I don't want to be overly dramatic," said Miller. "But if Auriga can't make it, can any of us? The only jobs right now seem to be in the corporate structure of a multi-unit restaurant, and I'm anti- the globalization of fine dining. Once you know how to cook, you can't unlearn it and do a bad job because you're using someone else's guidelines, and that's what the corporate thing is. I'm not giving up yet. I'm going to wait it out and I'm see what happens."

Also waiting it out is Stuart Woodman, formerly of Five, but he is also the chef boasting the most impressive cooking résumé Minneapolis has ever seen, including the job as opening sous chef at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. "I talked to someone last week who said, 'You're leaving town, it's too small,'" Woodman told me. "Well, that's a great rumor, but we love it here, our five-year-old loves it here, and we're committed to staying. I've turned down some job offers, a great one in California, but I'd really like to open something here that was more focused, and controlled. People say: You were on the cover of Food & Wine and a few months later you're canned! Yes, that was great, but the reality is that a lot of restaurant stuff takes place on a lot smaller scale than people realize." Meaning: The cover of Food & Wine might not matter as much as your heating bill.

Goodnight, my sweet: A toast to Auriga on the restaurant's final night
Sean Smuda
Goodnight, my sweet: A toast to Auriga on the restaurant's final night

Okay. Heating bills. A basic economic fact of life. But Steven Brown, the chef lately gone from Levain, pointed out any number of other economic facts that might be informing this current restaurant massacre. Perhaps the real problem has been that places like Levain and Auriga have been engaging in an experiment to pay the full, real, unsubsidized costs for food, and it killed them. How so? Okay. In a fine-dining Minneapolis restaurant, they pay all their workers a living wage, they buy local, sustainably raised meat and produce when they can, and usually California organics otherwise, and so forth.

For argument's sake, let's make up a competitor: Quick Cafe. Quick Cafe hires quasi-illegal workers to work in its restaurant (i.e., those with suspect documents, the only ones who will accept tip-free minimum wage) and in that restaurant they plate and serve food prepared at a California commissary by other quasi-illegal immigrants. That Quick Cafe food is sourced from ingredients including old California dairy cows pumped full of heaven knows what hormones, antibiotics, and so forth—old California dairy cows that are themselves a backhanded government subsidy because of the milk price supports which discriminate against Midwestern dairy farmers. Once turned from government-supported dairy cow to bucket of heat-and-serve food, said "food" is driven across the nation in trucks fueled by gas kept at artificially low prices, and, at the end of the day, paired with a soda made with government price-supported corn syrup, for a $4.99 value meal.

"People think fast food is the only thing Fast Food Nation covers," Brown told me, summoning Eric Schlosser's damning portrait of American food production. "But it goes beyond fast food, to restaurants you think are nice, and it's also just insidious in all kinds of other ways. We have these expectations we don't even know we have," Brown explained. "A hamburger is supposed to cost $5, a glass of wine is supposed to cost X, and if it costs more, we feel we're getting ripped off. But every other segment of our [food] economy besides fine dining is propped up by illegal labor, factory farms, and so on. So someone like Tim Fischer [a local pork producer] is out there trying to sell his meat, and people are like: Why should I spend $10 a pound when I could spend $3 a pound at Sam's Club? So what was wrong with Levain?" Brown continued. "Partly it was that people come and get this great stuff that costs an arm and a leg, and then they get in their car and say, 'My wallet is empty, but that sure was good, next year we'll come back!' And the next day they're back at McDonald's or Sam's Club." All right, that's an incredibly depressing thought—perhaps our de facto subsidized economies of factory farms and poorly compensated labor have become so much the norm in America that no one can go against them. That's pretty bad.

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