Paul Berglund of The Bachelor Farmer: A chef in the making, part 1
Since opening its doors last summer, The Bachelor Farmer has become one of the Twin Cities' it dining spots. Owned by Eric and Andrew Dayton (sons of a certain hockey-loving governor), it's been lauded locally and nationally, and last month received a James Beard semifinalist nod for Best New Restaurant.
Next week, we'll keep our fingers crossed when the finalists are announced. But before all the hoopla, we wanted to learn more about the chef behind the food. So we sat down with Paul Berglund to find out about his unorthodox culinary background--and how it's turned him into the best man for the job.
It isn't even noon yet, but the kitchen is already up and running at The Bachelor Farmer. A fresh shipment of fish has arrived. Herbs are being chopped. Flatbread is being flattened. And executive chef Paul Berglund is checking out his staff's latest experiment: endive braised in white wine and butter.
Huddled around a small plate, he and his sous chefs are tossing around some ideas. It's not as sweet as they'd like, but maybe a little honey will do the trick.
He adds a drizzle, and takes a bite. Hmmm.... Still not quite right.
"Let's hang onto it," he says optimistically, offering to work on it later in the day. But as he turns to walk away, he senses disappointment from the crew.
"Hey, it's a good effort--you're trying," he encourages. But they don't seem convinced.
"What?" he chuckles sarcastically, to lighten the mood. "Not all of them are perfect."
The dish didn't work out. But there's no drama. No shame. It's just one of the many non-events that happen in Berglund's kitchen everyday. Although he's clearly in control and has extremely high standards, his calm, collaborative style keeps the anxiety level at a low simmer.
"Everything about opening a restaurant is stressful and chaotic," acknowledges owner Eric Dayton. "So having an even, steady leader in the kitchen has been incredibly valuable."
In an industry known for high octane, larger-than-life personas, Berglund is the anti-Chuck Norris--he's humble and deliberate. So how did this unassuming 35-year-old "nice guy" come to run one of the hottest kitchens in town? His guess is as good as ours.
Raised in St. Louis, Berglund's fondest food memories were actually made in the dining room instead of the kitchen. "We had family dinner seven nights a week," he remembers. "It was great food, cooked by my mom, and we ate it together. It was an integral part of growing up."
Not only did meals connect Berglund to his family, but also to his past. His mother was a Heinz 57 of European heritage, but his father was 100% Swedish. When they'd visit his paternal grandmother, Svea, in Florida, she and her sister Gertrude introduced them to the delicacies of the old country. Thin and chewy, crepe-like "pancakes." Sweet and tart lingonberry preserves. And of course, classic Swedish meatballs.
In school, Berglund was very active, serving on the student government, and playing soccer and lacrosse. But greater ambitions soon emerged: He wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and enlist in the U.S. Navy.
"I grew up in the Top Gun era," Berglund admits. "I was totally suckered in by the glamour of it." While most kids his age were engrossed in comic books, Berglund was flipping through a Naval Academy brochure, dreaming of one day becoming an aviator or Navy Seal.
While visiting colleges, he attended a Navy ROTC meeting, and it officially sealed the deal. He enrolled at the University of Michigan and prepared to serve in the military after graduation.
At Michigan Berglund pursued a double major in Spanish literature and political science. For the first year he lived in the dorms, but as a sophomore he moved into his own place. "I started cooking for myself," he laughs. "And that's when I called mom."
His first request was her mac 'n' cheese recipe: cheddar cheese, a béchamel (although he probably didn't know that's what it was called at the time), a little pepper, and noodles. Quintessential college dude food. "I religiously used that recipe for years," he recalls. "And if I had it for dinner tonight, nothing would make me happier."
Although cooking started as a necessity, Berglund's interest in food began to grow. And during his junior year, he got his first real taste of international cuisine while studying in Seville, Spain.
His time abroad blew his mind open to new aromas, flavors, and textures. And as he talks about his favorite Spanish dishes, his eyes still light up.
Every Sunday, his host family gathered for a meal. And Luiqui, the patriarch, would make his specialty: Spanish tortillas with potatoes and onions. Unlike the flat, floppy disks we buy by the dozen, a Spanish tortilla resembles an unfolded omelette. "It's about two inches thick, so the exterior is generally dry," he explains. But his host father's version was much thinner, which kept it moist and fluffy.
"His is the best I've ever had," Berglund says, and confesses to desperately trying to replicate it ever since. "I enjoy eating my own tortillas now, but I've never gotten that perfect one," he laments.
Through trial and error, he refined his palate. And by the time his trip came to an end, he knew exactly what he wanted for his final meal: one plate of jamón ibérico, and one plate of Manchego cheese.
"I went to a restaurant that I knew would have good examples of both," he recalls. The jamón ibérico (a Spanish cured ham) was finely sliced and salty, almost prosciutto-like. And the aged sheep's milk cheese (which hailed from La Mancha) was firm, nutty, and laced with tiny crystalline bits.
"The simplicity of both those perfect foods together, with a little sherry, was such a fantastic meal," he says, savoring the experience. Little did he know, that exquisite last supper had seeded a concept that would later become a hallmark of his own cuisine.
Upon returning to the States, Berglund's course was charted for the next several years. He finished up at Michigan in 1999, and then joined the Navy.
"It was exciting for me," he says of beginning his military career. He had been looking forward to it for years, and it was also a way for him to see the world. At his request, he was sent to Japan and stationed in Yokosuka, just south of Tokyo.
Not surprisingly, active service was a master's class in perseverance. "I feel like the military often teaches, or it helps hone, people's work ethic," Berglund says. "And it definitely did that for me. You learn the importance of finishing what you start."
But there were some lessons he didn't anticipate. None of us did. Extraordinary circumstances often whiplash things into perspective. And that's exactly what happened on September 11, 2001.
Berglund's ship had been deployed to the Persian Gulf. But when news of the Twin Towers spread, he was immediately moved closer to Pakistan--participating in the initial stages of the conflict.
"It changed all of our lives, right? Mine included," Berglund says of that surreal period. "I think everyone in the United States felt a little more vulnerable, and that was exactly the case in the military."
Several months later, Berglund was assigned to his second ship in Everett, Washington. He served as the vessel's anti-terrorism officer, and over the next few years, spent additional time in the Middle East.
As his four-year commitment drew to a close, he faced a new challenge--what to do next? Ever the pragmatist, he took a very methodical approach, identifying his interests and narrowing the field based on the likelihood of success.
"It came down to either being a cook or a park ranger," he says matter-of-factly.
Join us tomorrow for part 2 to find out why he chose cooking and learn about his early career, including his training under Paul Canales and Paul Bertolli (formerly of Chez Panisse).
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