Broders' Michael Rostance: Chef Chat, Part 1

Chef Michael Rostance has always faced the pressure to produce, but it wasn't always in the kitchen. His first career was in radio, when he worked as one of the DJs who started the Twin Cities community station KFAI.

Rostance started cooking at the Black Forest Inn in Minneapolis and ran a restaurant in Greece. Now Rostance is the executive chef at Broders' Cucina Italiana and Pasta Bar, where he has worked for 24 years. While the south Minneapolis market and restaurant is celebrated for Italian imports and fresh pasta dishes, it's also the restaurant responsible for getting Minneapolis liquor laws changed so neighborhood restaurants can serve beer and wine.

In the first part of our series, we talked with Rostance about how cooking in Greece taught him about Italian food and how he learned to appreciate the simple, fresh food he now prepares at Broders'.


Are you Italian?
No, French is my heritage. But while I was living and working in Greece, I had a lot of exposure to Italians and Italian tourists and started traveling to Italy and became very interested in Italian cooking.

You took over Broders, an Italian restaurant, after running a Greek restaurant?
The restaurant was on the island of Hydra, which is about 40 miles from Athens and was in a small fishing village. We went down to the docks every day, where fishermen were bringing in fresh fish. We cooked for the locals and for the weekend people from Athens and for tourists. We were busy nine to 10 months a year, and then two months a year we'd take off.

It was a combination of Greek and Italian cuisine.


Do Italian and Greek cuisine have much in common?
They share a lot of common ingredients, but I think the Italians are more subtle and have a greater appreciation for food than the Greeks in general. They have a more extensive use of herbs.

Most of the Greek food I ate was very straightforward. It's not all that way, but not a lot of subtlety to it. Italian food is a lot more subtle, a lot more variation from place to place. A huge dedication to local, fresh things.

Could someone now start their cooking career like you and end up in the same place?
I think so. I think for most people sort of working your way through the restaurant business is probably more beneficial than extensive, formal schooling. Not that there isn't room for that and that there aren't techniques that you learn there, but the business of restaurants is quite different than school.

I think somebody with talent and somebody with ambition can certainly make their way. It's about experience and keeping your eyes and ears open and paying attention to people that know better than you. Never stop learning. It's a lot of reading and tasting and eating.

When you teach cooking classes, what is your favorite subject to cover?
I like to teaching things that have to do with demystifying food. Simple techniques. Taking things people think are complicated and breaking it down and showing them all the component parts.

Things don't have to be fancy to be delicious. Quality of ingredients is very important. Restraint is important. Don't overreach. This sense that I have to put one more spice in or that I have to put one more piece of garnish on. Let it be simple, let the food do the talking, do your preparation well, and it'll speak for itself. But there's no room to hide. It has to be good.

Italian food is much like that. It's really simple. The best food I had in Italy was almost always in people's homes or very simple, rustic--mom in the kitchen making stuff. It's just done well and done with care.

How did you start working at Broders'?
I started across the street at the deli as assistant retail manager. I was tired of working in the kitchen. It was hot and it was hard, but I knew food, and I thought, eh, I'll try that. They were selling nice Italian products, and that wasn't something you could get in Minnesota at the time.

After about a year or so, the Star Tribune had an article in their Sunday magazine, and it was a picture of Tom Broder [the founder of Broders'] on the cover flipping a pizza. And all of a sudden we were on the map, and that night the doors blew off the place, and we got real busy. Within a year or so they said we need a kitchen manager. I sort of didn't want to, but I said I'd do it for a while. I did it for about seven years, ran the kitchen across the street.

How did you become the executive chef of the pasta bar?
[The pasta bar] used to be an Amaco station. We were going to make this a catering kitchen. We did a lot of wholesaling of pasta, so we were going to make this place where we did more pasta manufacturing for wholesale and catering, and in the middle of planning that, something happened and we decided to make it a restaurant. In September or October of one year we decided to do it, and by May of the following year it was open. We opened busy and stayed busy, and I took over, helping the chef here.

Why are you a member of the Slow Food Society?
I started that on a trip to Italy in 1999. I met some people who are some of the founding members of the slow food thing, and it just appealed to my feelings about food. It was sort of before this local phase had started to gain momentum. Having traveled around Italy, it just seemed like a good thing to incorporate.

Our chat with Michael Rostance continues tomorrow.