Jason DeRusha on the highs and lows of the Twin Cities dining scene
Introducing our 2013 Iron Fork celebrity judge, Jason DeRusha
Smoked butt. The term conjures images too graphic to display on this blog -- as if food photography weren't pornographic enough -- but there was a time and a place when WCCO's Jason DeRusha couldn't get enough of it.
Actually, it's a cheap, dry piece of pork shoulder that DeRusha's well-meaning mother used to make in the slow cooker. Let's just say his taste buds have matured. He swears he'll never feed it to his family.
"That's my gift to my children," DeRusha says. "Unless they want to. I don't judge. It's a free country. Are we still talking about cuts of meat? I don't know. This maybe took a turn."
DeRusha celebrates his day
DeRusha will judge the 2013 City Pages Iron Fork competition on November 7, when six culinary masterminds from the Twin Cities will go head to head to create the best dish using a secret ingredient.
DeRusha files a weekly food report for WCCO and just began writing for Mpls/St. Paul Magazine. This week, we caught up with him to talk about his favorite local spots, Andrew Zimmern, and how his palate has changed since the smoked butt days of his youth.
CP: So, finally, this is the take down piece on you --
Jason DeRusha: This is it.'What makes you qualified to judge food?'
That is literally my first question. What are your qualifications as a food critic?
I eat a lot! What are the qualifications of anybody? I'm a journalist and I eat a lot. So I ask a lot of questions. Isn't that enough?
I do think it's interesting that there's an expectation as a food writer that you're some sort of home cook or you must've worked in a restaurant. No one expects a Vikings beat writer to have been a former NFL football player.
Do you cook at home?
Yes, I do cook at home. I made meatloaf last night. This weekend, I made pan-roasted chicken breasts. That was quite successful. One of my first jobs was managing a swimming pool concession stand, so I know a lot about serving Vienna Beef hot dogs and preparing nacho cheese for nacho dip. So I feel like I really bring a lot culinarily to the table.
Any chefs around town you admire?
There are a lot of chefs I admire. I really admire J.D. Fratzke at the Strip Club. His passion, his pursuit of excellence, and he's just a humble guy who grew up in Winona and a very talented chef.
I like Alex Roberts a lot. He is the chef at Restaurant Alma, and he opened Brasa because he wanted a place where the kids could go. Alma is fine dining. Brasa is not. What I dig about Alex is he's so talented but he doesn't seek any publicity at all. I've met him once. I barely know him. But I just admire the people that've gone through his kitchen and just the kind of person he is.
What is the Twin Cities dining scene lacking?
The biggest thing we're lacking is quality service. Service isn't treated as a profession here -- working in a restaurant is seen as a job on your way to something else. Diners haven't been trained to expect service. It's kind of this loop. What's the problem? Do diners not demand good service or restaurants don't provide it? I'm not sure who's to blame.
Let's do a couple rapid fire rounds. Your favorite spot for pizza?
Masu. My eight-year-old son's favorite is that all-you-can-eat-sushi place, Kyoto, in Maple Grove. He eats three times as much sushi as I do. It's unbelievable. And then the six-year-old takes the Sashimi right off the rice. So he'll eat the fish but he really doesn't like the rice. It's like, you kids are weirdos.
Jason DeRusha poses with butter carvings at the Minnesota State Fair.
You told me recently that your family looks at your food writing and says, 'You used to be good enough for the Olive Garden.' Are you too good for the Olive Garden?
I still like the soup, salads and bread sticks at Olive Garden, and the capellini pomodoro.
I am too good for a Chinese restaurant whose name I can't think of [Editor's note: P.F. Chang's, he later recalled]. My wife and I used to get these lettuce wraps there and thought, 'This is so amazing.' But now I went back there and I hated the service, I hated the food, and I said to my wife, 'Did this get that much worse, or have I become that much more pretentious. What has happened to me?'
Actually, I think the most exciting thing about the Twin Cities is that we're seeing this quality in the mid-level restaurants. It's not the awesomeness of the high end. It's the quality that's starting to show up in the middle -- the neighborhood restaurants that care. That's how you know you've made it as a dining town. I don't know if you'll ever have more than La Belle Vie at the super high end. That's just not how Twin Citians eat.
What will the contestants have to do to impress you?
Usually, in a cooking competition, it's about avoiding mistakes. People don't win those competitions; someone else loses it. The key is to remember you have to bring it from a flavor perspective. And then editing. I think too often these guys try to do too many things when you'd be better with just two elements on the plate instead of three.
What would make an interesting secret ingredient?
I got to be honest: I don't like to see stuff as a secret ingredient that's too insane. I'm really not interested in seeing what these chefs can do with gummy bears. I have seen that before.
What's your relationship like with Andrew Zimmern?
Andrew's been super supportive and very generous to me. I did pull the Andrew card once on a trip to Chicago, trying to get into a restaurant. When you can't get into a place, most of us don't give up, right? You think, 'Who do I know who might have an in?' So Andrew got me into Next in Chicago. He called the owner or the chef or whatever and said, 'Can you get Jason in?' And Andrew said to me, 'This is Minnesota. No one ever asked me to use my in. It was fun to call and get you in.' I did that with my photographer last weekend. It was like, 'Hey, let me call and make the reservation.' I would never call and do this for myself, but it's kind of fun to use it for someone else.
How about Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl?
She's the one who asked me to start writing for Minnesota Monthly. Our families have had dinner together. The first time I had dinner with Dara was just a mind-blowing experience because she just orders and orders and orders. And you think, 'Don't the people working here know this must be a critic? What normal human being orders five appetizers for two people?' But it goes to show that people don't in fact know even when it's obvious. Let that be my tip to the Twin Cities restaurant community: if a party of two comes in for lunch and orders 15 things, they might be a food writer.
How do you keep the food critic and food reporter roles separate, and do they ever conflict?
Sometimes. I think of myself more as someone who writes about food rather than a full-on critic. And then on TV I think I just report on it. So the reality is, I'm not going to bash somebody in print. If I've been there and I'm not interested in it or I didn't like it, I won't write about it. I just won't recommend that people go there, and I won't do a TV story on it, either.
When I was doing monthly columns, you only have 11 times a year you can talk to somebody. Are you gonna spend those 11 times telling people where they should go or where they shouldn't. If I ever left TV and did (Star Tribune columnist) Rick Nelson's job, or wrote for City Pages, that would be different. I would tell you where to go and where not to go. Generally, when I write about a place, especially if it's a new place, I've only been there once or twice. It's not a full review. It's more like a first look. It's part of the reason you're seeing more food writing but less full-on criticism, because it's expensive. Imagine what the Star Tribune pays for Rick to eat all year.
Part of the challenge of being the food writer is that a lot of the restaurants you go to are good, not great. What do you say about a place that's good not great? It's challenging. 'It was on the high end of good.' And people complain in this town -- 'Oh, all the food writing is very boosterish.' But the truth is, the top restaurants that open that get the attention, they're good. There's a reason that they're getting that attention. I don't think I've been to a place from a top-end chef and thought, 'This is terrible.'
The 2013 City Pages' Iron Fork competition will be held Thursday, November 7, at the International Market Square. General attendance doors open at 7 p.m.
-- Follow Jesse Marx on Twitter @marxjesse or send tips to firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.