Paul Berglund of The Bachelor Farmer: A chef in the making, part 3
Today we're wrapping up our interview with Paul Berglund, executive chef of The Bachelor Farmer. In part 1, we heard about his early experiences with food: his childhood in the Midwest, his Scandinavian roots, and his travels abroad.
In part 2, we learned how his cooking career evolved after he left the Navy and developed his own personal style while working for Paul Canales at Oliveto.
We now join him for a final chapter, as he moves to Minneapolis, meets Eric and Andrew Dayton, and transitions from being a cook to becoming a chef.
In 2010, Berglund's wife, Kelli, was accepted to the Counseling Psychology program at the University of Minnesota. He'd never been to Minneapolis but was game for a potential change of scenery.
On his first visit, he ventured out to explore the food scene, not really knowing what to expect. But as if guided by culinary angels, he ended up at Al's Breakfast.
A plate of buttermilk pancakes and fried eggs later, he was a believer. "I left Al's and texted Kelli: I just had the best breakfast in my life."
Although he was still flourishing at Oliveto, the timing proved serendipitous. "I was feeling a pull back to the Midwest, so it was the right time for me to leave the Bay Area and move closer to family. I was also excited to take the next step in my career--running my own kitchen."
Head chef positions are hard to come by, but just as he'd done in Oakland, he began reaching out and networking. Suddenly afforded the luxury of time, he also jumped at the chance to pursue a passion he'd been keeping on the back burner: baking.
Always the overachiever, he picked up two gigs--one as a bread shaper at Rustica Bakery and the other as a bread baker at Heartland Restaurant, where he met like-minded locavore Lenny Russo. But just as he was elbow deep in dough, he got the call he was waiting for.
Berglund had met Alex Roberts (Restaurant Alma and Brasa Premium Rotisserie), when he first arrived in town. And in the spring of 2011, Roberts introduced him to aspiring restaurateurs Eric and Andrew Dayton. They had a concept (Nordic cuisine), as well as a venue, but they needed someone to mastermind the food.
"We were looking for the complete package in our executive chef," says Eric Dayton. "That meant extraordinary culinary talent, but also the right temperament, leadership skills, and an understanding of how to run a business. Paul was the only candidate who really blew us away in every category. And the fact that his last name is Berglund and he's half-Swedish was just icing on the cake."
While Berglund was ready to lead a kitchen, he never imagined it would be in a completely new restaurant. "I didn't envision anything like this," he says of his good fortune. But it was too good to pass up--especially given the Scandinavian connection. Since becoming a professional chef, he'd started exploring his heritage through cooking, so he took to the Nordic theme like cod to the North Sea.
As he began developing the menu at The Bachelor Farmer, he leaned on the foundation that been laid during his travels and training. In Spain, he'd gained an appreciation for pure flavors. In the Bay Area, he'd embraced the use of local products. And at Oliveto, he'd learned to highlight an ingredient's most defining quality. Now, it was all converging in Minneapolis--and guiding his decisions as an executive chef.
When asked to characterize The Bachelor Farmer's cuisine, he says, "Our food is simple. It's in keeping with the seasons, evocative of where we live, and inspired by the Nordic heritage of the people here."
Time-honored Scandinavian favorites--like gravlax, meatballs, and his Grandmother Svea's Swedish pancakes--are prepared traditionally. Which is exactly as Berglund believes it should be: "I'm of the opinion that those dishes are great because they are what they are, and I don't really want to put a unique twist on them."
But he adds an important caveat. "If you consider those our signature dishes, I think you kind of miss out on another aspect of The Bachelor Farmer's food, which is a creative response to what we have around us." A sentiment that's probably best expressed in the Toasts section of the menu.
Toast isn't the first thing that pops to mind when you think of standard Nordic fare. If you ask someone for a Scandinavian toast, you're more likely to get a hearty "skol!" and a beer than anything to eat.
But the crunchy pieces of bread don't completely come out of nowhere. Both the Danes and Swedes have a history of noshing on open-faced sandwiches, the latter being the basis for our modern day smorgasbord.
With toast as a neutral palette, Berglund is free to mix 'n' match regional and seasonal items as he pleases. Winter vegetables are sautéed in a butter sauce with savoy cabbage and then covered with a blanket of Camembert cheese. An earthly trio of roasted beets, cucumbers, and radishes are accompanied by fresh cow's milk cheese. And herring--that's been pickled in-house--is paired with a fingerling potato salad.
Just like his teacher Paul Canales, Berglund ensures quality by meticulously tasting his food. In describing one of his latest creations--a toasted barley, sauerkraut, and kale soup--he says, "From the very start of the project, when the onions and the carrots and the celery went into the pan, I was tasting that dish. And I tasted it probably 100 times until six hours later when the soup was done."
But he wasn't the only one to give it a test drive.
Standing in the front of the kitchen, he calls out to anyone within earshot, inviting them to grab a spoon and give it a try--a routine he grew up with at Oliveto.
What could've easily devolved into an ass-kissing session or a battle to impress the boss was nothing of the sort. It was an honest conversation, void of ego. After some give and take, Berglund headed to the cooler and reappeared with some yogurt to mellow out the kraut's tartness. "Better," he grinned.
This open-minded and fluid environment not only spurs creativity, it also enables Berglund to do one of the most important aspects of his job--mentor his chefs. It's a role he takes seriously, and recognizes as a critical piece in his transformation from being a cook to truly becoming a chef.
"Paul Canales was the first real mentor I had in my life," Berglund says with admiration. "He taught me the meaning of mentorship, and the value of a reciprocal professional relationship--both the mentor and the mentee gain a lot."
He hopes to do the same for his staff. Though never with a shred of hubris, he's quick to say, "I certainly haven't impacted people like Paul impacted me. That takes a while."
But his willingness to educate and collaborate has already had a motivating effect. "The energy in the kitchen is completely created by Paul," says sous chef Jon Wipfli. "It's an atmosphere that encourages ideas, sharing, and respect, while equally demanding that everyone be organized and prepared."
"Being creative and failing isn't frowned on, but rather is seen as an opportunity for improvement," Wipfli explains. "Having that quality from a teacher makes you want to get back in the kitchen everyday and keep learning and pushing yourself."
Berglund's investment in his crew pays dividends to everyone--including himself. "Working in a team motivates me," he says. "When I look at people after a successfully executed service, and they have accomplishment written all over their faces, that's pretty special."
So is it any wonder that the kitchen at The Bachelor Farmer has turned out like it has? That the food is honest and simple? That the Navy man runs a tight ship but keeps things in perspective? That the former mentee now works hard to be a mentor? And that a Midwestern kid would never brag about any of it?
Berglund may have never guessed he'd end up here, but in many ways it makes perfect sense. For him, community and people have always given food meaning--from his childhood family dinners and grandmother's Scandinavian meals, to the food-farmer-chef connection and the camaraderie of the kitchen.
At only the age of 35, his is a story that's still being written. But in many ways Paul Berglund has already come full circle. Right down to the Swedish pancakes.
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