Graves 601 Hotel
601 First Avenue N., Minneapolis
jP American Bistro
2937 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
It was one of those winter days in Minnesota that's as gray and patchy as a dead elephant, and not much more inspiring. I stood in the sparkling, robotically misted aisle of lettuces in my local grocery palace, staring at the things I knew should make the "center" of my plate—the tufts of kale, the cords of carrots, the lumps of squash—and I hadn't a single thought in my food-saturated head of what to do with any of them.
I was on a sabbatical, so the nightly need to dine out was gone and replaced by, of all things, the nightly need to dine in. I had gone through all my by-heart recipes, and so now I stood there in the overfull aisles, famished, wan, and despairing. Like Robinson Crusoe, I found myself shipwrecked, strained, forced to take the very measure of my soul when confronted with rough and unforgiving elements—never mind the stone-ground chips and Belgian chocolates within arm's reach!
As the magnitude of the situation came fully upon me, I cracked, and verily howled to the heavens: "Why can't the Twin Cities' top chefs cook something for me, in my house, without me having to get dressed and entertain them? And why can't they cook with the commodity produce we commoners are saddled with, instead of the 60-year-old balsamic vinegar and FedEx'd microgreens they always use? I mean, why can't the Twin Cities top chefs do something with a bag of carrots already?"
Thus began the project I've come to call the Bag of Carrots Invitational, which has taught me more about chefs than I ever deserved to learn with such a silly premise. I contacted two of Minneapolis's best chefs, Seth Bixby Daugherty and J.P. Samuelson, and asked them if they could come up with a recipe based on the plainest of all produce, a bag of carrots. A recipe for everyday Joes in everyday kitchens. No chef tricks, I stipulated, no $3,000 blenders that create ice cream as they whir, no black truffles, no relying on a staff for pithless yuzu reductions.
I sat back and waited for my results. And waited. And waited. Top chefs, it turns out, are busier than a box of Kleenex at a PeeWee hockey tournament. Six months later, I find myself contemplating bagged winter carrots in the height of farmers' market season, but no matter.
The first chef, Seth Bixby Daugherty, is the head of the restaurant Cosmos downtown, and is the creative chief of restaurant operations for the Graves hotel empire, currently expanding into Chicago, California, and ultra-high-pressure New York City. Daugherty was also named, last year, by Food & Wine magazine, one of the best new chefs in America, and he seems to have achieved the odd distinction of being somehow more famous nationally than he is here—probably because his restaurant is up on the fourth floor of the Graves 601 Hotel, the thing that used to be called Le Meridien and is across from the Target Center. His mega-underdog status isn't why I picked him, though. I chose Daugherty because he has an almost mysterious cooking style. His dishes are complexly built, yet ultimately they come across as forthright and simple.
Once I got the recipe, I interviewed Daugherty to find out his reasoning. "I was thinking about kids, about what my kids will eat," he told me, "and what other kids might eat. My kids have been eating vegetables their whole life, they know what a pumpkin is, what's a cauliflower, but I think most kids today are completely uneducated about food, and it's absolutely a crisis. Food is as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Can you learn anything if you're functionally starving? Issues of obesity, diabetes, heart disease—unless we get kids educated about food, things are going to get worse than anyone can imagine."
It turns out that Daugherty is on a mission to get the Eden Prairie schools, where his two children are enrolled, to serve higher quality food, and is meeting a lot of resistance. "If you look at a group of kids today, it's kind of grotesque," Daugherty told me. "They're eating chicken nuggets every day, and you know [their diet] is full of hormones, and they've got a Coke in their hand at 1:00 in the afternoon, and you wonder why they're struggling with ADD and have breasts in second grade. Unless we address this issue of what kids eat as a culture it's going to get worse and worse.
"In the Eden Prairie school district they blame money, but they have enough money to have an indoor practice facility for the football team, just not enough to invest in the food that goes into their students," he continues. "It's frustrating and embarrassing, with everything we know about nutrition as a culture to just be leaving our own children malnourished and vulnerable like this. I'm trying to make a stink and it's not making me popular, but we're only on this planet for a very short time, and if I can do something to help people less fortunate than me, I'm going to do it."
