Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 8:39 a.m.
In the search for the Twin Cities' best culinary creations, we often come across dishes that stop us mid-bite and force us to reflect on the level of thought and artistry chefs put into their work. The efforts of the chefs are often laborious, and the end results are regularly consumed before the full concept can be appreciated. We've been tracking down some of these dishes to get the chef's side of the story: their thoughts, motivations, and processes. It's our hope that we can give you a deeper insight into the talents of Twin Cities chefs and to have a better understanding of what you're getting when you sit down to dinner.
In a quaint little south Minneapolis neighborhood a little café sits just off the beaten path. Café Levain
, the re-imagination of the now closed, once extremely popular Twin Cities eatery Restaurant Levain, sits quietly on the back side of the same building that also hosts one of the owner's other ventures, Turtle Bread Co. It's here that chef Adam Vickerman churns out some of the highest-quality food the Twin Cities has to offer. With a focus on local products and seasonal ingredients, Vickerman fuses classic French cooking techniques with modern takes on traditional home cooking.
Vickerman prides himself on his approachable take on fine dining, using rustic ingredients to create dishes that diners from all walks of life can enjoy. The goal of Café Levain is not to alienate but to provide diners with a window into the soul of what food can be.
Vickerman is definitely one of the younger chefs in the Twin Cities, but at the age of 27 he's already been a figure about town for almost a decade. He knew at an early age the career path he wanted to pursue, and right out of high school he went for it. "I found food at a young age, actually. It can be a very big challenge for people to figure out what they want to do, but for me it was in middle school home ec, really, and making homemade pasta in middle school. It wasn't like I had a grandma that I sat next to as a child or anything, but it was definitely something I started thinking about in middle school. So I went to Le Cordon Bleu in Mendota Heights right out of high school."
"At the end of that program you do an internship, which you could do without going to school, and I looked at some of the best restaurants in the area. And actually why I called Restaurant Levain with Steven [chef Steven Brown] over everybody else was because of how easy it was to get there from my parents' house in Apple Valley. Outside of going to the Metrodome, I'd never really been into the Twin Cities area, or at least not very often, but it was right off of Cedar Avenue. I mean, I was a 19-year-old kid. It was also one of the top five restaurants at the time, and it looked like a great kitchen," Vickerman says. "I remember calling him [Brown] up in my car. I was so nervous, windows rolled up. It was springish time, so it was pretty hot out, but I was making sure there were no sounds or anything because I was so nervous. I called Steven, and he said, 'Yeah, come in sometime and we'll set something up.' Knowing what I know now, chefs love interns because it's free labor, or they have the passion, the attitude, or the drive, and again, they'll work for free."
Vickerman was hired on after six weeks, and from there worked his way around the different stations of Restaurant Levain, where he spent two and a half years. Vickerman moved on shortly before the closing of Restaurant Levain and went with chef Peter Botcher (now the sous chef at Butcher & the Boar) to Barbette, knowing that at some point in the not too distant future, Levain would reopen as a Café concept. Eventually Vickerman got back to Café Levain, but soon after his return he left to help the owners develop their newer concept, Trattoria Tosca. After a year at Tosca, Vickerman decided it wasn't the right fit for him, and he moved to Sea Change, where he served a stint as chef Eric Anderson's sous chef before moving back to once again take over the helm at Café Levain.
Vickerman's style is rustic yet refined. No frills, just solid cooking backed with an extensive knowledge of traditional French technique.
The dish he has chosen to share is one he makes in multiple preparations, depending on the season, but the core ingredients remain the same. It's a homey pan-roasted chicken on a bed of creamy polenta and charred kale. The sauces and accompaniments vary with the season, but the base always relies on a simple pan sauce construct.
Vickerman starts by adding a hefty scoop of butter to a hot cast-iron skillet. Once the butter melts and starts to turn brown, he gently places a large Wild Acres chicken breast skin side down until it turns a gorgeous golden brown. He then places the chicken in a high-heat oven for several minutes, allowing the skin to continue to crisp. Just before it's finished, he flips the breast and bastes it in the brown butter. The kale is sliced into thin strips and is put unadorned onto a flatiron until it starts to slightly char. It then gets dressed with a bit of lemon juice, chile flakes, and salt before being placed atop the bed of creamy polenta.
Once the chicken breast is done, it's placed off to the side to rest. Vickerman then sautés an array of wild mushrooms in the leftover butter before deglazing the pan with stock and a touch of mustard. The chicken is placed atop the kale and polenta before getting a drizzle of the rich, flavorful sauce.
Vickerman may be the Twin Cities' king of approachable fine dining. His food speaks for itself: simple, familiar, and phenomenal. He takes a good deal of pride cooking the kind of food that his family enjoys eating yet can still be appreciated and respected by his peers in the culinary community. Stop by Café Levain in south Minneapolis and you may just leave with a new appreciation for food.