Blackbird Chef Chris Stevens spends 80-hour work weeks at his restaurant, but there was a time not too long ago when he had real vacation time.
In fact, he was perfectly happy working in mosquito control before his partner Gail Mollner got the itch to open up a business.
Read on to learn about Stevens' life before Blackbird, as well as his embarrassing missteps during his early days in the kitchen.
Did you have any downtime while Blackbird was closed this year? We were still working a ton, tying up loose ends with the fire, and looking for a space, and then [undertaking] the whole process of opening a restaurant. It was unusual. It's not a day-to-day situation where I've had to be here at 10 to get ready for lunch service and dinner. It was nice seeing family and friends again. We work an 80-hour week every week, so we usually said, 'If you want to see us, come to the restaurant.' So it was cool to reconnect. It was a beautiful summer. It was nice being outside and having a garden again.
Where did you work before opening Blackbird? I've got a degree in biology from the U of M. I still cooked as a kid, mainly at Country Kitchen, and did that through college. When I got out, I really couldn't find a job with my degree, so I was waiting tables at Ciatti's. At the time, they were still making everything from scratch. You've got to remember, this was in '92, and it was pretty cool that they were making sauces from scratch. I knew how to cook, but not how to make fresh pasta. So I started picking up a few prep shifts there and I really enjoyed it. I thought, 'What the heck, I can make money at this.' So I applied and got a job at the Dakota, when it was in St. Paul under Ken Goff--Ken teaches at Le Cordon Bleu right now--and they were doing everything from scratch. The menu was really focused on Midwestern cuisine; all the fresh [produce] was locally bought. That was a lot of fun.
Then I ended up at Table of Contents in St. Paul, and I was a line cook there for five or six years. I cooked my way up and ended up taking over the kitchen in '97, and was executive chef there for three years. When they closed the location, I needed a change. I got a job at mosquito control with my degree, and did that for seven years. And that was a really good time. The people were awesome, there was good pay and benefits and vacation. But Gail was getting itchy feet to do a restaurant or a coffee shop or something, and we ran into some friends who owned the building at 50th and Bryant. They said we should try to do something there, because Caribou was moving out. Gail started looking at what would work there and decided it had to be more of a full-service restaurant than a coffee shop. I said I'd pitch in and help, and it kind of blew up into this thing that we had to quit our jobs for.
What is your favorite music to cook by? I let the youngsters run the radio.
Do you have any rules of conduct for the kitchen? It's a pretty tight crew; we've all been sous chefs around town. We're all super professional, we're pretty casual and keep each other in check.
Ninety percent of your old staff came back, right? Yeah, I hired two new cooks just because we needed more bodies.
Do you have a favorite Twin Cities restaurant? There are so many good ones. This summer we were really big into Be'Wiched. We were always downtown during the day, and we'd stop and have a sandwich.
What's your most embarrassing moment in the kitchen? This is back in the day, when I was in college. It was stupid; it was at Country Kitchen. They had this weird freezer. It's on the line, you open the door and they have jalapeno peppers and all that crap in there. It was breakfast time. There were these frozen blueberries for the pancakes on the second shelf. I knocked it down, and they spilled all over the place. We were super busy, so they melted and [the kitchen] got totally messed up. They called me 'Blueberry' from then on.
What's your favorite dish to cook at home? We always have oatmeal every morning. It's this crazy mix of steel-cut oats and quinoa and polenta. We put different stuff in it. That's about the only thing we can cook at home now, because we're always here. I love cooking that.
Anything you'd like customers to know during opening week? We're super happy to be open. We're looking forward to having our regulars back, and meeting new people too.