comScore

Stewart Woodman Returns to the Twin Cities Culinary Scene That Disowned Him

It's Labor Day at the Minnesota State Fair, and Stewart Woodman is vying for the public's attention.

Three days earlier, he challenged fairgoers to crash his cooking demonstration with "the craziest Woodman story." No one does.

Instead, the crowd eagerly lines up for a taste of his chicharron and beet salad samples, ignoring a screechy microphone and the chef's raging head cold — because his food is worth it.

In the 12 years since Woodman moved to the Twin Cities, he's been honored with four-star reviews and cited as a best new chef by Food & Wine magazine. The James Beard Foundation twice named him a best chef semifinalist in the Midwest.

But each success has been marred by disaster. One of his restaurants burned down. He got fired from another. Two more went out of business, leading to a lawsuit by former employees who accused him of financial mismanagement and failing to pay wages.

[jump]

The way Woodman runs a kitchen has come under fire in recent years and spawned increasingly fantastic tales. Woodman himself has played into the larger-than-life persona, which he's dubbed "Shefzilla," and has gone so far as to joke on Twitter that even the devil is afraid he might get eaten on brioche with foie gras and a side of Chianti.

Today, Woodman is the culinary director for local restaurant group Kaskaid Hospitality. He's also persona non grata in the same tight-knit culinary community that welcomed him as a talented transplant from New York. Even as he attempts to rebuild his image — at demonstrations like this one — it's unclear whether the herd will ever forgive him.

In February, Doug Flicker, the revered chef/owner of Piccolo, tweeted a picture of a reconstituting machine from an auction of Woodman's old kitchen gear. Flicker lamented that he'd gotten outbid and told Shefzilla to buy two in the future — for when his next restaurant closes.

"He was fun to hate for a while," Flicker says now. "Then it just got sad."

Karyn Lindell was fresh out of culinary school when she answered a Craigslist post to work in the kitchen of Heidi's 2.0, in south Minneapolis, the last restaurant Woodman actually owned.

Throughout 2011, she says, she watched Woodman throw people off the line for minor errors and snidely ask male staffers whether they'd plated something with their dicks. Once, after messing up a beet salad, she remembers Woodman sent her to a time-out in the freezer, where she passed 20 minutes by crying.

"He said he didn't want to look at my fucking face," Lindell recalls.

She stayed because she needed the money and claims Woodman promised a positive referral only to those people who stuck around for one year. She didn't make it that long, and now describes the months in Woodman's kitchen as the worst of her life.

In the course of researching this story, City Pages contacted 51 of Woodman's former employees, colleagues, friends, family members, and restaurant reviewers — most of whom declined an interview or spoke on the strict condition of anonymity. Their reasons varied, but cut to the heart of how deep the fear or loathing of the chef is in the Twin Cities.

"I'm nervous," one former server says. "I've seen how he's responded to criticism in the past."

Paranoia ran high at restaurants such as Birdhouse, the chef's healthy-dining alternative to fine-dining Heidi's. Honest mistakes could be fire-able offenses, which caused servers like Colin Jones to go into career-damage control. Some would scratch their names off receipts so that a negative Yelp review wouldn't draw unwanted attention from the Woodmans — Stewart or his then-wife, Heidi.

"You couldn't go to them for any kind of help," Jones says. "You needed to work around them. They were an obstacle to doing a good job in most people's eyes."

Jones remembers the Sunday he quit in March 2013. No dishwasher was on duty and he was running the floor by himself, trying to serve a full house. By the time Heidi showed up, some of the guests were getting up from their seats. But rather than offer help, Jones says, she shadowed him as he rushed to take orders and called him "retarded" in front of guests. (Heidi did not respond to multiple interview requests.)

Before handing over his checkbook and walking out, Jones Instagrammed a picture of the back of a receipt, which came from a table of six middle-aged women with this note: "The server was fantastic!! Our service was wonderful & the nasty presence of the owner ruined our experience!"

