1201 Dupont Ave. N., Minneapolis
There are chef trading cards in our monthly magazines. Trading cards! When did this happen? Yes, I've said before that the Twin Cities are suddenly in a golden age of dining, with the number of places you can get a well articulated, perhaps even dazzling, meal increasing by, what--a factor of ten? Still, though, trading cards?
There are a lot of advantages to living in the Twin Cities, in our wealthy urban prairie town of nearly three million souls who all purport to know one another on a first-name basis. One of those advantages is that, with a little digging, you can find out how and why your world is changing, and how those changes affect everything from appetizers to brain drain. And so, I present to you: a little digging. Or rather, the first in a series that will look at the remarkable set of factors that have created our newish and bona fide restaurant scene, factors too complicated to fit on the back of a trading card, but too illuminating to ignore.
Let's start with...Garrotxa? It's everywhere. Why? Pronounced gar-ROACH-uh, this firm, nutty, sweetly herbal Spanish goat's-milk cheese from Catalonia is now featured on a dozen menus between the Minnesota and St. Croix rivers--what the heck? Also bafflingly popular: membrillo (quince paste), pimentón (paprika smoked over oak wood that has been cured with tobacco), and fig molasses. Why those things? Why here? Why now?
Because of Scott Pikovsky, that's why. Back in 1995, Pikovsky started a company called Great Ciao (get it?) to import and distribute high-quality foodstuffs. He has subsequently made a name for himself internationally as a quality fanatic who will pay top dollar for super-premium product. "Scott has changed the dining scene in this city more than anyone in the last five years," confirms Doug Flicker, chef at Auriga.
How? It's the ingredients, silly: dozens of olive oils, from single-estate to good and cheap; dozens of the rarest and most costly vinegars; slices of oil-cured, smoked tuna; a dozen varieties of sea salt (from Hawaii, Sicily, you name it); rare nut oils like Austrian toasted pumpkinseed or African argon oil; French truffle butters; different kinds of bottarga (dried fish-roe cakes); a hundred rare cheeses; salamis; pastas; 600-day-old prosciutto; olives of every description--including some from trees nearly extinct; various by-products of European winemaking, including "Noble Sour," a vinegar made from Pedro Ximenez grapes, the kind used for sherry.
If you've had a meal in Minneapolis or St. Paul in the past three years and paid more than $20 for it, you've doubtless had Great Ciao ingredients. Pikovsky started the company in his house in Excelsior, but moved into his own warehouse space last winter. The place is simply the ne plus ultra for chef spotting; it seems like every name chef in town stops by to taste, test, and poke whatever's new in the warehouse, sampling fancy oils and vinegars from throwaway plastic spoons.
Is that Tanya Siebenaler, chef at Sapor Cafe and Bar, stuffing yard-long dried sausages into her bicycle's saddlebags? Yup. Is that Joan Ida, pastry chef at Goodfellow's, eyeing boxes of French vanilla in glucose? Yes. Is that Vincent Francoual, chef at Vincent, throwing a few wheels of Epoisses, a runny cow's-milk cheese with a wine-washed rind, into his bag for a motorcycle sprint across town? Indeed.
For me, walking through the warehouse aisles at Great Ciao is very disorienting, because I feel like I am in all the restaurants seeing all the dishes, all at once. Here are the fat little quills of handmade Italian pasta I loved on Steven Brown's last menu at Rock Star; here are the white anchovies that are dressed up with capers and lemon zest and served at Coco Cha Cha as an appetizer (also available in a retail package at Turtle Bread); here's the thyme-blossom French honey that glazes roast chicken at Café Barbette (also available at the St. Paul Whole Foods); and didn't I have that fig molasses drizzled on melon at Auriga? Yikes. I could do this all day.
This north Minneapolis warehouse is the art-supply store for our best chefs, the spot that makes much of the difference between what they can cook, and what you can cook. You simply don't have access to the ingredients that they do (unless you shop at Turtle Bread in Linden Hills, the two Whole Foodses, the cheese shop at France 44, or St. Paul's Buon Giorno, as those are the local gourmet stores that carry the most Great Ciao products.)
"For the longest time in the Twin Cities, chefs had to source those things themselves, out of California or New York," says Alexander Dixon, of Zander Café. "Most of the Midwest purveyors like SYSCO don't understand anything except institutional cooking, and for us to do things that are a little more diverse than cafeteria foods, we needed these more diverse ingredients. Scott took it to the next level. It was really refreshing, after cooking in the Twin Cities for 20 years, to have someone bring me something I can use that I've never heard of."