Of course, when most people think of the less fortunate they don't think of the Coke-guzzling tots of prosperous Eden Prairie, but perhaps in a few decades when brains and bones built of corn syrup start breaking down, we all will. Daugherty himself grew up in upstate New York with a single mother who read Escoffier, made a living baking for local restaurants, and put together a diet for her children largely based on raw milk and fresh eggs bartered from local farms. Daugherty and his wife have continued the tradition of putting real food into Daugherty youth; young Emma and younger Cole roll their own vegetable spring rolls and make scratch crepes. Daugherty's children are even present in this recipe, albeit secretly: They are the mint harvesters and target audience of the sugar-frosted garnish of candied ginger. A sprinkling of sugar makes the two pounds of carrots go down.
The secrets in this recipe don't end there, actually. When I talked to Daugherty about the soup, before making it, he admitted that in the restaurant he'd probably perk it up in a couple of ways. He'd throw a piece of ginger in the blender while puréeing the soup for a little extra kick, and might even dot the soup with cream, to serve.
I made the recipe, keeping his tricks in mind. It was easy as could be, and more savory than I expected (for some reason I thought the soup would be sweet, but all that cooking brings out the onion more strongly). The ginger gets placed in a little mound in the middle to serve, and adds textural interest the whole time you eat it, as it starts out slightly crisp, but becomes more and more gelatinous as the soup sits. The chopped mint adds a surprisingly peppery edge. I really loved this soup, but loved it even more when I started messing around with the serving of it. I added the fresh ginger at the end, put a spoonful in a shot glass and poured just the tiniest dribble of cream into the glass, so it bloomed at the top in white dots. "Hey, we're suddenly in a restaurant!" I cried triumphantly, to the cabinets. Pull this one out at Thanksgiving and your relatives will think you spent a term in cooking school.
The second chef I spoke to for my Bag of Carrots Invitational was J.P. Samuelson, of jP American Bistro, whom I chose because he's supremely talented and I don't have a good reason to talk about him or his restaurant often enough. Samuelson and I ended up speaking half a dozen times over the six months we were both working on this story, and I was surprised to look back at my notes and see how much our early conversations turned on issues of kitchen management. We seemed to be constantly discussing the challenges of getting through a case of cucumbers when you only need to chop a few for a Pimm's Cup. When Samuelson finally parted with this recipe, I wasn't surprised to find it involved preservation.
Quizzing Samuelson on how he came to this recipe unearthed a fascinating mix of biography and philosophy. It all started with his Swedish grandmother in Iowa, or with Fernand Point, the father of modern French cuisine, or with the fact that Samuelson's wife was questioning his commitment to doing something with the carrots that came up in the vegetable patch by the back door.
"My wife is giving me a hard time about these carrots, if I'm going to use them, and I'm like, 'Yes, I'm going to use them.' Abby, there's more water on the table if you need it," J.P. said as we began our interview. His young daughter had pilfered one of the Anaheim peppers from his bowl of pickled carrots, and had discovered the sweet first taste concealed a spicy burn. "My grandma always had a fresh pickle like this going," Samuelson continued, explaining that the "1-2-3" pickling solution of one part vinegar, two parts sugar, and three parts water was an integral one to thrifty Swedish farmsteads, like the one his grandmother ran in Odebolt, Iowa.
"She'd start the solution, save the liquid, and have thin-sliced cucumber pickles all the time," Samuelson remembered. "She wasn't much of a cook, but she was an amazing gardener, and if you think about it, much of cooking is an effort to preserve the garden. Also, preserving food generally. Every culture's cuisine is really an expression of what can be stored: rice in Asia, dried beans and corn in the Americas, wheat and faro in Europe. I'd say one of the big differences between home cooks and a chef is a home cook says, 'Oh, this sweet corn, I forgot to use it, we better throw it out,' where a chef says, 'We'll make a corn ragout with tomatoes.' For a chef it's never, 'I need to cook that halibut recipe in the magazine.' It's, 'I have this stuff, what can I do with it?'
"If you really think about this profession, a huge part of it originally was preserving the food," Samuelson continues, "protecting the food. The charcuterie guys, they were the only ones who got to touch the pork [to make salamis, sausages, hams, and such.] If the city gets in a siege, that's incredibly important. Preservation, timing, decay, degradation, chaos—this is what a chef manages. If we have a case of pineapple, we're using one or two in a dessert, maybe one or two on the pizza special; are the rest going to go bad? Pickle it, boom: It gets better and better for a few days, now it's savory, now you can use it with chicken, pork, or fish. A lot of [restaurant] cooks complain, 'It's chaos.' But when I worked for David Bouley [in New York] he always said, 'Chaos is quality.' He lived on the edge, he just loved it. Being a real cook is exactly that compromise between art and commerce, between art and craft, between art and chaos."
