No Flash, All Pan
The Modern Cafe
337 13th Avenue NE
There've been a lot of flashes in the pan around here lately, what with all the coast-dwelling chef-kings setting up local shops, and all the new million-dollar restaurants where they fling around calamari bowls the size of sinks. As flashes will, they have tended to distract from things that really matter—like, for instance, what it means to be a real Minnesota chef. A real, hard-working, nobody-notices, 16,000-burgers-behind-you, 16,000-burgers-ahead-of-you lifer with love in your heart for the recipient of burger 16,001.
Phillip Becht is just such a chef. He took over the kitchen at northeast Minneapolis's Modern Cafe three years ago, and for three years I've been meaning to write about him. And for three years it never happened. Did he care? Not really.
"I get beet-red when I do an interview," he says. "My natural insecurity about my work kicks in, and I get really nervous." Also, Becht is a true Minnesota chef, and so is used to critics with the attention span of magpies among crystal. Besides, he had burgers to flip.
I care though, especially after a recent series of visits to the Modern that left me dazzled with the kitchen's laid-back excellence, its flawless good-soldier competence, its great simple work. At dinner I had a pan-roasted chicken ($18.25) that was washed with clarified butter and dark beer until the skin was as dark as mahogany, the flesh as tender as tears. This excellent bird came beside a winter-spiced wild rice pilaf with apples that was fluffy, nutty, and deliciously simple in the way that only wild rice cooked all day can be. One nightly special offered a perfect, beauty-and-the-beast dance between sweet and tender Prince Edward Island mussels and bold, gutsy, smoked-paprika-and-chorizo broth. The mussels arrived beside a drinking glass filled with French fries and a little bowl of garlic-touched aioli, prompting my date to pay the dish a high compliment: "It's like we're on vacation."
A beet salad ($8.75) was smartly constructed, the warm beets dressed in a forthright mustard-and-caraway vinaigrette, with bits of gorgonzola melting alongside them in their steamy little home. Meanwhile, above the beets and cheese, a pouf of bristly frisée acted as an edible tea-cozy, keeping the beets from cooling and also adding texture and snap to the composition. A side dish of roasted brussels sprouts ($6.25) nestled in a taleggio fondue was so rich and intense, I hereby crown it the chocolate truffle of the cruciferous vegetable world.
The Modern's legendary pot roast ($16.50) has never been better, the meat as soft as nostalgia, and as real as the future, the garlic mashed potatoes silky, the roast carrots made almost fudge-like through the concentrating effects of long cooking. Come to think of it, I'd rather have more of those carrots than the desserts, the Modern's only current weak spot. I tried both a lackluster apple crumble and a not-quite-right chocolate crème brûlée, each costing $6.50 and sized to share. I recommend, instead, marshalling your dollars for further exploration of the excellent wine list, which is particularly strong in uncommon wines priced in the $20 and $30 range. Better still, on Tuesdays all bottles are half price.
At brunch one day I showed up with a proper horde of out-of-town guests and kiddies, and was delighted not just with the quality of the grown-up food but also with the way a pre-emptive order of pancakes ($4) for the babies practically flew onto the table. At that brunch I sampled a delightful, thick sausage gravy which ennobled a pair of moist brown biscuits and eggs ($7.50), and also a lush version of pampered eggs made with bacon, well-browned mushrooms, and lots of cream cheese ($7.75).
In sum, all is better than ever at the Modern, which has been doing its neighborhood retro thing since 1994. Is this news? Not really. The dining room has been more or less packed at the Modern since around about 1997.
What is news, at least to this critic, is how much the life and current work of chef Phillip Becht says about the state of pan-wielding in this town, flashy and otherwise.
I've long been peripherally aware of Phillip Becht, though mostly as Steven Brown's second in command—Brown, of course, being the renowned chef of, most recently, Restaurant Levain; and before that of odd, doomed, kind of wonderful Rockstar; and, even further in the mists of time, of the dear, departed original Loring Bar and Cafe. It turns out that Becht, now 40, got his start at that selfsame Loring when he was 18. He was fresh to Minneapolis back then, after a childhood spent as a nomadic Air Force brat, and a high school career spent in Rapid City, South Dakota.
