Broders' Michael Rostance: Chef Chat, Part 2

Here's part two of our chat with Michael Rostance, executive chef at Broders' Cucina Italiana and Pasta Bar in south Minneapolis. (Read part one here.) Today we talk with the veteran chef about the challenges of grilling in front of customers and why American dried pasta will never be as good as Italian. [jump]

How do you bring Minnesota and Italian food together?
I don't find it to be that much of a contradiction since Italian food is very localized. We just find ingredients here and put them in a dish that has an Italian feel to it. Certainly anything that has tomatoes, if tomatoes are in season, works great.

We have wonderful meat products here. We source all of that locally. We try to use that in very Italian presentations. Sometimes we'll throw in something that's obviously completely an American ingredient, but again, not such a far reach, since even tomatoes in Italy are an import from the New World. All food is sort of fusion food in a way.

Do you have an American example from the current menu?
I'll tell you one thing that's not totally American but we used a local product and applied it to an Italian recipe: linguine con trota--linguine with smoked trout. This was a recipe that I tried when I was in Sienna [Tuscany] last time. We happen to have Star Prairie Trout Farm in Wisconsin, some of the best trout you can find.

Where do you get ingredients like seafood and truffles?
Truffles come from Italy. Seafood we try to source from wherever we can find the most sustainable method--line caught, things like that. We're always looking for the best we can find in Minnesota. For instance, we were really well known for our mussels here for quite a number of years. After September 11 the inspection process on the docks on the coasts became very, very rigid, so there's an extra day or two of holding time from the shipping areas. Very often the freshest mussels you can get are four or five days old before you get them, so I just took them off the menu. I wasn't happy with that.

Where do you get produce from?
I get a lot of my stuff from Riverbend Farms. We also do business with a group of schoolkids called City Fresh Produce. It's a program that was developed through the arboretum. The kids grow and then distribute the produce and keep a share of the benefits.

How did you start buying from City Fresh Produce?
The guy who ran the program used to live across the street.

What's new at the patio grill at Broders' Pasta Bar?
We've had the patio for quite a while, but we started developing it as a grill area last year. This year we added the roof and more heat lamps and enclosed it some more, so it's a little less weather dependent.

We have a grill, so we grill many of our things to order, and people sit right at the bar and watch us grill. We do small plates, much like a tapas situation. It changes constantly. Right now, for instance, we have seared figs with a homemade ricotta and local berries. We serve it with bruschetta that we toast right on the grill.

What are the challenges when cooking on the patio grill?
The nature of the cooking is quite different. You're not putting out a meal in a specific order as you would in a restaurant, since everything is pretty much appetizers. You're trying to gauge what goes well with what, and you don't want to have 10 plates on the table at once. We try to create that course situation without customers realizing that we're doing it.

The weather is always a trick. Right over that grill it gets hot. The rain last year was really tricky. Now we have an awning that comes out, and unless it's really windy, it'll let us cook in a light rain.

Also the other thing is we have an open kitchen in both places, but in the restaurant, the cooks have their backs to the restaurant and they're working. Here they're facing people and people are talking to them all the time. So they're trying to chat with people and make sure they do their food right, so that can be a little bit challenging. It's not the kind of job that every cook can do. It really requires some personality. Some people like it, some people hate it.

So you have to keep swearing to a minimum.
That's our whole kitchen. You can't do it. You can't get upset, you can't yell, you can't slam things. You just have to stay cool.

What are the qualities you require for kitchen staff?
Calm. Ability to multitask. They have to love to eat. They have to like people. They don't necessarily have to be sociable, but they have like people. A person can be shy or not be comfortable at parties but still like to serve people and make sure the guest is happy. You don't have to be a glad-hander, you just have to really appreciate people and appreciate the dining experience.

What do you mean by "dining experience"?
You have to see it not just as a bodily function. It's a social thing. Take your time and enjoy your food. Before we start our shift we have a family meal where everyone sits down and shares a meal. We don't have a huge amount of time, but we do it every day.

How often do you change your antipasti?
Most recent changes are we're finally getting local heirloom tomatoes. We do a caprese year round, but now we're actually doing the classic caprese salad with fresh heirloom tomatoes. Unlike some places, I will not serve lousy hothouse tomatoes on a caprese salad. It just doesn't make any sense to me.

What are the foods that you insist on making yourself for the restaurant?
We make almost everything ourselves. Our pasta, of course, is number 1. Except for three or four dishes where we use dried pasta which comes from Italy, all of our pasta is made here. We take great pride in our pasta being the best that you can find anywhere from Chicago to San Francisco.

We make all of our own sauces. If you look in our kitchen, there's very little on our shelves of dried foods. Almost everything we do ourselves.

What kind of dried pasta do you use?
We only use Italian dried pasta because no matter how good the American versions are they make one basic error and that is they make their pasta with Teflon dyes. It's too slick and it doesn't hold the sauce. Good pasta in Italy is made on brass dyes. The brass gets texture to it, and the pasta gets texture from that that allows the pasta to hang on to the sauce.

I would say of all the things on the menu--we have 21 items--about 80 percent are fresh pasta.

What is your favorite dish on the menu?
I'm kind of a classic taste myself. Fettuccini alla Bolognese. It's a simple meat sauce. There's nothing [on the menu] I don't like. I wouldn't serve something I don't like.

How much time does it take to make pasta from scratch?
I have a prep crew that comes in at about 5:30 or 6 a.m., and they work until about 2:30 p.m. and then my crew comes in for the line functions. But prep really goes on all day. It's a big menu and we're really busy. There's no night in summer that we don't serve at least 200 people, and usually it's closer to 300. That goes on pretty much year-round.

Who are your customers?
We've been very into families. We've kind of built this business on regular business and now of course a lot more people know about it that come from everywhere.

Why don't you do reservations?
We only have 67 seats, and if we locked them up with reservations, we couldn't get the kind of numbers that we have now. We would really have to scale back on what we do. You have to wait up to an hour on a busy night. That was one of the reasons we kind of did the patio, at least during the summer, to relieve some of the pressure on the dining room. We have that little bar in the hallway there so people can easily get a drink. We don't force anybody out, and we always tell people if they come we'll fit them in. As long as people are coming in the door, we're still open.

That must make your days pretty long.
It can. You just try to put yourself in the place of the customer. If they've come in and they've waited an hour and they don't get to sit down until just past closing time, what, are you going to be angry with them for wanting to spend their money with you? I don't think so.

If you could put any dish on your menu, what would it be?
I would have some sort of a fresh truffle dish on the menu all the time.

Do people have a taste for that?
Some do. More would if we had it all the time.

Our chat with Michael Rostance continues tomorrow.