Piccolo's Doug Flicker: Chef Chat, part 1
Doug Flicker, owner of the six-month-old restaurant Piccolo, sounds like a chef you wouldn't expect to see on television. He started working as a cook, he says, "because I didn't want to deal with going out on weekends." He says he's still more comfortable in the kitchen than chatting with customers in the dining room. Yet he braved conversation and cameras for the "Heartland" episode of No Reservations on the Travel Channel in July, earning Anthony Bourdain's praise for his innovative cooking.
The exposure has created a boom so big for tiny Piccolo, a 36-seat restaurant, that customers are calling in weeks in advance and taking reservations for dinner at 10 p.m. Before all this, Flicker had been building his skills and experience--not to mention a store of ideas about how to do things his way--since starting at D'Amico as a 20-year-old. Flicker went on to work at the Loring and Table of Contents, then was a partner at Auriga for 10 years, until it closed until 2007. After Auriga, Flicker worked in other kitchens, recovering and planning what would eventually become Piccolo.
In this first part of our three-part Chef Chat, we talked to Flicker about how Piccolo has evolved in its first months and what his parents think of his cooking.
Let's get this one out of the way first: How do you pronounce the restaurant's name? I call it Piccolo, like the instrument.
You had to convince the owners of Agri to leave the space at 43rd and Bryant so you could open Piccolo. Was that an awkward conversation? No. It took about a year and a half of playing some games and offer, counter-offer sort of things. All things considered, it was meant to be. They could have hung on, but they weren't going to go anywhere.
How have the first six months been? How has the restaurant evolved? We've gotten a lot busier. I think when you're creating a restaurant or at least you know for me, it took a couple years after Auriga ended--a little bit of recovery time--working for other people, you realize things you miss, things you're going to do differently, so you build up tons of ideas of what you're going to do differently, and you have all this time to think about things because you obsess about it--and then it happens.
I didn't want to do the same old restaurant. I wanted to change things. I wanted to change portion size and the way people eat, and that's been very successful.
The first menu is kind of academic because you're pulling from all these different sources. There's a big evolution there--getting to know the space, the space kind of comes alive and to a certain extent kind of dictates what you put on the menu. I think the food has evolved quite a bit in quite a short period of time.
What have you kept on the menu? Picked pigs' feet with scrambled eggs. That's the one thing that's been consistent since day one.
What is your favorite dish on the menu? Right now it's the ones that are about to go on. I think my favorite one is going to be the mortadella agnolotti. Heirloom tomatoes with hibiscus flowers. Tomato season is very exciting.
We have mojama [on the current menu], Spanish air-dried and cured tuna. It's very intense, but it's delicious.
The true joy of this restaurant is because we can take things that you could not normally traditionally serve. Some of that is the constraints of a restaurant, some of that is size. We can find specialty things or rabbit livers that there aren't a lot of there, but we don't need a lot. We have this microcosm that I don't think we could get away with anywhere else.
I think scale is a perfect way of saying it. We had Lake Superior bluefin [herring] on the menu for almost two full months. The only reason we could do it is because I would only go through 10 pounds of whole fish in a week. If you could put any dish on your menu, what would it be? Yeah, I can't, you know, I can't answer that question because I don't think that way anymore. There really is nothing I can't do. And that feels really good saying that.
What was your proudest moment as a chef? There's a couple of them. My last service. Cooking at the James Beard House was definitely a highlight. I think getting Piccolo opened is definitely way, way, way up there. There's a lot of them. Just having people tell you that this is the best thing they've ever eaten or that they met at your restaurant. The Bourdain show to a certain extent. Having my parents eat here. Making payroll every week. Creating stuff.
What did your parents think of the restaurant? They had no clue. My mom said it was lovely. You know, they're Midwestern folks.
Our chat with Doug Flicker continues tomorrow.
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