"I was just the kid who swept up at night," Becht told me when I interviewed him by phone for this story. "I'd sweep up real slowly and watch the bigwigs: J.P. [Samuelson, now of jP American Bistro] was the chef, before he went off to New York. But just seeing how he did things, how fast he moved, how everyone revered him, blew me away. I knew I wanted to do what the bigwigs were doing, and my big in was that when they were done I would make the artichoke ramekin.
"Then I met Steven Brown. We had a lot of things in common—he came from the Black Hills—and for many, many moons I worked with him. He's my best friend in the world. I also worked at the Loring with Doug Flicker [now of Auriga], another true genius and a beautiful human. I always viewed myself as a student of those guys. I always felt very proud of being able to ask them questions. They could always have said, Get away from me kid, I'm busy, but they never did."
Thirteen years of being a "student" ticked by: Becht went to Rockstar with Brown, then quit cooking for a spell in order to work as a food runner and bartender at the Minneapolis Aquavit. "But that didn't take," Becht explains. "I was so impressed by the kitchen and the cooks at Aquavit, I started having dreams about cooking. That's when I knew I had to get back to the stove."
Soon enough, which is to say, nearly 20 years after picking up that fateful broom in the Loring, Becht landed his first job as top chef in his own kitchen.
In these Food Network and glossy cookbook days, the idea of what a chef is seems to have evolved in the popular consciousness into one of a celebrity who gets to yell at people and be beloved at the same time. But that's not what it means at the Modern. At the Modern it means someone who, for lack of a more delicate phrase, hauls ass in pursuit of hospitality, art, and brussels sprouts for all.
There are usually only three people in the kitchen at the Modern at any given time—including the dishwasher—and they put out 100 to 150 dinners a night. Most fine-dining restaurants serve the same number of meals with two to five times as many people in the kitchen. At the Modern they have just a single, six-burner stove, two burners of which keep the pot roast warm, and one of which keeps water boiling for pasta. So Becht basically feeds the assembled throngs from three burners, an oven, and a grill.
"At first I couldn't believe how busy it could be, how many souls could be in here," Becht told me. "I was frightened. I thought I was not going to make it. The physical limitations are staggering—with the staff as well as the equipment. If one person's sick, one person works a double, that one person being me. In the end, I got the hang of it. A lot of it just comes down to moving really fast—what I saw J.P. doing all those years ago, just being organized and good. You figure out how to do—if you don't there's nowhere to hide."
At the end of his shift, Becht goes home, checks in with the love of his life, Sarah, who waits tables at the Modern and also at Lucia's, peeks at his three-year-old son Hugo, and unwinds while watching some PETA videos on public access television. These, he feels, spur him to remember not to take lightly his role as a buyer of meats and vegetables. To that end, Becht has developed a network of ethically minded local farmers who provide the Modern's meats, and, in summer, almost all of its produce. (This summer the Modern hopes to host a farmers' market in its parking lot.)
Does a double shift feeding 150 souls with the help of a single cook and a dishwasher, ending in a PETA video, sound like the stuff of Food Network dreams?
"If I had this same situation with other ownership, I'd probably have been long gone," Becht says. "But it's actually [Modern owner] Jim Grell that makes it all work. The number one thing that keeps all of us at the Modern is something that nobody ever talks about: We're all paid essentially living wages. We have a health plan and access to health care. If someone falls down the stairs or gets thrown out of their apartment, we pass around a hat, and Jim's always got a few bob to throw in.
"Jim could probably just drive here once a week from Minnetonka and throw a bag of money into the back of a Porsche, but he's not like that. He lives in the neighborhood and rides a bike here most of the time.
"I'm also sure everyone who eats here could get a pot roast at Applebee's for a lot less. But I like to think they think it's worth it to pay a few dollars more and support a place where the workers can afford to have children. Me, I'm willing to work more and not have every material thing I might want because I have respect for this place and what it means in our lives."
That respect that is expressed in various ways: through health insurance, sure, but also in a worker who keeps service flowing by fixing a malfunctioning appliance with duct tape instead of calling in the owner, or going to Target on his day off to replace a broken spice grinder.
"I don't think a lot of kids who watch the Food Network get what it really means to be a cook," Becht concludes. "There's this attitude like: I finished school, so when do I become Bobby Flay? Let me tell you: about 16,000 hamburgers from today."
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