Kitchen grifter Nicholas Steffen accused of stealing from some of the Twin Cities' best restaurants

Nicholas Steffen

Nicholas Steffen Minnesota Department of Corrections

Nicholas Steffen has a lot of tattoos. In photos on his Facebook feeds — Steffen has three, two of them with the secondary nickname “Skinny Hungry Man” — and Instagram account, Steffen proudly displays a strong affinity for fast food, Doritos, and his ink, a lot of which identifies him as a Twin Cities local.

There’s “Twin Cities” on one side of his neck. There’s a row of skyscrapers going around his neck, and beneath that, the famous Sculpture Garden Spoon and Cherry. And there, in the stem of the spoon, reads the word: “Travail.”

That’s the one that caught Eddie Wu’s eye.

Wu, owner of Cook St. Paul, hired Steffen to work in his kitchen as he staffed up before launch in 2014. It was a chaotic time for Wu, who’d never opened a restaurant before, and he hired a few employees who were open about their criminal records.

They weren’t the ones he’d come to regret.

Wu says he’s gone “crazy investigative journalist” on Steffen for the past two years, trying to learn more about his onetime hire. A couple weeks ago, he noticed the photo of this “Travail” tattoo of Steffen’s.

Steffen worked at Cook St. Paul when it first launched.

Steffen worked at Cook St. Paul when it first launched. Alma Guzman

Wu called Mike Brown, owner of Robbinsdale’s esteemed Travail restaurant, and the two started matching stories.

At Cook St. Paul, Steffen started out as a model employee. “He was a really good dishwasher,” Wu says.

And sort of a friend. Steffen took Wu’s father-in-law, a huge hockey fan, to Minnesota Wild games. Wu says Steffen was “heavy” about wanting to get in touch with his Korean roots.

But about three weeks into the restaurant being open, Wu noticed that a night deposit went missing. He chalked it up to the chaos of opening.

Later, Wu would find online evidence of a Mall of America shopping spree Steffen took the very next day. Wu also says Steffen posted selfies flaunting stacks of cash.

One night, Steffen came into the restaurant when he wasn’t working. He left just as abruptly as he came, without saying goodbye. His sudden presence and disappearance were both unusual. When Wu started his closing routine, he realized that his laptop was gone. He questioned the two employees who were working that night, both of whom had criminal records.

“They had all the right answers,” Wu says.

He figured it had to be Steffen. Wu called him in to work a shift that he wasn’t scheduled for. When finally Steffen arrived, late, Wu questioned him. He had all the wrong answers. Wu fired Steffen, called the cops, and filed a report. Steffen was never arrested or charged.

Since then, Wu has built up a fat file on his ex-employee. So has the state of Minnesota. Turns out, the employee who didn’t mention a criminal record had an extensive one, usually trafficking in the art of deception to take unsuspecting, trusting victims of their cash and stuff.

In 2012, he met a 65-year-old man at a suburban Ramada hotel after the man responded to a Craigslist ad. Steffen sold $1,500 worth of Best Buy Gift Cards for $900. The man later discovered they had a combined balance of nearly zero.

In 2014, Steffen again used Craigslist to advertise a St. Paul apartment for rent. He provided a tour to a woman interested in moving in, who noticed the place was clearly occupied. Steffen explained he was subletting, and his other tenants would be moving out soon. The victim inked a $1,250 check on the spot. But when she returned to move into her new home, she discovered that it had not in fact been vacated, and was occupied by two women. One of them told the victim that she had probably been swindled by her boyfriend: Nicholas Steffen. 

Steffen, 31, has faced criminal charges on 14 occasions, and been convicted of eight felonies.

Wu claims Steffen also swindled Wu’s own father-in-law, bilking him out of $400 in exchange for All-Star Game tickets that never materialized.

Doug Flicker is one of the Twin Cities’ finest chefs, having owned Piccolo, a fine-dining restaurant with national acclaim, for almost seven years. Flicker remembers hiring Steffen as a dishwasher about five years ago.

“[Steffen] said he was in culinary school,” Flicker recalls, “but had to quit so he could take care of his sick grandmother. So it was like, ‘Oh, what a sweet boy.’”

Steffen worked diligently at Piccolo for eight or nine months, but almost immediately, things started going missing, Flicker says. An iPhone, a laptop, checks, a couple credit cards. Flicker intuited that it was probably Steffen, but he wasn’t willing to point fingers. “You don’t want to blame the dishwasher because he’s the dishwasher, you know? It was more like, ‘Did I have $50 in my pocket or not?’”

By the time Flicker figured out what was happening, Steffen was long gone. He had quit, citing a serious illness.

Wu heard second-hand that, in addition to his other ink, Steffen has been seen with a “Piccolo” tat. Flicker’s response: “Sweet!” (Wu, for his part, says he’s disappointed Cook St. Paul didn’t make Steffen’s tattoo list — that he knows of.)

On August 23, a teller at Citizens Bank in Robbinsdale called the Robbinsdale Police Department. A man was trying to cash a check from the business account of Travail, just down the block, but the teller noticed the handwriting didn’t match previous checks she’d seen. She called Travail to confirm the check was legit.

While she was on the phone, the guy decided not to wait around, according to a police incident report, and made for the door. Local police contacted Brown, the Travail owner.

Brown told them he’d hired Nicholas Steffen to work at his restaurant, but fired him in mid-August, after a chef informed him of Steffen’s modus operandi: He was a hard worker who would “befriend you and once you got comfortable with him, he would then steal from you,” according to the report.

Brown reported that someone had tripped the restaurant’s alarm system early on August 23, the same day as the aborted check-cashing. Brown later discovered a laptop was missing. So were three business checks; the number of one matched the check that the bank teller called the restaurant about. Brown later identified Steffen as appearing on the bank’s surveillance tape alongside an accomplice. (Brown declined to be interviewed for this story, citing a pending investigation.)

According to the St. Paul Police Department, Steffen was hired on at the Uptowner on Grand Avenue on September 9 of this year as a dishwasher. By September 11, the Uptowner had called the police to report the theft of a combined $700 in cash from two separate employees’ purses; another employee had noticed Steffen going into an area where employees kept their personal belongings. According to a police report, Steffen admitted to stealing the money.

Then he fled. The money was never recovered.

On October 3, while City Pages was researching this story, Steffen was picked up for violating probation stemming from his December 2014 conviction for the apartment rental bait-and-switch. (Steffen had been skipping mandatory drug tests during much of 2015.) The violation landed him a 14-month stint in prison; pending charges from any of his string of alleged restaurant thefts have not been filed.

Says Flicker: “He’s a really good thief. I hate to say that I have a level of respect for that kind of thing, but he’s fucking good.”

Steffen’s pulled off his best schemes in person. He’s less successful online. He now has a crowdsourcing account to help raise $42,000 for dental work. He’s raised 0 percent of his goal.