Highland Grill's Joan Ida: Chef Chat, part 1

Executive Chef Joan Ida at Highland Grill, St. Paul

Executive Chef Joan Ida at Highland Grill, St. Paul

For years, chef Joan Ida has worked in the kitchen of local fine-dining restaurants, from Goodfellow's to Triä to Porter & Frye. (Asked when she started at Goodfellow's, her first gig, Ida replies, "That would put an age on me and a date, so let's just say in a time far, far away.") Ida took a hiatus from the Cities scene to help open restaurants in Hong Kong, then returned to work as executive chef at the Lake House in Forest Lake, now closed.

With her history, Ida's decision to take a job as executive chef at St. Paul's Highland Grill this March surprised some. Why had she strayed from fine dining to cook at a modern diner? Because the job is exactly what she wants, Ida says: a chance to be creative in a kitchen that doesn't demand her attention 24 hours a day. The only drawback, she says, is getting to work before dawn.

Here's more from our talk with Joan Ida:


What is the hardest thing about your job? I'm here opening the doors [at Highland Grill] at 6:30 a.m. When you're not a morning person, it's one of the biggest challenges in the day, especially when it's dark and cold.

How did you first decide you liked cooking? I didn't, and I never thought I would be in this business. I wanted to be a professional tourist, but I ended up falling into the opening of Goodfellow's. That was my first cooking job. I lied to get the job.

Why did you apply to work at Goodfellow's if you didn't want to be a cook? Because the food magazines and the food scene made it look really glamorous. It was right when the fathers of southwestern cooking were starting to come up--Dean Fearing, Stephan Pyles, Larry Forgione, all of those groundbreaking American chefs were coming up and doing their thing. I thought, "That's cool, and that lady has a beautiful manicure in that magazine, so I can do that."


So you didn't have to go to cooking school. I never went to food school. I'm glad I never went. I have a really good background in chemistry, biology, you know, food science. I know why food things happen. I was trained by method and technique, so going and figuring out the whys--why does this sauce stay emulsified?--was something I had to do on my own. And I learned it. I think that's something that's becoming lost in the industry at this point.

Do you have a favorite food city? Paris for the butterfat and the foie gras. And always Hong Kong, because you can get anything you want any time of the day on that island. If you want to have the most beautiful chocolates ever made, you can walk around the corner and get them at this Italian pastry shop. If you wanted to get Macanese egg tarts, you could walk to the other corner and get those. The grocery store I would shop in was very European. They would label it--this chicken is from France, this chicken is from Australia. Wherever you want to get it from you could get it from. It was the same thing working there. I could get tomatoes from a chef's garden in Ohio overnight, which I did.

It sounds like Las Vegas. Bigger. Bigger, brighter, more lights. As far as food goes, [Hong Kong is] an amazing place. All the greats in the world have restaurants in Hong Kong. You don't have to go to Paris to eat at A la Biche au Bois.

How did you end up working in Hong Kong before running the kitchen at the Lake House in Forest Lake? One of my dearest friends is a jewelry designer, and he's got one of his factories in Kowloon. I would go spend my holidays in Hong Kong. I would end up doing wine dinners. And then my friend Martina Priadka, who is the general manager at the Dakota, moved there. I started doing stuff there, and I got talked into moving there for a while. How do you have time to travel? I don't now. I save up my holidays. When I travel in the country it's 48 hours: a quick trip to Los Angeles, a quick trip to New York. I spend my two weeks out and just go.

When I lived in Hong Kong I was able to travel every month, so I did. I saw a lot of Asia.

Where are you in your career now? I'm having fun. I was very careful when the opportunity of a new job came up. I wanted to place myself in a place where every moment away from work I wasn't having to think about what's going on. I wanted to have a life. I wanted to have a job where I only had a handful of rules, and I go outside of the box anytime I wanted to. So I sent my resume over to David Burley, and within two weeks I had found a home. I knew I could be creative and not have a rulebook to play by that says, "It has to have this, and it has to have this, and it has to cost this much."

I'm given a little handful of rules, and I can come up with any dish I want to. I mean, look at the features right now. It's a whole mish-mash of a lot of different things. I take what I know, and whatever comes out of my head that day or whatever comes out of the cooler I put it together in some fashion to do something.

I've put a pastry program together here, so now we have pies and cakes and things that are always available. I work well with my food sales people in bringing in and sourcing product. The cool challenge I'm having is taking the inexpensive cuts of meat, the inexpensive fish, and doing neat stuff with them--coming up with something other than just steak and potatoes. I do draw a lot of what I do from where I've been and where I've traveled and what I've tasted.

Our chat with Joan Ida continues tomorrow.