Furthermore, Samuelson told me, taming chaos is entirely a matter of dealing creatively with what's left in the cooler after all the customers go home. "In Ma Gastronomie, one of Fernand Point's legendary books," J. P. told me, "Point said, 'One of the most important things is for the chef to check the larder at the end of the night.' It's, 'We have this, how do we use it.' Answering that question is what makes you a better cook, and makes you better at your craft."
As we talked some more on this topic it came out that there was a direct line from legendary Fernand Point to Samuelson himself. "Fernand Point taught Paul Bocuse who taught David Bouley, and I learned from him," Samuelson recounted of his time in one of New York City's most famous kitchens. Does this mean that Samuelson had to go all the way to New York and lead a career to learn the exact same lesson his grandmother could have imparted? Namely, that the secret to life is in preserving the contents of the larder?
"I guess they had a lot in common, my grandmother and Fernand Point," laughed Samuelson. "Except she didn't have any bottles of 1904 Latour in her cellar. Just pickles." Now Samuelson takes this tradition of preserving a step further, experimenting by cooking up all sorts of exotic spices in his 1-2-3 pickling brine: cinnamon sticks, star anise, Szechuan peppercorns, Indian fennel, more. He pairs his sweet pickles with meat and fish (including sashimi), and uses them on salads. He even uses the pickling brine in vinaigrette for salad.
So, I tried his carrot pickles, a recipe as easy as shorts. As promised, next day the carrots were delicious, sweet, salty (don't ask me, since there's no salt in the brine, but they register as salty anyhow), crunchy, lively, crying out for a cold beer. I couldn't keep my hands off them; at the end of the day the carrots were gone. It was like discovering a whole new vegetable in my crisper drawer. I tried the recipe with baby carrots and with big ones. Each was successful, though the baby carrots were prettier.
More than that, though, I felt that my week of eating carrots taught me something about chefs that I wouldn't have known without this mad exercise. Mainly, that I hadn't realized how personal, how intimate and self-revealing, recipes could be. Seth Bixby Daugherty's whole life is, in some ways, in that soup: His commitment to his children, the refinement of cooking that has marked his career, his own childhood of whole foods, his political dedication to a better world. (Daugherty even met his wife while cooking for a peace march.) Same with J.P. Samuelson's carrots: His big-name French training, his intellectual allegiance to the humble origins of his craft, his Swedish-Iowa farm roots, his real-life south Minneapolis garden, his wife, his daughter, they're all there in a simple bowl of sweet pickled carrots.
People always ask me if, after nine years covering food in the same city, I get bored. The answer is never. Well, I get bored with bad restaurants, but that's just good sense. I never get bored with the good ones, and I feel like I just got a whole new window into why, and it all came from staring at a simple bag of carrots in the dead of winter. The mind boggles as to what will happen if I ever consider a box of peas.
Seth Bixby Daugherty's Carrot Ginger Soup
1 2-pound bag of carrots (organic if available), peeled and diced
1 white or Spanish onion, diced
10 cloves of garlic, minced
3 small bulbs of ginger, peeled and diced
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
3 ounces candied ginger, finely diced
20 large fresh mint leaves, chopped fine with a sharp knife
Sweat the onions, garlic, and ginger in the olive oil till soft, then add carrots and cook for another five minutes on medium heat. Add enough water to cover and some salt and pepper to taste and then simmer for about 45 minutes. Purée, strain, and adjust seasoning. Garnish with the candied ginger and the fresh mint at the last minute and serve.
jP American Bistro Sweet Swedish Pickled Carrots
3 cups water
2 cups sugar
1 cup white wine or Champagne vinegar
1 carrot, sliced
1 onion, sliced
5 white peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2 allspice berries
6-8 baby carrots, or more
4 Anaheim peppers, whole
2 shallots, halved
4 pear tomatoes
4 cherry tomatoes
Boil the pickling solution ingredients for two or three minutes. Pour over the other ingredients. Steep for half an hour, then refrigerate overnight. The pickles can be eaten immediately, but they're definitely better the next day.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.