Easily one of the most notable names in modern cuisine in the Twin Cities is chef Erick Harcey. At the forefront of the modernist movement, Harcey has brought a whole new level of flavor to the Victory neighborhood of north Minneapolis with his flagship restaurant, Victory 44.
Despite some figurative and literal roadblocks -- his departure from Stock & Badge and an ongoing, two-year-long city construction project that has severely restricted access to his restaurant -- Harcey has honed in on his skill set as a chef and restaurateur. It's these strengths that he'll be bringing to the table as a competitor in this year's Iron Fork.
Hot Dish: How long have you been cooking?
Well, I could give the cliché, "I've been cooking my whole life," you know, but I started when I was real young. When I was 18 I think I started my first professional job. Mainly I would say that the bulk of my career was spent at the Hotel Sofitel learning a lot of pastry, and then the Nicollet Island Inn was also a pretty pivotal part of my early career. I did a lot of sporadic things in between there, but I was at the Nic for like eight or nine years.
You've definitely been credited as having helped to springboard the modern culinary scene here in the Twin Cities. How do you think the food scene has developed over the past few years?
I think that the Minneapolis food scene is probably the coolest it's been since I've been cooking here. I think what's great is that a lot of the kind of old-school, "Minnesota nice" yet no one really communicates kind of thing is gone. It's a community. There are a lot of great young chefs out there who are really pushing boundaries and they're not really falling into what's predictable or cliché.
In what ways would you say that food scene is still lacking?
I guess, in a lot of ways, I'm a purist. Who doesn't love Fernand Point and seeing his stuff, or seeing how a true brigade system works, and the idea of truly developing skill sets? I think there's a really cool level of eagerness and the willingness to learn in young people, but I still see a lot of, well, they're just lacking depth in their skill sets. So how do you temper great creativity while managing a degree of passion, but then focusing on the skill set and dedication to be good at what you do?
Looking toward the upcoming Iron Fork -- there are definitely a lot of varied, if not heated opinions on the idea of culinary competitions. What's your general take on that?
It's all kind of whatever to me. I mean, we do that all day every day don't we? We all have seats to fill. We all want to produce something that we hope that the next guy thinks is really cool. We're all nervous having a chef in our restaurants regardless of who it is, so we're all yelling at our line cooks to not screw it up. Competition is what you make it. Good food is really what it's about at the end of the day and I think if you get a room full of talented guys who are showing off to a room of a couple of thousand people, it's a lot less about our competition than it is about showing some influence to people that might say, oh well we've never been to Victory 44 or we've never been to Don Saunders's restaurant before. It would be one thing if it was like $50 million at stake, in which case the competition is completely different and I'd probably hate everyone, you know what I mean? At this point we can stay friendly because we're all trying to accomplish the same thing.
Have you done a lot in the way of competition cooking?
Nah, this is my first time.
Have you installed any intense training regimens to help get prepped for the competition?
Oh yeah, I do like seven hours of yoga every morning. Before I go to bed, I drink a glass of raw eggs and I run a lot of stairs, you know, things like that. I'm eating at everyone else's restaurants and I've totally been seeing everything that they do and my master dish is going to somehow use everything that they've been doing in their restaurants, I'll try and incorporate all of their signature dishes. I'm just going to do the Kenwood burger.
Do you have a game plan for how you'll be approaching your dish?
Probably like I do with anything else. You know, when you go to the farmers market you don't know what you're buying when you get there. You just go with what looks good. Whatever the secret ingredient is, or whatever is put in front of me, it'll be based on my broodwich: seasoning, acid, and texture. I want to keep it simple, using the least amount of ingredients as possible. I want to let the purity of the ingredient speak for itself.
Are there any sort of "oh shit" ingredients that you're hoping not to get?
You know, I don't know. Maybe? My staff here gives me grief that it'll be like the show where they open a basket and it has like trout and gummy worms and then I'm more worried that I'll throw a shit-fit and go "this isn't real" and then I'll lose by default. You know, if it's legitimate food then I'll make it work. You know, butchery is butchery and vegetables cook the same to some degree, but if it's like I get Starbursts and Unicorn or something, I might just suddenly not be on stage and that wouldn't be very cool.
How about an ideal ingredient? Anything that you'd be super happy to see?
You know, again, I don't really think I have anything like that. If it's protein, is it just fantastic protein? If it's vegetables, starches, or grains, are they really good?
So quality is the key?
Quality is definitely the thing. My dish will definitely be dictated by what I see are the top quality ingredients and I'll go from there. You know, if the carrots are tasting the best, then it doesn't matter what protein it goes with.
When we talked to Don Saunders last week, he cited you and Nick O'Leary as being the two chefs he's curious to compete against, just because you both have very modern styles, whereas he's more rooted in traditional French cuisine. How would you respond to that?
It's like anything else, we're all professionals. It's not like we're all kids out of culinary school. Anybody could beat anybody at any time. I could go there and shit the bed myself, and literally, if I get gummy bears, it's over man, I'm done. I'm not going to know what to do. I'll eat them all, get a sugar high, and probably act out in some way or something. But you know, that's what's cool about Minnesota food is that each chef has such a unique twist about what they do, how they plate, and what goes on. If there's a panel of judges that have never had modern food, then Nick and I are screwed. If it's a panel full of French judges, then Don's probably going to smoke everyone. It is what it is.
Is there anybody in particular that you're looking forward to going to head to head with?
Yeah, all of them. I'll battle anyone, any day. It doesn't matter, I'm just going to play to win.
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