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.

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.

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.

Now, let's make it worse. It hadn't occurred to me until Brown pointed it out, but while so many independent places are trucking along on their old independent business model, a new breed of restaurant has arrived among us: The institutionally subsidized one. 20.21, the Wolfgang Puck Restaurant at the Walker Art Center; Cue at the Guthrie; Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Chambers Kitchen at the new Chambers Hotel—all of these hot new restaurants have their rent, their heating costs, and so forth folded into the budget of another institution that meets its expenses in ways other than selling plates of chicken.

When I spoke with Marianne Miller, she joked, "Can't the government subsidize restaurants?" Perhaps, in a roundabout way, with all the fancy financing that went into places like the Guthrie and the Walker, it is. Look for this subsidized economic reality to dominate this year's coming ritzy crop of new hotel restaurants. I used to think that a stand-alone restaurant was simply an architectural term; now I see it's an economic model.

Now, if that doesn't depress you enough, I'll heap some more on. It goes without saying that part of the reason that it's so distressing to lose our great restaurants is that it makes Minneapolis seem kind of podunk, cow-town, ambitionless, pathetic. We like to think of ourselves as a little more San Francisco, a little less Grand Forks. But what if we fail to understand the real difference between us and San Francisco—that they have gazillions of gazillionaires, and we're just middle-class? Maybe when we compare our food scene with the ones in New York and California, we're assuming that they operate under the same rules of business that we do, that they read a profit and loss statement the same way we do. But maybe they don't.

In Minnesota, restaurants need to operate in the black. Yet consider the best restaurant in America, French Laundry. To get it started, Thomas Keller signed up 48 investors for the 17-table venture—that, in case you don't feel like doing the math, is almost three investors per table. However, even though the restaurant has been packed since the minute it opened, according to a New York Times story a few years ago, it still hadn't paid back its investors, and the investors don't much care. Are we ever going to compete with that? If one of the requirements of having a great food scene is the ability to operate in the red indefinitely, we never are.

Frankly, the only real hope I see is that no one is leaving town: Flicker, Brown, Woodman, and Miller all say they love it here, and plan to stick it out—we're hanging on here by the skin of our quality of life.

Of course, I don't mean to give short shrift to the great, independent, home-grown fine-dining, or simply fine restaurants we have left: La Belle Vie, jP American Bistro, Vincent, Lucia's, Restaurant Alma, Café Brenda, Spoonriver, Sapor, Cue, Fugaise, the Dakota, 112 Eatery, the Town Talk Diner, Solera, the Modern Cafe, the Corner Table, the Craftsman, Bayport Cookery, and, in St. Paul, Heartland, Zander Cafe, Cafe 128, Au Rebours, and W. A. Frost. We should certainly all support these places, and whomever I've left out, to the best of our abilities—but it seems Polyanna-ish to say that that alone is the answer. Perhaps I'm just stuck in that stage of grief called "going endlessly over things that can't be changed," but this all just seems awful to me. I cherish the idea of meritocracy, and what seems to be happening in our city right now is that the best and brightest are our vulnerable outliers, and have gotten mowed down first. If it's as bad as all that, what does the future hold?

To answer that, I called up Doug Flicker again, seeking more. "Everything is born, and lives, and dies," he told me. "Hopefully sooner than later, we'll open something new. I will evolve; hopefully everyone will evolve. When we opened Auriga we wanted to change something, we didn't want to be here for the rest of our lives. At the time we thought it would go for 10 years and we'd move on, and that seems to be coming true, a few months early. It's not a failure to close—because how do you define success? I was married here, Mel was married here, Scott was married here," said Flicker, naming two of Auriga's founders. "There have been babies born, countless first dates.... The bottom line is, I'm proud of what I've done here; as hard as it is to tell people that they're out of a job, it's been nice working with so many people. I feel a little like a grandparent or something, I look out and feel good about all the things I've gotten to do. There's a part of me that will die along with this restaurant...." he trailed off. "I don't want to stop cooking, and hopefully after all the dust settles I'll start looking at places. I wish it was as simple as pointing a finger and saying, this was the cause, that was the cause, but it's not. A lot of things have changed in Minneapolis, not just competition, but what it takes to do business. It's time to reinvent myself again, to get some piss and vinegar back in me, readjust, fuel the fire."

All I can do right now is pray that this is just that for our city too, a time to fuel the fire, and not as awful as it feels.

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