Corner Table's Scott Pampuch, Chef Chat Part 2

We recently sat down in the kitchen at Corner Table to talk with chef-owner Scott Pampuch about all that he has in store for his restaurant, as well as what he's been through in the six and a half years since it opened. 

At the start of the interview he was feeding chunks of pork into a giant mixer. By now he's gotten his room set up for the beginning of a Saturday night service, in addition to dicing up a gorgeous hunk of fatback and mixing it, along with seasonings, into the pork in a first attempt at sausage. On Sunday April 3, Pampuch and his staff will open for breakfast, and he's been contemplating house-made sausage for the meal. Maple or ginger flavor to spike the pork? That's just the beginning of the tough calls he's had to deal with. Today he opens up about the decisions he's made and the heat they've drawn. (If you missed yesterday, catch up here.)

How would you describe your style of food?
This is just how I cook. It's rooted in what I learned at the Modern. I've heard it described as too simple, very masculine, too confusing. It's just the result of all that I've read, eaten, learned, seen, tasted, experienced.

You know, it sounds to me like what you're describing is art.
(Blanches and returns to the walk-in cooler for a bit.) I just try not to get in the way of the food, the menu, or the ingredients. We goof around. 

I take the responsibility of opening my door and saying, "Food should give you a sense of place."  Chicago, Seattle, Charlotte, the food is here--I'm here. If I was in San Fransisco I'd be doing seafood.

With the Muir Glen dinner and your association with a commercial product featuring tomatoes grown in California, you knew you were going to take some heat.  What did you think of the reaction you received?
It was exactly what I expected. The people who took shots were the people I expected to take shots. What I said is that it's a great home use product.

Everyone knows I have a problem with Big Ag. Just because I disagree with a philosophy doesn't mean I'm not going to sit down and have a conversation. I can stand back and yell at them, but what good does that do? The opportunity came to me--the opportunity to look first hand at what I disagree with. I'd be a big idiot not to take that opportunity to get up and ask the questions and listen to the answers. When they called me up I said, "I don't agree with what you do." They said, "Do you know what we're doing?" And so I went and learned.

It's certified organic soil, certified organic product that's hand harvested, which is almost unheard of with tomatoes. I got to have a conversation with a multigenerational farmer. I went to the property to see where people were picking, what the working conditions were like.  They're paid a good working wage for manual labor. There's no BPA in the cans. I learned so much. I was given the opportunity to treat them like I would with any of my suppliers.

If a home cook is going to use a commercially canned tomato, this is a good one to use.  I don't use it. I used what I was given. I used them for the press dinner and the recipes, and then they were on the menu for a little bit. When they were gone, they were gone.

I'm proud of what we do, so I talk about it. I'm doing what I think is right. Home cooks say that they don't have time to cook at home, and that's part of what the deli case is all about.

Other chefs have knives, I have my deli case. I have a dream of being an old man behind a butcher case.

You're very active on Twitter.  With that, Facebook, and the restaurant's blog, how do you feel about the way social media has chefs more closely interacting with diners?
You have to stay relevant and out front, that's the bottom line. Does Coke need more advertising? No, but they've got a Facebook page. Why? To stay relevant.

At first I criticized it, but now it's a positive influence on the biz. I can text with suppliers. I'm communicating with chefs across the country. But at first I despised it. "Those darn kids and their Googlebox!" (shakes fist.)

It's very different than running a restaurant five years ago. It's all changing so drastically. The priority is still finding the food; buy local, buy often, eat fresh. Now it's all tied to a sense of community. Social media is great to connect and then meet face to face. By Tweeting every week the restaurant is busier. 

That's part of why we did away with reservations. People have a perceived sense of value, that our food is going to be expensive or it's going to be hard to get in. Right now I don't have a single entree that's over $20. It's very affordable.

How has the Twin Cities restaurant landscape changed in the last six years?
We have a great food community in this town. I'm amazed by the level of awareness of the restaurant experience. I think we could be a great dining city, but we have a long way to go.  Right now I'd say that I share my customers with about nine other restaurants. That's part of why I'm doing the CSK (Community Shared Kitchen, boxes of some of the ingredients that they use, homemade pickled vegetables, meats, etc. Available for purchase through the restaurant's website). And with teaching classes. We need more people to jump on board.

How would you say the Kingfield neighborhood has changed in the time that you've been open?
It's an interesting neighborhood. It's about as neighborhoody as you can get. It's kind of replacing what Uptown used to be as far as the independence.

This neighborhood is the coolest place that 9 out of 10 people don't know about. Now we've got the best chef in town with Doug Flicker (Piccolo). We have the best baker in town with Solveig (Tofte of Sun Street Breads.)

When did you add the chef table to the kitchen?
It started with the tasting menu in the dining room. We added the table two years ago because of friends wanting to hang out in here. We charge $125 for it, but what that means depends on who you are. There's no set course amount. You could have 26 courses and the price remains the same. Meanwhile, we do still have the more affordable tasting menus in the dining room.

Join us tomorrow for the final installment when Pampuch tells us about his television debut

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