10 years of Cosmos at the Graves Hotel: An interview with past and present chefs

Delectable dessert and several other courses at the Cosmos 10th anniversary dinner

Delectable dessert and several other courses at the Cosmos 10th anniversary dinner

Next Thursday, November 14, Cosmos at the Graves 601 will be celebrating its 10th anniversary with a very special celebratory dinner. Four all-star chefs, each of whom has worked at Cosmos and made major contributions to the kitchen there, have been invited back for this dinner where they will create and serve dishes that illustrate the evolution of this important restaurant over the course of a decade.

The Hot Dish got the chance to chat with John Occhiato, the current executive chef at Cosmos who is keeping traditions alive while carving out his own niche, and Seth Bixby Daughtry, the executive chef who helped to open Cosmos back in 2003 and put Minneapolis on the culinary hot list. We asked them all about life in the kitchen, leaving a legacy, and why neither chef considers himself a locavore.

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The Hot Dish: So let's begin at the beginning. Where were you born, raised, and where did you receive your culinary training?

Seth Bixby Daughtry: I was born in Colorado and I grew up on a ranch between Vail and Steamboat. I went to the Culinary Institute of America for my training and did my apprenticeship at the Four Seasons in Washington D.C. 
John Occhiato: I was born in Cherry Hill, New Jersey just outside Philly and grew up in Connecticut. I went to University of Connecticut to study theater and got a degree in directing but after realizing how important food was to me I enrolled at New England Culinary Institute which was then in Burlington, Vermont.

HD: What drove you to pursue this profession and how did you first end up working in the Twin Cities, since neither of you are from here originally?

SBD: I have always, always worked in restaurants. I had my first restaurant job when I was 12 and it's the only way I have ever made money. I moved to Minneapolis in 1991 after working at the Four Seasons for a job at D'Amico where I worked under Doug Flicker. It was a good experience, but in '91 the dining scene in the Twin Cities is not what it is now. I got an opportunity to work under Eric Ripert at Le Bernadin in New York City and later went to work at the Four Seasons there, which gave me really good hotel experience. I think it's why I jumped at the chance to help open the Graves. 
JO: I had gotten a degree in directing and I wanted to do film stuff after I had graduated from college but when I really starting reflecting on it, all my formative experiences revolved around food. I remember going to Disneyworld when I was 12 and my biggest takeaway and strongest memory was eating this really amazing English muffin. I started working in restaurants, then went to culinary, and moved to the Twin Cities with some theater friends specifically for a job at D'Amico Kitchen with J.P. Samuelson, where I stayed until it became Marin

HD: What is one of the first things you remember learning to cook?

SBD: I was always cooking so I don't really remember any one thing. I used to have keg parties at my house in high school and I'd be making like spring rolls and soba noodle salad. My friends thought I was crazy. 
JO: Growing up, food and cooking was always around me but specifically I remember baking with my grandmother. My parents told me when I was like a year old I would push my chair over and throw away all my baby food except for the chocolate pudding. I was eating steak before I had teeth. 

HD: When you became a professional, what dish or style of cooking became your signature?

SBD: It's not my personal signature, I suppose but I love Asian food and I work those flavors in a lot. The Asian markets here rival the ones in NYC. My family has five generations of Portuguese fisherman so I think seafood is what is really in my blood. I also love bacon. 
JO: My favorite foods and most of the things that I cook are definitely savory. So I'd characterize my style as being savory and made with simplicity. I don't do like eleven items in a dish if they don't all absolutely need to be there. I do three or four and really work on the details and get creative with them.

HD: What is your culinary guilty pleasure?

SBD: In the winter when I go ice fishing, I heat up half-and-half and just melt a few pieces from a really good bar of chocolate into and drink that. 
JO: Nachos. But good nachos.

HD: What items are always in your fridge or pantry at home?

SBD: We eat pretty simply, actually. We almost always have apples because we have a few trees in our yard. We usually have grapes, milk, chocolate, and we eat a lot of cheese.
JO:  I eat peanut butter straight from the jar so I go through a jar of peanut butter in like two weeks. And corn chips. Always. In my fridge I have the La Croix pamplemousse sparkling water. 

HD: When you get a little time off from the restaurant, where else do you like to go eat in the Twin Cities?

JO: I live in Farmington right near Northfield so when I have a day off I go to this little Thai restaurant down there or I'll go see other chef friends at their restaurants. Sometimes I'll go to Hong Kong Noodles or Holy Land

HD: What do you think is the biggest thing you took away from your experience at Cosmos? What do you consider to be the legacy you left there or intend to leave there?

SBD: Cosmos -- or rather, leaving Cosmos, as good as an experience as it was -- is what really launched my career. I don't define myself entirely by the fact that I am a chef. I am prouder of my food advocacy work with groups like Share our Strength, Cooking Matters, and Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign. I'm even more proud of my kids and being a dad. But I do know that I wouldn't be doing what I am doing without the Graves family, who put a huge amount of faith in me. I got probably one of the best compliments of my career while I was working at Cosmos which was from the James Beard Foundation who said: "It's not often that one restaurant raises the culinary bar for an entire city, but that's just what happened when Cosmos descended upon Minneapolis with chef Seth Bixby Daugherty at the helm." I think I'd consider that my legacy.
JO: I spent most of my career working with Italian food and while it was comforting to have those parameters, it's been a good challenge for me to not have that at Cosmos. I have a lot more freedom but it took me awhile to embrace that. I glommed on to the idea of Modern...American. The ellipsis there is very important. We do modern food that is right on the edge of cutting edge. It's trendy but not totally tied to that and I hope that is what comes through in our food so it's lasting. As far as the impact it's had on me, I'm now more of a proponent of fresh than local. The world is getting so much smaller and distribution is so wide and I dont want to limit myself. There are great producers in all 50 states and I celebrate those ingredients.  And though I do support local farmers, what I really strive for is just get the most pristine product. I can get a Wisconsin-made parm that is as good as a grana coming from Italy. That's pretty cool. 
SBD: That was basically the approach I took with Cosmos at the beginning, too. We called it global cuisine when I started there. I was getting product from all over because we wanted the best of the best. We got lamb from Culpeper, Virginia, herbs from a friend in Ohio, we had baby eels on the menu from Portland, Maine. All those products, all those places -- it all kind of came to a head at Cosmos.

HD: What are you most looking forward to at the anniversary dinner?

SBD: Having the chance to reflect on my time there and hopefully getting a chance to really express my gratitude to the Graves family. I am also excited because I'm bringing back the red wine-braised veal cheeks with foie gras and lentil stew for one night only.
JO: I'm excited to see each person's style but then to have it all come together to make a cohesive meal. It's great company to be in -- Seth, Hakan (Lundberg, currently the executive chef at the Minneapolis Club), and Stephen (Trojahn, now the chef and owner of Gastrotruck). Whenever you get chefs together there's great camaraderie, and it will be a blast to see the last 10 years all side by side in the kitchen.

Tickets to the anniversary dinner (which features an open bar) are $50 per person and are available for purchase here.  

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