Woodman believes the stories from his restaurants have been greatly embellished, if not entirely fabricated (he claims to have no memory of the freezer incident). But he clams up when he hears two names — Bob and Sue Macdonald.

The Macdonalds are avid fine-diners who hobnob with big-name chefs like Minnesota-based food celeb Andrew Zimmern and have treated Woodman at various low points in his career to acts of unbelievable kindness. They once flew him down to Chicago so he could join them at the world-class Alinea. At an annual barbecue for local chefs, Bob recited a limerick to honor Woodman's 40th birthday:

It appears Stewart is now hitting his stride,

With creativity which cannot be denied.

So if at 40 he is in his prime,

It's now really his time

To enjoy the success for which he has vied.

That was five years ago. The two parties no longer speak to one another, and the Macdonalds declined to talk about their former buddy. In Bob's words, "We have nothing to say about him."

[page]

On a Thursday evening in October, Woodman works his way down the kitchen line, guiding the hands of his young staff at the Workshop at Union.

He places pickled, charred pearl onions on top of a rambo radish salad and asks a cook who speaks little English whether he can remember the plating. The man pulls out his iPhone and snaps a picture for later reference. Woodman laughs and moves on.

At the grill, he puts his fingers into a hot oily pan and without flinching plucks baby carrots for a lobster pot pie.

Soon he's clapping his hands and dancing into the dining room. He watches as a man and woman study the menu, then walk out. Woodman leans back against the window, his mood souring as he rubs his forehead. Josh Hedquist, his chef de cuisine who's already put in nine hours, apologizes for the staff's delay.

"This is a fucking mess," Woodman says under his breath, but otherwise maintains his composure. He lingers outside the kitchen to give his cooks some breathing room, because, he says, "Nobody likes to be criticized."

Only a few years ago, a night like this might have been cause for a barrage of "motherfuckers" and "assholes." Today, when meeting him in person, one finds an entirely different Woodman: charming, funny, and insightful, talking endlessly about the minute details that go into running a fine-dining establishment.

Of course, the elephant in the room is always his reputation, and he's hyper aware of how he comes across. During one interview, he accidentally called a reporter by a diminutive of his name and quickly apologized, explaining, "People say that's a bullying technique."

Woodman has his defenders, and they include people who no longer work with him. Andrew Kraft, a former chef at Birdhouse, is not alone in believing the man-on-fire image is overblown, chalking up rude behavior as just a part of kitchen-business-as-usual. "He definitely is a ballbreaker," Kraft says, "but I came from that same environment in New York."

Among the stories of rage and fastidiousness, you'll also find incidents of genuine compassion.

Steven Phillips readily admits that he was a heroin addict when he worked as a server at the original Heidi's restaurant. Customers had complained of his glassy-eyed demeanor, but he dismissed Woodman's questions. High one night, Phillips screwed up his checkout. Woodman fired him, assuming the junkie had tried to pocket several hundred dollars.

After sobering up, Phillips returned to make amends and remembers Woodman offering his job back with a caveat: "Do not make a fool of me." Overnight, Phillips went from being a suspected thief to someone trusted with deposits.

"He gave me space to show him I could be different," Phillips says. "I needed to allow him the same grace."

Woodman's online ego was anything but graceful.

The nickname Shefzilla was born in jest and compliment, courtesy of Rick Nelson, the Star Tribune's restaurant critic, who took a moment during a 2008 review to survey the scope of Woodman's wizardry and fire-breathing reputation, which he dubbed "Chefzilla."

"I don't care if Woodman makes the foul-tempered Gordon Ramsay look like Rachel Ray hopped up on happy pills," Nelson wrote. "I eat his food, period. And I feel fortunate when I do, because, trust me, Woodman possesses a prodigious culinary talent."

The chef's first reaction was outrage, believing that Nelson was gossip-mongering. In time, though, Woodman grew to own the monstrous moniker, making it the title of his personal blog and tweaking Nelson's spelling, adding his own initial to the front.

