Fried and lightly battered: Steve Lerach

Those familiar with the tales of Anthony Bourdain know that the restaurant business is intense work. In Fried: Surviving Two Centuries in Restaurants, ex-chef and current teacher Steve Lerach furthers this assertion, weaving tales of the quirky, hard-working, creative personalities he met throughout his 30-plus years working in the Twin Cities, while also exploring the history of dining, going as far back as the reign of France's Louis XVI.

City Pages: What possessed you to meld the history of dining with personal tales of your life?

Steve Lerach: The book started out being a master's thesis on what I was calling "The Transformative Power of Restaurants." Funnily enough, the more I read about the history of restaurants, the more I kept seeing analogs to people that I have worked with, as well as situations parallel to what went on in France, New York, and other places. The people that I had worked with kind of overwhelmed the story after a while and became the focus.

CP: How did you go about doing the research for the historic vignettes in Fried? The history of the restaurant doesn’t strike me as something that is commonly written on.

SL: I worked with a University Professor who suggested some reading for me. I took a look at some scholarly stuff, but there’s really not enough sources to make a restaurant history; it’s just that untouched. It’s such a part of every day life that people don’t think about its origins or outcomes. And there have been neighborhoods that have been transformed by restaurants. I mean, look at Eat Street. When I lived there long ago you didn’t go out at night. Now, you can’t find a parking place.

CP: Why do you think restaurant work attracts such a variety of people?

SL: I think it's truly an outsider business. The people who work in food are often the opposite of the rest of the population. They work when others are playing. They tend to want to keep their originality and uniqueness, and the restaurant atmosphere welcomes that. You can't really be off-the-wall or different at a bank, for example.

CP: You talk about some of the horrible, soul destroying conditions that people have worked in food service, past and present. Why do you think people continue to work in food? Why not get a job as a file clerk or grocery store, or temp agency?

SL: I think that you need an artistic temperament to work in food, and a quirky sense of humor. Most successful people are those that can laugh their stress away. You have to continue going, regardless. Why not a cubicle job? If I am working on a project at a bank, for example, maybe in a couple months I will see feedback on how it went. If I am a line cook, I know instantly if I am making people happy.

CP: Tell me a little bit about how the restaurant scene in the Twin Cities has changed over the years.

SL: Nowadays it’s much more professional. Profit margins are smaller, so restaurants have to be tighter operations. When I first started, we were doing supper club cooking, you could learn it on the job. Now, I think you have to get a jump start at culinary school. There’s so much more to learn and peoples’ expectations are so much higher.

CP: Do you think that will have an effect on the type of person that works at restaurants?

SL: I think so. That’s a fear I have. I always wonder if they’re having any fun. But you’re still working with a bunch of people with a skewed world outlook; they don’t want to be like everybody else. I can’t see most of my students working in cubicles and I think that’s a good thing. (laughs) Speaking as someone that now works in a cubicle.

CP: Any recent restaurant trends that excite you?

SL: In Minneapolis and St. Paul, we're always behind the coasts, but at this point it's tough to find a bad meal at a reasonable restaurant. Nowadays we have better chefs, better ingredients. We now have local produce that hasn't traveled 1,500 miles, basically grown for preservation not flavor. I'm excited that so many chefs are doing sustainable food, using organic ingredients, and supporting local farmers. It's crazy not to. This is the best soil in the world: Why would we want to bring our produce in from somewhere else?

CP: You’re currently teaching. Do you ever get an itching to go back into the restaurant biz? Or is it something you think of as a wild moment from you past?

SL: Yes. Every time I walk into a restaurant, I want to be back there. Then as soon as I stand up to pay the bill, my feet start hurting again, and I realize that it’s really a young person’s game. At this point it would be absurd for me to work in a restaurant.

Steve Lerach dishes tonight at Common Good Books (165 Western Ave. N, St. Paul; 651.225.8989) at 7:30 p.m. and again at Magers & Quinn (3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.822.4611) Monday, October 6.

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