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Don Saunders on Climbing the Ranks, Opening the Kenwood, and Training for Iron Fork

Don Saunders, chef/owner of the Kenwood, is one of this year's Iron Fork competitors

Don Saunders, chef/owner of the Kenwood, is one of this year's Iron Fork competitors

Each week, we'll interview one of the chefs participating in our 2014 Iron Fork competition. On November 6, these six culinary masterminds will go head to head to see who can create the most appetizing and healthful dish using a secret ingredient. Tickets are on sale now.

If you're a lifelong restaurateur, you know that losing is part of the game. Ideally, if you're as committed as Don Saunders, owner and head chef at the Kenwood, you also know what it feels like to win.

Saunders has had his share of ups and downs, openings and closings in his career on the Twin Cities dining scene. He'll bring that experience and a veteran chef''s composure to the 2014 Iron Fork Competition in November, where maybe he'll score himself another win.

See also: Nick O'Leary of Coup d'Etat: "These Kids Come Out of Culinary School Worthless"

Hot Dish:Can you start by giving us a little rundown of your culinary background?

I got into the restaurant business as a waiter, kind of halfway through college, not really knowing what I wanted to do as a long-term career. I tried college for a year and a half and I wasn't really getting much done so I stopped going. Then I got a job as a waiter in a restaurant and I really loved that. I really liked the atmosphere in restaurants, the customer service, and the high energy. I kept on moving to better restaurants; I was liking it even more and I just found myself gravitating towards the finer dining, or nicer restaurants, and eventually I found myself at Campiello in Uptown back when Issac Becker was working there. I was waiting tables there, and I decided that maybe I should actually look into this as an actual career. It was around that time somebody told me about a really good program at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in hotel and hospitality management. While I was there I kind of started to get into the cooking side.

Don Saunders putting together moules-frites at the Kenwood

Don Saunders putting together moules-frites at the Kenwood

What did you do post-Stout?

Right after I finished the program at Stout, I decided to go to culinary school. I have a sister that lived overseas in England and I thought that would be a great opportunity. I went to the Le Cordon Bleu in London, did a year there, finished that with a certificate and then I did an internship over there at a restaurant called Chez Bruce, which was definitely an introduction to the culinary world because the chef there was kind of a Gordon Ramsay type. He was really tough and I stuck with it for about three months. Even though I didn't really know what I was getting into, I really liked it. It seemed like it was the right career path.

How did you get involved with Vincent?

When I came back to the Cities, I got in on the opening of Vincent. He hired me as a line cook, and maybe half a year later I got promoted to sous chef. I really learned a lot from Vincent, not only just French technique and French cooking, but also just how kitchens run and how chef/owners deal with things. I was his right-hand man for almost two years. From there I went with Jack Reibel to help out at La Belle Vie in Stillwater while Tim [McKee] and Josh [Thoma] went to go open Solera. So Jack was the head chef over in Stillwater and I was sous there for a year. Then I hooked up with Doug Anderson and opened up A Rebours over in St. Paul, where I was more or less the chef de cuisine. I started getting a customer base and a little bit of a name there. I had a few of my own dishes on the menu and I kind of ran that kitchen for about a year and half before I decided to go out on my own to open Fugaise in Northeast. Again, we kind of gained a nice base of "foodie" customers and we got a lot of nice press, but it just wasn't the right space and the right timing and at around two or three years in we started to struggle financially, and I decided to close.

That's a tough loss for a chef. How did you bounce back?

I knew that if I could find the right location, get my financials together, and learn from my mistakes at Fugaise that I'd like to open my own place again in south Minneapolis. It was shortly after that when I opened In Season, which we ran successfully for about three years.

About two years into In Season, it was going well enough, and I found this location here in Kenwood and I felt like I just couldn't pass it up. It was just a location that I felt like that we could run all day -- breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The neighborhood really wanted a full-service restaurant. It was just a location where I felt I could bring a lot to the table and there was built-in demand that I really just couldn't pass it up. I ran both places for about a year, but then it came down to the fact that both restaurants were such chef-driven places, that I'd actually be fine just running the one.

With all of that experience, how well versed would you say you are in culinary competition?

Well, the only competition that I've done officially, is, well, I think it was the first Iron Fork. I didn't win, but it was a great experience. So as far as official competitions go, that was really the only one, but we do all kinds of competitions in the kitchen all of the time.

Do you have any specific training regimens for the upcoming Iron Fork?

I think that going into it, I'll have a few mental notes on various techniques and things that I'm really into right now. For example, I just put a chevre cheesecake on the menu and there's this technique where you can bake it and then whip and put it into a piping bag and use it in a variety of different ways. That's one example and maybe I'll do something savory with that cheesecake technique. As a chef with an always changing menu, there are always three, four, or five new techniques that you've recently read about or come up with that you're into at the time that would be only natural to incorporate in the competition. Also, I'm hoping there are a lot of quality ingredients on the table so that I can cook some combinations appropriate to the season.

So as a matter of strategy, you think it'll be better to go with a few techniques of the moment instead of steering toward the tried and true?

Well, it'll probably be a balance of the two. I don't think I'd try something in a competition that I hadn't tried before and that I don't know is going to work out. That's what's tricky. There's a fine line because it's like if you try baking something without a written down recipe in front of you, like baking custard or something like that, is probably a little dangerous in a competition. I'll probably do more stove-top type stuff that I can do by sight and taste instead of putting something in the oven for an hour and just hope that it comes out. Although, maybe we'll try a happy medium between the two. Maybe.

What would be your dream ingredient to get in a competition like this?

I think my dream ingredient, if I had to pick one, would be a nice piece of bluefin tuna. I love it. I'm a big sushi fan and I love to mess with really nice fish that you can cook a bunch of different ways including being eaten raw or rare. I think I would be fun to have an ingredient that could be cooked several ways and maybe it ends up like that on the plate. Some chefs call it an assiette, it's a French term that means "a plate of," where it would be like a trio of lamb, or a trio of tuna. I think that would be fun to show off an ingredient in a variety of ways. Lamb would be another good one. Duck would also be great! There are certainly a lot of ingredients out there that might throw me for a loop, but as a chef with a lot of experience, I'm thinking I can make it work.

Who will give you the biggest run for your money in this year's Iron Fork?

That's really hard, there are a lot of really good people and I almost hate to try and answer that. I know a handful of people who are in it like Nick [O'Leary] from Coup d'Etat and Erick Harcey are involved. I know both of those guys are very interested in the molecular gastronomy side of things so they can always throw in a cool new technique, which is kind of a wild card. You know, something that I might not be versed in, but depending on who the judges are, maybe that throws them over the edge, which I guess kind of intimidates me. I've definitely had both of their cooking and I admire them both quite a bit.

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