La Belle Vie turns 15: An interview with Tim McKee

The most lauded restaurant in Minnesota is turning 15 years old this year. In honor of the event, La Belle Vie's James Beard Award-winning chef Tim McKee is hosting a party on Sunday, March 24. A collection of chefs who have passed through the kitchen in both its current and the original Stillwater location will be in attendance. Chefs like the Butcher and the Boar's Jack Riebel, Jim Christiansen of Union, Jamie Malone of Sea Change, Matt Bickford of Icehouse and Be'Wiched, Tyge Nelson of Chino Latino, Adrianne Odom of Parasole Restaurants, Shawn Smalley of Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque & Pirate Bar, and Michelle Gayer of the Salty Tart.  Best of all, you're invited to the party. Music will be provided by John Munson and Matt Wilson. Small passed plates will be served along with a caviar bar, champagne, and a special sommelier table that will host special tastings. A limited number of tickets are still available. 

In honor of the milestone, we sat down with McKee to discuss the restaurant's history, its record of churning out wildly successful chefs, and what the view is like from the top.

The Hot Dish: There have no doubt been many changes at La Belle Vie in the past 15 years. What do you think is the most marked difference from where you began and where the restaurant stands today?
Tim McKee: It's funny. When we first started, we were never really striving to be the best restaurant in the state. We meant to be a neighborhood bistro where people would go maybe a couple of times a week and have some beer and wine. The change came because the people who were coming in thought we were the best.

When we decided to make the move to the new location, we said, "Let's go full force." We changed the way we did the tasting menu, altered our technique and the room design. We brought it up a bit.

When we first came up with the idea for La Belle Vie, we were inspired by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec posters. He did all these posters with spilled wine and people in this very convivial atmosphere. That was our original intent.

We did good.

HD: I'd say you did. If you were able to give your past self a peek into the future, what would you tell that guy?
McKee: I am really, really proud of what we've built. It's great to be able to be a chef and develop all of these different concepts and do so many different things, but I do miss the simpler times. It's funny because back then I thought it was really hard. When all I had was the restaurant and working the line [laughs] I thought that was hard. The simplicity really appeals to me.

HD: La Belle Vie has launched a cadre of incredibly talented, highly creative chefs into our culinary landscape. What is it about the kitchen here that breeds talent?
McKee: That's hard to pinpoint. We've always attracted talent. The environment is exciting and we have a lot of good people. Good people want to work good places.

HD: Do you ever get tired of being introduced as "James Beard Award-winning chef...?"
McKee: That's not so bad.

HD: Have you ever counted up how many Beard awards and nominations you, your staff, and the restaurant have received?
McKee: No. I'm not sure. La Belle Vie was the first Outstanding Restaurant in the state -- these are semifinals. First Outstanding Wine, first Outstanding Bar Program. ... I was the first to be Outstanding Chef Midwest.

It was cool seeing Mike [DeCamp, chef de cuisine of La Belle Vie], Jamie from Sea Change get Rising Star and Michelle Gayer on the list.

HD: Who are you most excited to see on the night of the event?
McKee: There isn't any one person, but it will be fun to see a lot of the chefs. Like when Tyge, Smalley, Jim, and YC [DeCamp] were all on the line, those were kind of the glory days. I miss those days.

HD: That will be interesting to see all those guys in the dining room rather than working.
McKee: Oh, they'll each get to take an hour at the caviar station, making blinis. Plus, I'll be working. Mike will be working.

HD: La Belle Vie is the best of the best. Without question, best service, best wine, best cocktails, best tasting menu, best pastry. I would imagine that achieving that pinnacle is difficult enough, but how do you maintain that level?
McKee: It's always a challenge. There are only a few restaurants that operate in that fine-dining niche. Most restaurants now are more casual, like Bar La Grassa or Butcher & the Boar. What they're doing, they do very well, but we're different. For people who are looking for luxury -- this is the pinnacle.

It's an incredible honor to be a part of a restaurant that even lasts 15 years. People's attention spans are getting shorter. It's great that people still think of us for fine dining, special occasions, or even the bar for snacks and a cocktail.

HD: What can we expect to see for the next 15 years?
McKee: We're not a team of planners. We just decided to have a birthday party. We're working on the next menu.

Tickets are still available for the La Belle Vie birthday party, Sunday March 24. There were only 100 available for $150 each. If you are interested in attending, contact the restaurant at 612.874.6440.

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La Belle Vie - Closed

510 Groveland Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403


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