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.
North Minneapolis' Victory 44 is easily one of the Twin Cities premier dining spots and its undeniable position as a forerunner in the Twin Cities small, chef-driven, highly creative restaurant scene speaks volumes about chef/owner Erick Harcey. Having a firm command on both technique and the understanding of flavors, Chef Harcey whimsically puts together plates of food that are both visually stunning and immensely balanced.
Chef Harcey is the driving force behind not only Victory 44, but his recent partnership with Rustica Bakery and Dogwood Coffee on the Southside of the city has also been met with critical acclaim. Parka continues on in a different vein than that of Victory 44, but the principles remain the same. Creative food elevated by an understanding of traditional technique and quality ingredients ensure that both restaurants are unmissable stops for dining in the Twin Cities.
Chef Harcey grew up in a small town just north of the cities and like many in his field, had exposure to good food early on. "I grew up around good food. My grandpa was a chef, the other one was a farmer," tells Harcey, "I've just always had good food around and I've always loved to eat."
"My mom is a phenomenal baker so we also had fresh breads and cookies and stuff and my dad was always a bit more of an adventurous cook. He'd make stir fry's or bubble and squeak or he was throwing stuff on the grill so we always ate a lot as a family."
Despite his history with food, Harcey was a self-proclaimed "late bloomer" to the career racket. He didn't immediately know what he wanted to do, and while he had entertained the idea of possibly being a chef, he wasn't exactly sure what that would entail. "I loved cooking and I was like, man, being a chef would be pretty cool, but I didn't really know what that meant. I knew that at least if I did something with my hands, like that or being a mechanic or playing the guitar I knew that was the area I wanted to be in. It seemed like cooking was the most love was at. Working on cars is fun, but then it's like you're working on cars and I wasn't that awesome of a guitar player to join the Smashing Pumpkins," quips Harcey.
Chef Harcey eventually decided to follow the way of the chef and as a result he found himself at Le Cordon Bleu. "I may have been the longest lasting student they had. It seemed like it drug out forever and I had things going on in-between there, but yeah I went and did the deal. I still wasn't sure about the career when I was in school. They're always working at the pace of the slower group of your class. Teachers say you're only able to push so far and there's a lot of that kind of politics crap. So you learn how to use a knife, big deal!"
While in school, Harcey worked around town at a variety of small places including Stadium Village's permanent college party, Sally's, but after graduation he found himself working a stint at the Sofitel. While at the Sofitel, he found that he took to their pastry program. It was there he really began to understand the value of consistency in cooking although he found that he wasn't particularly fond of the hotel production style process which in essense is what has helped him to develop the way he approaches his restaurant today. "Creativity is one thing, but discipline and consistency are really everything," explains Harcey, "I've found that I actually have more consistency with more change. These young chefs... you know, ramps are in season. Everyone is freaking out right now about ramps. They're the best thing in the frickin world, but next week no one likes ramps anymore because they're like, 'Dammit, I don't want to peel these things anymore.' The hypes over; it's done and its short lived in restaurants. So to me, I find it a lot harder to have longevity in a strong dish in which maybe the consumer doesn't necessarily know, but I know, and I know that they cut a corner and got lazy because they're sick of it. To constantly keep them on their toes, they're constantly evolving; they're finding something that they have to adjust to and every week they're challenged in a new way. I find we get more consistency in our food then when I've let things kind of ride."
After his time at Sofitel, Harcey worked a few other local gigs which included a stay with one of the Twin Cities top chocolatiers, B.T. McElrath, before he moved on to spend eight years working at the Nicollet Island Inn. While at the Nicollet Island Inn, Harcey was given a lot of leeway with his menu allowing him to experiment and develop the kind of dishes that actually sparked his interest, but as can happen with ambitious young chefs, he decided that the time had come to move out on his own.
Opening up shop in the Victory neighborhood in North Minneapolis after a prime North East location didn't work out, Victory 44 has been changing the way diners have been thinking about their dining experience for more than four years. They were one of the first to utilize the ever-changing, extremely vague chalkboard menus and they were certainly the first to retire the traditional server model in lieu of the more avant garde chef-server format where the chefs both take your order and serve the food that they've prepared just for you.
For today's dish Chef Harcey has put together his newest re-imagination of the restaurant staple, beet salad. The dish itself is an exemplary representation of Harcey's approach to food as it utilizes the main ingredient in in a variety of different preparations to show off the versatility of the beets.
He starts by slow cooking compressed golden beets sous vide until they're just past the point of doneness yet retain their naturally crisp texture. He then shaves them thin into long ribbons. He uses dried beets and vinegar to make an extremely flavorful dried vinaigrette powder. He plates the beet ribbons on top of a dollop of creamy, light and fresh mozzarella cheese and the plate is beaded with a currant gel and garnished with dried currants adding a slightly sweet and sour component to the dish. Harcey finishes the plate with a sprinkle of the "vinaigrette" and a few micro greens. All of the components of the dish play extremely well with the textural beets and the acidity given off from the powdered vinaigrette. The cheese adds an unexpected creaminess that lightens up the entire plate.
Chef Erick Harcey has without a doubt been a major factor in steering how the modern Twin Cities food culture is developing. Some of his Victory 44 veteran chefs have gone on to continue and expand on the Victory 44 concept with their own critically lauded restaurants including Travail, the newly opened Pig Ate My Pizza and their newest upcoming cocktail venture the Rookery. Chef Harcey's approach to cuisine utilizing both old and new school techniques has helped to define his spot as a Twin Cities culinary visionary. If you haven't had a chance to dine at Victory 44, there's no better time than the present, or if you're in the mood for something a little more casual, South Minneapolis' Parka certainly won't disappoint either.