Corner Table chef Thomas Boemer talks fried chicken, Alain Ducasse, and Revival

Boemer prepping for a Thursday dinner rush at Corner Table.
Boemer prepping for a Thursday dinner rush at Corner Table.
Grant Tillery

When Chef Thomas Boemer assumed the helm at Corner Table in south Minneapolis, he transformed this neighborhood eatery to a destination restaurant. Three years later, the chef with a pedigree that includes a stint at Alain Ducasse's Mix in Las Vegas, has shepherded the restaurant to its new location further down Nicollet Avenue. Now, just one month into the new Corner Table 3.0 location, Boemer and crew are busier still -- putting the finishing touches on Revival, his new Southern joint due late this summer in the original Corner Table spot.  

See also:
First Look: Brunch at the new Corner Table

Hot Dish: What was the inspiration for the new decor in Corner Table 3.0?

Thomas Boemer: One of our good friends said they love going to our restaurant because it's like being at a dinner party. This [space] has that same feel of comfort, but it still has refinement. I was lucky enough to help and work with some of my former employers on the woodwork as well.  

Have you done woodworking before?

I was a cabinetmaker for a couple of years, right down the street. I decided to come back into the [restaurant] industry when I was having my son.

How long were you doing woodwork?  Why the career change?

About five years. I had been in the food industry since I was old enough to work. After Vegas, we came back here and opened a restaurant with other individuals, and it didn't work out. It seemed like a good time to take a break from the industry. You don't realize until you get out of it that it becomes a part of you.

What led you to Vegas in the first place?

Back when I was in culinary school, I opened up a book of many chefs and their food. There was a page I came to -- Chef Ducasse; it showed his food and philosophies. In that instant, I ended up connecting with it, and I ended up working for a French hotel with a few people who had worked with him. One of my chefs said he was opening a place and he would give me an interview; it was a done deal.  

So you had experience cooking in the French style?

French food is like American food: What does it really mean? There are a multitude of interpretations from classic French to Parisian to all the various iterations of modernist French cuisine. When you go and work for Ducasse, you learn Ducasse's cuisine, not French cuisine. 

But French cuisine always seems to be heralded as the gold standard of food.  Why is that?

Twenty years ago, you would say "absolutely." Ten years ago, [that] would probably still be true. Now you can find people taking any cuisine to an extremely high level. You're also coming from a culture that is different. In the United States, until recently, if you're cooking, you're seen as a low-level trade, whereas in Europe you'd be well respected. Now you have the celebrity chef angle that's changed people's viewpoints a little bit.

When you talk about cooking as a trade, it sparks the debate of cooking as an art versus cooking as a craft.

There was a recent interview with Ducasse where he said, "No genius ever came out of the kitchen." We are a bridge between our purveyors and our clients, from our farmers to the person that sits here. Is every chef an artist? No. Is every chef a craftsman? No. Some are true craftsmen and some may provoke an artistic response.  

Which would you consider yourself?

We're definitely craftsmen here. The restaurant is part of the community -- we're part of the food community, the Kingfield neighborhood, people's lives, and how they celebrate and enjoy food. To be a steward of that is important.  

How has your cooking changed Corner Table?

You can talk about technique and you can talk about origin, but we work very strongly with our farmers and purveyors. We develop our menus in a reactive way; when I get produce or find out what's coming off of the farms right now, our menu develops out of that.  

One thing I believe is that food should tell a story about who you are, where you come from, where you are right now. Our food speaks through the highest level of European technique mixed with local ingredients and a myriad of influences from my professional life and childhood. You can see Midwestern, French, and Southern all in one plate -- that's balanced to be a true expression of where we're at as a restaurant at a given point in time.

What are your Southern roots?

When I was five, we moved to Lexington, N.C., which is a famed barbecue town. It's known for its classic Carolina style, if you've ever heard of Lexington barbecue. That's where food started for me. Growing up, we weren't a food-driven family. There was not a lot of cooking going on; it was a lot of boxed meals.  

My first introduction to food was incredible Southern family meals that I got to take part in by going to friends' houses. It was big highlight of the week for me: [eating] fried chicken and playing video games. The first time I had real Southern-fried chicken, I walked into a friend of mine's house and he wasn't home. His mother was making fried chicken, and the whole kitchen was laid out with chicken frying and some being battered, and biscuits and greens. She looked at me and [said], "Don't just stand there with your mouth open. Come help me." I must've been standing there for five minutes, puzzled by the fact that you could make fried chicken without going to the store to buy it. That's why fried chicken is a very important thing to me.  

Which is why Revival will be centered around fried chicken. Is it just going to serve fried chicken, or will it dish up other Southern staples?

It is centered around it, because, for me, the soul of the restaurant is to create that classic Southern meal. We're going to explore certain parts of the South. You're going to get Cajun fried chicken, classic Southern [fried chicken], and some Tennessee hot.  

Are you opening it because of the dearth of fried chicken offerings in the Twin Cities?

We've lost our fried chickens. We've lost our good hamburgers. We've lost these simple, amazing American foods through commoditization, this everything-in-a-box. The only thing you can find is [a] cardboard-tasting meal taken out of a box, dropped into a fryer; it has more chemicals than you know what to do with. Every hamburger is [a] pink slime burger, with sawdust and cellulose and fillers.

That's why with fried chicken, what we'll be doing is getting back to this real tradition, rebuilding communal and family dining. The Southern influence we slowly started to bring in through Corner Table -- things like our hush puppies, cornbread, Southern-fried rabbit -- is that same style and technique. I was really surprised that people had an interest in exploring another form of American cuisine.

It was out of that that the idea grew. We started playing around with it and doing some fried chicken. We just sat back and we'd eat it and we'd be like, "Why can't you get this anywhere?" It was not "should we" or "it's a good idea;" we had to do it.  

When you're not cooking at Corner Table or working on Revival, where do you like to eat around town?

I always hit up Patisserie 46. I love pastries, I love incredible bread; chef Kraus is doing work on a whole [different] level. This is a guy who's on the American team for the Bocuse d'Or in Lyon, France. That's ridiculous that there's that level of talent and experience in this community. We have one of the best bakeries in the United States right here in this neighborhood. I walk in there and say, "I wonder if people realize what's here?"

One of my favorite things to eat in this city is the roti from Marla's Caribbean. I don't go there as often as I'd want because it's a serious investment in time. But man, that jerk chicken roti is unbelievable. They'll lay on the heat, too, if you want it.  

What's your favorite dish to cook?

There was one that we did the other night for some good friends. It was an homage to a great Southern dish I used to eat. We smoked a pork jowl for eight hours, after it was brined overnight, and finished it in the oven until the outside was charred. The most succulent fat in the middle from the jowl -- it's a beautiful bark you get from doing a classic barbecue.

We served that with some hominy grits and black barbecue sauce, a sauce that's made around onions smoked with the pork, molasses, and Worcestershire sauce. It's acidic, deep, and intense. We do a number variations on that dish; we do a brisket in that style from time to time. That would be my favorite because every time I plate that, it brings me back to the South.

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