It could have been any ordinary dinner service. That is, if it weren't for the high-decibel music rocking out of the kitchen speakers: "The Final Countown" by Swedish rock group Europe, and sadly, morbidly, hilariously: "Another One Bites the Dust."
The crew was all smiles. It was a celebration, not a funeral — more like a rollicking New Orleans second line memorial than a dour Lutheran burial.
La Belle Vie was the grande dame of local restaurants in both reputation and years. At 17, she was the Elizabeth Taylor of eating and drinking establishments. She'd been an ingenue in her early Stillwater days, an untouchable sophisticate in her prime, and finally a timeless matriarch, possibly forced into retirement too soon. As close to transcendent supremacy as anything of her kind gets.
Behind closed doors, you might expect the important Twin Cities restaurant to be all business and no play. And you would be dead wrong. Instead, on the final Friday night, no one spoke of finality or endings. No evidence of sorrow was in the air. Instead, it was the same trademark blue humor and salty language of any good kitchen, plus preparedness so confident that everyone all but leaned with certainty and leisure. And, there were lots and lots of snacks: oatmeal cookies, Halloween candy, a pilfered lamb burger just off the grill, even White Castles being passed down the line with happy camaraderie. Glasses of divine Austrian Riesling. A shot or two of bourbon. Grain Belts.
All good kitchens have a rhythm, with a cadence and pulse as reliable as any good musical composition. The final hours at La Belle Vie could have served as an informational video for that rhythm. Well before 5 p.m., every silvery hotel pan, plastic Cambro, deli container, and neat stack of white towels was ready. Mise en place. French for "everything in its place." At 5 p.m. all there was left to do was eat Kit Kats and wait for chits to start shooting out of the printers. And when the first one did, someone said,
"Here we go."
Much of the real work took place hours before in order to steady for this calm. The entire crew had been working for the past 16 days without a day off — countless hours since the restaurant's closing was announced, and the public inevitably, ironically, began to pour in. When I asked about the schedule, the general answer was "around the clock," or "all the hours." Still, the mood was light and clear, not a single harsh word spoken, barely a bead of sweat visible. That was despite standing-room-only in the lounge, a multi-course wedding party for 20, a number of vegan customers with specialty menus, and countless five- and eight-course dinners flying out of the kitchen at the speed of light. Plus bouillabaisse. And lots and lots of lamb burgers.
Ten or so cooks made up the line, with Tim McKee and Shane Oporto expediting tickets like international air traffic controllers or engineers of a Swiss railroad. The cooks included a few reinforcements from other kitchens — alumni have been coming through as supports since the day of the news. Most of them of course being the biggest names in food from all over the cities, as that is who LBV has engendered.
Each chef was responsible for no more than two dishes apiece, and that's plenty, considering the components required for each plate. The cold station assembles miniature edible dioramas. Tiny glass aquariums each get nickel-sized slices of scallop mousse wrapped in diaphanous cucumber, radishes the circumference of a dime, pickled kohlrabi spiraled into Angel Hair noodles, then individually twisted along the tines of a tweezer until they appear as tiny tornadoes. Microgreens, micro flowers, three varieties of flavored oil, a wash of cucumber water. And that's just for the amuse-bouches.
You can detect the seven o'clock hour in any good kitchen without glancing at the clock. The chit machines begin a rapid machine gun fire, all superfluous chatter ceases. Oven doors open and close with noisy speed and alacrity. Utensils tap tap tap against plates and pans and pots. Only numbers, the word "fire!" and the abbreviated output from each station (five scallop! four cod! 13 angolotti! eight ribeye!) is necessary. The rest is choreography, nuance, and gesture.
And just as the seven o'clock hour is discernible by sound and momentum, so it is at nine. Just as quickly as the uptick began, it gradually declined, the prime two-hour window for Midwestern diners over in what seems like an instant, a zen second, a flurry of the space-time continuum. Now, the Kit Kats started to float back down the line, the bourbon came down off the shelf, the jokes reemerged.
Tonight, there's a dark resignation to the humor. "Put that on the expense account, I'll get to it on Tuesday," says Matthew Anderson, McKee's business and financial partner. (Of course, there will be no Tuesday). Or, "I'm going to have someone cover my shift tomorrow. I don't think I can make it in." (Tomorrow being Saturday, the final LBV voyage, where everyone who has ever worked there for any time at all will have been there with bells on, popping champagne with gusto.)
Sometimes, you just gotta laugh, or else you'll cry.
McKee asked every person important to the LBV experience to sign an enormous, billowy chef's coat he can no longer fit into having lost about fifty pounds in the last few months. Looking down at the dozens of signatures, he tells me he doesn't know what he's going to do with himself, now that it's all over, despite having several other jobs as owner/consultant of a multitude of other projects.
"Don't print this, but this place has never been about the job."
But I can't help printing it.
As the din of hundreds of guests took their final sips and drinks from the gauzy light of the dining room and lounge, McKee took his place back at the pass for the second to last time. Under the kitchen fluorescence, in his crisp coat and apron, he was smiling, ear-to-ear.
La Belle Vie is now closed.
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