Chef Phillip Becht has no taste for the celebrity of chefdom, any sliver of spotlight, or even the interview I'm foisting upon him on the second day of service at Victor's on Water, though he graciously capitulates.
I'm almost loathe to use the term "chef" with him, fraught as the term has become with innuendos of ego, trash talking, and swagger. But it only means "boss," and I'd say Becht would be a stellar one to have.
"I'm not a hotshot," he says, even though he's heading up one of the most hotshot new restaurants in town, Victor's on Water, a glitzy storefront on a glitzy street in the glitzy burg of Excelsior.
He worked for eight years at one of the most beloved restaurants in town, the Modern, putting out its workhorse dishes, including the best meatloaf anyone around here has ever had -- and this being Minnesota, that's saying something.
"I'm just a utility guy," he says, in such an aw-shucks tone of voice, you know this is no kind of put-on. I can almost envision him blushing on the other end of the line.
"All I hope to do here is have people take a load off, don't think too much about their day, and enjoy it. I don't take it too much more seriously than that."
Becht says he was attracted to the Italian format that owners Eric Paulson and Janel Novachis desired for the concept because, he says, Italian is simple.
"Oh gosh," he says, "I made a lot of noodles at Rock Star with Steven Brown." (Rock Star is the long-gone, flash-in-the-pan, ill-fated but wonderful restaurant that got tongues wagging about Brown's culinary prowess.) "So I thought, that suits me -- simple."
But then, that doesn't really ring true when I inquire how his perspective on an Italian menu will differ from others.
He will do his best to use as many local ingredients as possible ("Rather than go to Great Ciao a couple times a week, I want to go a couple times a month," he says) but then, his ambitions go beyond scouring local farms and purveyors. He wants to experiment.
"It seems like if there's something I haven't tried yet, then that's what I want to put on the menu-- I don't think there are a lot of restaurants in this area [Excelsior] who might be trying things just for the heck of it. That's what I want to do."
So, what the heck kinds of things?
"I saw people stuffing a pork loin into a pork belly, so I thought that was something I'd like to try. Or, there's these Italians in San Francisco making this thing called a Hangtown Fry [bacon, oysters, eggs] and then I saw this place called Charlie Bird [an Italianesque bistro in New York's Soho with a loose, hip-hop vibe] and thought that was a cool looking place. "
So, don't let the workaday and the meatloaf fool you. He's got his finger on the pulse of what's up. And yet, he is extremely quick to pass the credit onward.
"I'm happy I have a couple of young cooks -- they've got the newer techniques down, and they're teaching those to me."
Becht stepped away from the stove at the Modern when he blew out his arm and needed surgery. "It was my pan hand. Probably just from wielding around sautee pans for 30 years"
Since the injury, he's spent the past year or so as Operations Manager at the Birchwood. But the siren song of the kitchen seems to have called him back. He's hoping to strike more balance at Victor's. He regularly worked double shifts with the help of one cook and a dishwasher at the Modern.
When he was introduced to Paulson and Navachis, he said he liked them immediately because, "They didn't seem to want me to die of hard work. They made a very humane and sensible offer."
After I say goodbye, my phone rings again. "I forgot to say how proud of my cooks I am. They're just terrific to have and I'm so proud." I'm fairly sure he's getting choked up when he says so, and I'm not sure I've ever heard such heartfelt gratitude from a chef.
Victor's on Water 205 Water St, Excelsior 952-474-8879
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