Jim Christiansen of Union: Chef Chat, part 1

Christiansen is uniting good taste and good times at Union
Christiansen is uniting good taste and good times at Union

We almost lost him. A local boy, born and raised, chef Jim Christiansen garnered great reviews as a chef and a member of Tim McKee's team. However, when Il Gatto, where he was chef, went under, he followed a former coworker to work for a while in Denmark, at the famed Noma.  Hungry diners need not have worried; he was wooed back and into the kitchen of the hugely ambitious Union, now open in downtown Minneapolis.

Christiansen recently took a moment out of his packed day to talk with us.

Where did you grow up?

Eden Prairie. I've pretty much lived here most of my life. My parents moved to St. Croix Falls in high school. Now I've lived in St. Louis Park for eight years.  I like Minneapolis. It's a good city.

What was your first job in the restaurant industry?
Like many so many others before me, McDonald's.  I worked there for a couple of years before moving up to an Embers. That was my first real cooking job.  I moved up the line there.

When did you know you wanted to cook professionally?
It wasn't really until I was in culinary school.  I had a really good teacher in high school who asked me, "What do you like to do?" Well, I like cooking. So, I went to a tech school and fell in love with it.  I interned with Tim McKee in Stillwater at La Belle Vie, and then my first job was at Bobino.

You've worked a lot of restaurants with McKee. How did that begin?
I just walked into La Belle Vie, and there was YC (Young Chef, the nickname for Mike DeCamp, chef de cuisine at La Belle Vie). He said, "What do you want?" And I said I want to intern, and that was it.

He's an effusive guy.
(laughs) Yeah.  I was really lucky to work with the crew there.

Who was on the line there at the time?
Chris Hinricks, Shawn Smalley, Tyge Nelson...

What is it that appeals to you about working with Tim McKee?
He's a hard worker, smart, and a good person.  He's dedicated, intelligent, and just a good, good guy -- my mentor.

Where have you worked around town?
The Marsh, then Bobino. Opened Solera, then went to Stillwater when La Belle Vie was there. That was when Jack Riebel was the chef. They closed it down and opened it up in Minneapolis. There I worked my way up. You know, that takes a while because people don't really leave there.  Then I was asked to go to the Guthrie when they took over Cue and opened Sea Change.  That was where I worked with Erik (Anderson, who now runs the critically lauded Cat Bird Seat in Tennessee.)  And then I went to Il Gatto. It was quite a ride.

What do you think happened at Il Gatto?
There were great expectations. Memory, how important that is to people? It was an iconic location. How do you manage those expectations? We tried so many things. It was just a different style, and you know, Figlio was part of Uptown.

And so [after it closed] I went overseas and took a little vacation.

How did Noma come about?
Well, Erik was there.  I had never had the money or the time or the balls to do a stage.  It was now or never, perfect timing when Il Gatto closed.

Were there any similarities in Denmark to Minneapolis?
I was already a big forager. My partner and I go all around the Cities.

The ingredients were all natural and then handled with such high technique.

Everybody thought I was from there, like they would just come up and start speaking Danish to me. It's a very cosmopolitan vibe. People were very friendly. It was cold, a lot of snow, a big bike culture, and culture -- a great theater and arts district.

How did the Union opportunity come to you?
While I was there I got an email from David Shea, and I ... I can't believe this, but I kind of blew it off.  I was exhausted, barely eating, working all the time, I had no computer, so my only connection to the internet was my cell phone, and that was so expensive.  Back home just wasn't something I was even thinking about.

What appealed to you about working at Union?
Finding out what this restaurant needs.  There weren't a lot of restrictions in building the menu.  It's new, exciting, and different. It's pretty awesome.

Stay tuned for part 2 of our chat with Jim Christiansen.

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