In short, the food around here doesn't just seem better than it was five years ago, it is better, says Auriga's Flicker. "It's kind of like going from a VCR tape to DVD," he explains. "People don't remember what it was like cooking here five years ago. Just like there's a difference between frozen fish and 'dayboat' fish caught yesterday, there's a difference in olive oil. And now I might even put the name of the olive oil on the menu: It's Nunez de Prado extra virgin, and to some people, that means a lot.
"Nowadays when I go through the New York Times food section, I see a lot of things that are new to the market there, and here we are in the middle of the country, and Scott's had them forever."
(Keep your eyes peeled: Pikovsky says Great Ciao expects the first-ever legal shipment of the authentic French sausage saucisson in the coming weeks.)
These super-premium ingredients don't just affect our high-end menus. They also act as an invisible partner in the kitchens of small neighborhood spots, allowing little places like Chet's Taverna, Marx Wine Bar, Margaux Limitee (again, I could do this all day) the opportunity to serve things that someone else is doing the legwork on. For example, two of the best cheese plates in town, at Marimar and Café Barbette, come largely through Great Ciao, where Scott Pikovsky has taken it upon himself to stock some of the world's best cheeses, including Great Hill Blue, selections from Sally Jackson's legendary line, and offerings culled from the French countryside by cheese guru Chantal Plasse. There aren't better cheeses anywhere, and yet they're being served in some of little ol' Minnesota's most unassuming street-corner restaurants.
Chef Mary Cashman of Marimar (the newish neighborhood spot down by Lake Nokomis) stops in at Great Ciao as often as twice a week, buying small quantities of cheese to go with Marimar's ambitious but cheap wine list and keep the place's getting-to-be-legendary cheese plate jumping. "There are a lot of burger places around here, and when we opened, we tried to establish how we're different, and what we do well, and that's one of the things," she says. "The cheese plate proves we are always interested in something new, and that we buy the nicest things we can find. We change it twice a week, and put on three cheeses, and some [Great Ciao] olives and [Great Ciao] French sausages. When customers come in twice a week, it's still interesting for them. And it lets the chefs focus and tinker where they want to."
When they're not getting smeared on bread, Great Ciao ingredients work hard to keep our old chefs from burning out, and our young chefs from leaving town. "Cooking is a profession of passion," says Alexander Dixon. "If boredom or lack of passion creeps into the equation, it becomes obvious on the plate. And since I've become a restaurant owner, I will use fancy ingredients sometimes just to keep my cooks' interest level up, and motivate them.
"Chefs in the Twin Cities don't cook just for the job; there are lots of places to make more money," he continues, "waiting tables being the obvious example. They do it because they're excited about the food. The same way that a painter in a gallery looks at a painting differently than anybody else, looking at not just the canvas on the wall, but at the individual brushstrokes, chefs look at a balsamic vinegar aged in cherry wood and know that it's different than any other vinegar on earth and are excited to use it." (Dixon featured some of Great Ciao's $150-a-bottle retail cherry-wood-aged vinegar on a salad at Zander last winter. It reportedly was a brief but thrilling experiment.)
Talk to chefs and you quickly determine that ingredients mean as much to them as instruments do to a musician. Young William Fairbanks, now sharing duties with Lisa Carlson in the kitchen at Café Barbette, has such definite ideas about why the Great Ciao Italian apple-cider vinegar he uses on his shaved fennel salad is so perfect, that he questions whether he would have returned to Minneapolis from a stint cooking in France if he couldn't have gotten it, or similar products. "These French and Spanish ingredients mean a lot to me personally," he says, "and having them here definitely makes Minneapolis more attractive. If I couldn't get anything wonderful to cook with, how could I work here? Not having access to good ingredients would force me to move somewhere else."
Italian apple-cider vinegar: It doesn't just taste good, it helps prevent Midwest brain drain.
To a large extent, that is the story I wanted to get at here: The point isn't merely that chefs get to shop somewhere that you don't; the point is that the food world we live in now is markedly different from the one we lived in quite recently. And maybe it changed so subtly and slowly that, like that legendary frog who won't notice getting boiled if the water temperature rises slowly, we never noticed. If you don't notice it, you can't appreciate it.
At La Belle Vie, the Stillwater restaurant helmed by chefs Tim McKee and Josh Thoma, they cater to the most food-literate of populations, and so have always been somewhat insulated from the slings and arrows that the rest of us suffer. "I think it was inevitable that better ingredients would come," says McKee. "The more a city shows interest in food, the more access to ingredients they're going to have. There wasn't much of a market when you could only sell specialty ingredients to three restaurants. The bigger the market, the more prices come down, the more people will be serving those good ingredients that you used to have to go to D'Amico Cucina to try."
Will this effect continue to snowball, with more and more Garrotxas popping up on farther-flung and more unexpected menus, increasing general food literacy, encouraging competition, driving prices down, and making the Twin Cities twice as good again someday?
Perhaps: After all, we do seem to have the ingredients in place.