Signature Dish: Lucia's chef Lucia Watson

Lucia's roasted chicken with wild rice-leek pudding, sugar snaps, & thyme-mushroom demi
Lucia's roasted chicken with wild rice-leek pudding, sugar snaps, & thyme-mushroom demi
Photo by Gianna Lucci

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.

These days, the Uptown area of Minneapolis plays host to a cadre of new restaurants owned and operated by young entrepreneurs trying to make their mark on Minnesota's dining scene, but just around the corner from Calhoun Square lies an establishment that helped to set the bar for the way Twin Cities restaurants operate as we know them to today. Since 1985, Lucia's has been a leader in the Minnesota farm-to-table movement, and head chef and owner Lucia Watson has been paving the way for high-quality, sustainable eating ever since.

Watson has spent the majority of her career growing the Lucia's empire to the point that her three businesses now take up the majority of the block. There's the main dining room known as Lucia's Restaurant, next door to that is Lucia's Wine Bar, and in a small little room next to that lies Lucia's to Go, a small deli serving fresh food for hungry Minneapolitans on the go.

Chef Lucia Watson
Chef Lucia Watson
Like many who find their way into the world of culinary wonderment, Watson became familiar with food at a very young age. "I was really lucky because I've just always loved to cook," she says. "And truly, since I was little, I used to play restaurant as a little girl, like when I was 10, with Spaghetti-O's and stuff."

"My family was a lot about food. My father was in the grocery business and my grandmother was a fabulous cook. She was a really good scratch cook, and my mother was a really good '60s home cook, and we ate dinner every night together; not in front of the TV. We also had a cabin that was super remote and hard to get to, so when you were up there, food took on this sort of preciousness, and that was instilled in me from a really young age."

After graduating from the U of M with a major in French and a minor in Norwegian, she moved to Washington D.C., where she began working at a small French restaurant. She really wanted to start cooking right away, but due to a lack of experience in the kitchen at the time, she started out serving. "I was always hounding the chef," she says, "so finally he said okay, come on in. He gave me a case of baby asparagus and told me to peel it, and I thought he was kidding -- like, yeah, this is funny. But he was like, 'Do it! And do it fast!' and I just loved it. I got the bug."

She eventually came back to Minneapolis, where she worked a bit around town, including a stint at the old 510 (now La Belle Vie), before moving out to the Minnetonka Art Center, where it had a kitchen that she was able to rent for a small catering and lunch business. She originally started that business with Janice Cole (author of Chicken and Egg; A Memoir of Suburban Homesteading with 125 Recipes), and it took off. 

After a few years spent catering from the western suburbs, Watson decided she no longer wanted to expand on her catering business. That's when she heard about an old hardware store that had come up for lease on 31st Street just off of Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. Shortly thereafter, in 1985 on Valentine's Day, Lucia's Restaurant opened its doors for the first time. Since then, Watson has continued to add on to the restaurant with the wine bar and more recently (2005) Lucia's to Go.

In addition to her longstanding career as a renowned Twin Cities culinary pioneer, Watson has also embarked on several other adventures in the world of food. At some point in the mid-'90s, Watson and her friend, local food writer Beth Dooley, decided they would do a cookbook. The book was originally intended to be a collection of traditional bistro recipes, but she explains, "We somehow landed in the office of Judith Jones, the woman who discovered Julia Child."

"Somehow we landed in her office, but what she wanted was not a proposal about bistro cooking, but more about the traditions in the heartland. She had wisely had this concept that the traditions of cooking that were brought to this country were being lost, and she wanted to somehow get them down," Watson says.

After five years of research, the book Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland was born and is now in its third edition. After that Watson was commissioned by fishing magazine In-Fisherman to craft monthly freshwater fish recipes. This led to Watson's second book, Cooking Fresh Water Fish.

Watson has also been a proponent for strengthening food systems and has served on the board of both the Youth Farm & Market Project and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. 

The dish that Watson has chosen to share with us this week is something off of her current menu, and it showcases both her local and seasonal food philosophies. The dish is prepared by her current head chef, Ryan Lund. The dish uses locally raised Callister Farm chickens and a sherry mushroom sauce.  Lucia explains that, "This time of year, it's such a rich, nutty, warm flavor with the mushrooms. I'll call and see what kind of mushrooms I can get from a couple of different purveyors. Maybe Ryan will want to use a few dry mushrooms in there. We can get some really nice porcini's from Great Ciao."

The mushroom mix is sautéed in nut butter and is then deglazed with a bit of sherry, stock, and a touch of cream. The dish is also served with a wild rice spoon bread. The wild rice (purchased from a family in Red Lake) is cooked and then mixed into a custard with some leeks and is baked into a thick wild rice pudding. The chickens are brined (or sometimes marinated in crème fraiche) and then roasted to a golden brown, then garnished with fresh snap peas.

Watson has done more for this city's food scene than most know, and she continues to feature the highest-quality ingredients that have been raised with integrity. Pay Lucia's a visit and learn what real Minnesota food is all about.

Signature Dish: Lucia's chef Lucia Watson
Photo by Gianna Lucci

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Lucia's Restaurant and Wine Bar

1432 W. 31st St.
Minneapolis, MN 55408


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