Dennis Leaf-Smith of 112 Eatery: Chef Chat, Part 2

We're celebrating the 112 Eatery's seventh birthday by featuring its chef de cuisine, Dennis Leaf-Smith. Yesterday, we learned how he cut his teeth as a young chef, first in local kitchens and then out west (click here to read part 1 of our conversation).

Today, he tells us how he ended up at the 112, and then we talk cooking. He shares the ins and outs of menu development, and what Ketel One has to do with it. Plus, he reveals who his harshest critic is, and gives us a star-studded list of his favorite restaurants and chefs--including one he'd die to meet. Literally.

It sounds like you had a great experience in San Francisco. What happened when you came back to Minneapolis? I'd been out there for a year, so when I came back, I was 22. I bounced around from restaurant to restaurant for a while, and ended up at Café/Bar Lurcat.

Is that how you met Isaac Becker? Yeah, I was just a line cook at the time, but I helped open Café/Bar Lurcat. He was there a few years, and then opened the 112. At first, he only needed part-time help. And since I was still full-time at Lurcat, I'd work five days at Lurcat, and then go to the 112 on my two days off.

Once you made the official leap from Lurcat to 112 and became the chef de cuisine, how did things change? As a sous chef, I was already kind of running the day-to-day. But when I was promoted, I had more input, and did more menu development.

Ooo... the power of the menu. What was your approach? When I first became the chef de cuisine, I thought we should change the menu frequently, keep it fresh. But in talking with Isaac and seeing which dishes we sold the most of, I realized there were certain things people liked coming in for. And it didn't make any sense to take something off the menu if people loved it. So there are some things we'll never take off--like the tartar. People would go crazy.

Yeah, you'd get skewered in the press, and people would come in here with flaming torches. Instead of walking in and trying to change everything, you try to figure out what works and what doesn't, and then you only change it if it needs to be changed.

That makes sense--unless you're talking about the butterscotch budino. The budino stays.

[Sigh of relief] How do you come up with new recipes? [Laughing] I have no idea. I wish I had an answer to that. I close my eyes really tight and hope for the best.

Come on. There's got to be something. There's a joke around here that the menu inspiration comes from me sitting on my deck eating sunflower seeds and drinking a glass of Ketel One.

Hmm...that's how I work too. Normally I start thinking, "what's coming into season?" My sous chef, Kevin, and I are already working on spring vegetables: do we want to do ramps, mushrooms, asparagus? Usually, I have two days off a week. So my first night, I like cooking at home, and then I'll work on recipes or the menu for the next season. The second night, I try to get out. I think you can get too far down the rabbit hole and get so focused on what you're doing next you start thinking about it way too much. So it's nice to have one day where you just see a movie, get dinner, go bowling--something, anything to take your mind off of work.

When you make a new dish, how do you know when it's mind-blowingly great? First of all, it's got to taste good. But then I also like to add one ingredient people don't normally eat, that they wouldn't expect.

Like what? Like in the monkfish posole. The posole itself is made with beef tripe, which very few people have had. If somebody doesn't know what it is, they might look at it and say, "I don't eat tripe," or "I don't like it." But have they had it before?

It's not snipe. It's not made up. I try to make dishes that people have heard of--with a little variation here or there, so they can try something new. Hopefully they eat it and go, "I do like that. I didn't think I was gonna like tripe, but I did."

That's a cool philosophy. I think I get it mostly from Isaac. He's not into foams and powders--we don't dial into that much. There are restaurants that do it really well, and that's great. But I think if I showed him a deconstructed powdered foam he'd look at me like, "Well..."

How about when you cook at home? What did you make for dinner last night? Braised beef, a pot roast basically. Then I made escarole and chorizo as a side dish.

Is that pretty typical--tasty but simple? Yeah, nothing too fancy. Last night I was working on a new side dish with parsnips and chorizo. So I thought, maybe I'll just toss the parsnips in with the braised beef, and use escarole with the chorizo.

What if you're cooking to impress? If you want to make your girlfriend the ultimate meal, what do you make? Is there a Denny special? Not really. She actually eats a lot of my trial runs. I'll make dinner and say, "I'm working on the monkfish posole" or whatever it may be. And she'll be like, "Eh..."

That's funny. Is she your harshest critic? No, I think I'm my own harshest critic. There are a fair amount of things I make that are so bad. I'm embarrassed to show Kevin. For sure I'm not gonna show Isaac. I won't even let the other line cooks see what I've made. I think, "Throw it away--hide the evidence!"

What's your favorite thing to cook when you aren't in the restaurant? Grilling in the summertime is my favorite thing. Normally it'll be myself and a handful of friends, and everything comes off the grill. It's fun, relaxing, no pressure.

If you could learn more about a particular cuisine, what would it be? Probably really good, authentic Mexican cuisine. I've read Rick Bayless's books and eaten at his restaurants in Chicago. There are so many different ingredients, and such depth of flavor--it's really appealing to me. I also wish I was better at baking, especially desserts.

That's OK, you have a pastry chef for that. And we've got a great one. Diane Yang does all our pastries.

If you could cook with anyone in the whole world--dead or alive--who would it be? Julia Child. She was really the first TV chef. I've seen some old episodes on PBS, and they're great. If she cut into something and it was bad (like a rotten onion), she'd just laugh and throw it away. She made cooking fun and approachable, so I think that'd be a blast to cook with her.

How about restaurants? What are the best places you've ever been--or places you want to go? We just went on a trip to New York and had a lot of great meals.

There are incredible restaurants in New York. What were you doing there--just eating? Isaac took Eric [Sather, chef de cuisine at Bar La Grassa] and myself to New York on a business trip to do research.

That sounds fantastic. Where did you go? We went to a ton of great restaurants. We had dinner at Marea--an Italian seafood restaurant. Michael White's the chef there. It was amazing.

What did you have? Everything. I had a shrimp pasta dish that was unbelievably good. It was shrimp, bone marrow, and I think cavatelli. We also ate at Morimoto's restaurant--it was great. The only one we didn't get to was Tom Colicchio's. I'd love to eat at Craft. But we did get to Mario Batali's Eataly. It's like a playground for chefs. It's wild. There's an entire department of fresh pasta, a whole wall of every dried pasta you thought possible, a meat shop, a fish counter, rows of balsamic, Arborio rices for risotto. We probably spent an hour walking around.

Just taking it all in? Basically little kids in candy shops.

Join us tomorrow for part 3 of the interview, including a behind-the-scenes look at 112 Eatery.

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