Signature Dish; The Kenwood's Chef Don Saunders

The Kenwood's chef Don Saunders presents his Moules-Frites
The Kenwood's chef Don Saunders presents his Moules-Frites
Photo courtesy of

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.

The Kenwood, having only been open for less than a year, is already a fast favorite among south Minneapolis residents. In addition to his other south Minneapolis restaurant, In Season, Don Saunders has helped to solidify the platform for the ever-blossoming Twin Cities food scene. Having worked with some of the best chefs at some of the best restaurants, Saunders classic French cuisine has easily earned its reputation as some of the best in the city.

Focusing on only the freshest ingredients as they come available, Saunders has in part helped to define the culinary philosophy of the Twin Cities and with his recent announcement of shutting down his flagship restaurant, In Season, for the summer for a quick makeover, Saunders is looking to add a new distinctive flair to his culinary repertoire. 

Growing up, Saunders wasn't immediately drawn to food in the traditional sense, but he had a firm appreciation for the restaurant environment. "I've always liked, even as a kid, dining out and the kind of restaurant experience. I would say that cooking and messing around in the kitchen wasn't actually something I did as a kid or even as a teenager," explains Saunders, "the way I got into it was more not liking my first year of college and the direction I was going with that so I kind of took myself out of college and just got a job as a waiter in the restaurant business. I instantly loved the vibe of restaurants and that business."

Wanting to go back to school so he could advance himself in the hospitality industry, Saunders found a program in restaurant and hotel management at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. It was during his time here where he really started to develop his love for cooking. "I talked to one of the instructors there about my passion for food and the kitchen side and he said that if you really want to go for that, there's no harm in trying culinary school and getting a job in the kitchen to see if you like it," tells Saunders. 

After finishing his degree at Stout, Saunders hopped the pond to pursue his culinary training at Le Cordon Bleu in London. "Instantly when I went to culinary school and got a job in the kitchen I knew that this was my career path and that this was want I wanted to do."

After completing his stint at Le Cordon Bleu he spent a few months working in the kitchen at the well-known, Michelin-Starred restaurant Chez Bruce under Chef Bruce Poole. "To this day it was the toughest job I've had, he was the toughest chef. He was British, French trained almost Gordon Ramsey style; maybe worse," recalls Saunders, "I still go and check out his menus online."

After coming back to Minnesota from his time abroad, Saunders was set on the idea of working on one of the two Twin Cities super-restaurants at the time, Goodfellow's or La Belle Vie. At the time neither restaurant had any openings, but then Goodfellow's executive sous chef Jack Riebel had suggested looking into a new restaurant that was about to about open in Downtown Minneapolis called Vincent. Saunders spent several years working under local French resident Vincent Francoual. After working as Vincent's sous chef mastering the art of French cuisine, Saunders finally had the opportunity to fulfill his Goodfellow's/La Belle Vie dream. When Jack Riebel made his transition from Goodfellow's out to La Belle Vie in Stillwater, he hired Saunders as his sous chef. "Jack and I kind of kept a relationship going because he would come and eat at Vincent and I would go and eat at Goodfellow's and we just kind of kept the relationship going," recants Saunders, "and then he got hired out at La Belle Vie when Tim and Josh opened Solera, so Jack recruited me to be his sous chef at La Belle Vie. I got to work with the sous chef from Goodfellow's at La Belle Vie, so it was like my patience was... it was exactly what I wanted to do!"

After a year working at Minnesota's culinary mecca, Saunders moved on to do a brief stint at what was then, the newly opened A Rebores (now Meritage), but quickly decided that the time had come to move out and start his own thing. Shortly thereafter, the Northeast Minneapolis restaurant Fugaise was born. Despite having a small cult following, the 2007 recipient of the City Pages Best French Restaurant award was forced to close. Saunders tells, "I went on to open Fugaise in NE Minneapolis. We were open for about 3 ½ years, but in the end it wasn't the ideal location. I think there was some business moves I could've done a little bit different, just being a kind of green on the location and knowing what customers wanted at that time and in the end it didn't work out and we had to close."

After the closing of Fugaise, Saunders worked at a few other places before deciding to try again with his critically acclaimed restaurant In Season and just late last summer he launched his newest venture, The Kenwood. Both restaurants feature Saunders signature French flair with In Season leaning towards a more fine dining experience and The Kenwood offering a range of dining options. This summer Saunders will close In Season to focus on a newer approach and further differentiating his restaurants. "Ideally, what I'm going to do with In Season is exactly what I want to do as a chef, which is only worry about 4-5-6 dishes per week and then being able to change those dishes the following week," dishes Saunders, "The cool thing is being able to have no restrictions on anything. Other than I want to keep the price point the same every week pretty much, but that'll be the only restriction. Maybe I'll get a guest chef to come in there."

The dish that Chef Saunders has picked to share with us this week is the Moules-Frites from The Kenwood's menu. They're a super simple, yet classically French preparation that embodies the way Chef Saunders approaches his food. He uses a meatier Swan Island mussel which delivers the rich, seafoody flavor of the mussel in a big way.

The dish starts with sautéed shallots. The mussels are added to the pan with white wine and heavy cream. As the mussels finish and open up, Saunders adds in a pistou, which is a combination of garlic, basil and olive, lemon juice and then he scents the dish with touch of Pernod; a French liquor traditionally used in seafood preparations. The robust, earthy flavor of the mussels pairs really well with the rich cream. The wine, the pistou and the lemon juice help to cut the richness of the dish and the pernod helps to add a floral aroma to the lovely plate of mollusks which are best accompanied by a plate of fries or a crusty baguette (which they get from Patisserie 44).

Chef Saunders and his restaurants are become a beloved part of Twin Cities food culture and this is present as almost every guest that leaves The Kenwood stops by the open kitchen on their way out to tell the chefs how good of a job they're doing. Since you won't have the opportunity to visit In Season until it comes out of its cocoon next fill, stop by The Kenwood. I can almost guarantee that you won't want to leave.

Signature Dish; The Kenwood's Chef Don Saunders
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The Kenwood Restaurant

2115 W. 21st St.
Minneapolis, MN 55405


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