By January 2009, Woodman was blogging almost daily about industry trends and politics, ragging on the way people worship unconditionally at the altar of local farms. In good fun, he created his own award series for local critics and wrote lovingly of the entire lot, saying the Twin Cities was blessed to have "one of the most talented pools of food writers in the country."

All that changed in November 2010 when Minneapolis-St. Paul magazine gave Heartland Restaurant a 97 out of 100 score via its aggregate rating system. On Shefzilla, Woodman snarled about the bell-curve scheme he'd seen in Minnesota as opposed to the kind of Euro-centric model of objectivity he'd seen in New York.

It drew a response from Heartland's chef/owner, Lenny Russo, who reasoned that restaurant criticism is an inherently subjective art because each person brings his or her own biases to the dining experience. Russo politely asked his friend to "leave criticism to the critics" and wished him future success.

Woodman did one better: He fired off a review of Russo's restaurant, comparing the soup to something "served in Soviet forced work camps." Of the bison meat, he said, it "was a singular achievement, not even the Hubba Bubba chewing gum people could have conceived of the struggle to render it digestible."

Woodman insists today that the review was intended as satire. But as Andrew Zimmern pointed out then, whatever humor could be gleaned from the post was lost in the sauce. Rather than apologize, Woodman jumped screaming into the spotlight — and for that, never recovered.

"If there's one thing I cannot stand it's being told to behave and sit in the corner," he says now. "I would rather die than shut up."

No one was spared in the aftermath, least of all the area critics whom he suddenly declared "by and large a national disgrace." For the next two years, Woodman circled the wagons, accusing just about every major food writer in town of favoring mealy-mouthed advocacy over journalism.

"In some ways it's unfortunate, because that sort of dialogue is interesting and right now there's this sort of manufactured consent in food writing," says Adam Platt, a former restaurants editor and critic at Minneapolis-St. Paul magazine. "This is a city that loves to tell itself how relevant it is. We're constantly celebrating ourselves."

But even when Shefzilla was coherent and insightful he reeked of score settling and bombast. In 2012, he wrote of his critics, "The harder they hate, the happier I am, and the more I know I am onto something good."

Eventually, people stopped listening — though Shefzilla kept talking. In a post titled "Shunned," Heidi herself complained about how her husband had been unfairly ousted from the 2012 list of James Beard Award honorees. "Clearly Stewart Woodman has made a lot of people very angry."

Though Woodman no longer blogs, the food writing establishment is never far from his mind. While taking a break one day at the Workshop, he asks the general manager about who's visited the dining room.

"Any sign of Rick Nelson?" Nope. "How about Stephanie March?" Negative.

Okay, he says, and sits down to rewrite the fall menu.

[page]

As a boy, Stewart Woodman found the kitchen to be a nurturing place where he could express himself in quiet, tinkering with different flavor combinations. He sought out his friends' stovetops and clung to his grandmother's side, he says, so that he could "watch and feel what was happening" — and escape from his own unhappy home.

His father, David, moved the family around for years before settling in a Richfield-type suburb of Montreal. The patriarch was highly intelligent but unstable, Stewart says, and angry to the core.

"He considered it a big point of pride when he stopped kicking the shit out of us," says Stewart, one of five children. "He had chased me up the stairs and in the process smashed his foot on a wall and was in a cast for a while."

Until Stewart was old enough to move out, he got along to get along. But the years would take their toll and contribute later to a complete falling out.

"I don't talk to anybody about him," David Woodman barked into his phone before hanging up on a reporter.

As a teen, Stewart landed a job at a McDonald's but tried out others — strawberry picker, cleaner of shitters at Sasquatch Provincial Park — before beginning a three-year apprenticeship at the Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta. The experience left him hungry for more, so he moved to Vancouver, then to New York City, where he began his climb up the fine-dining ladder. He was working 80 hours a week, he says, but threw himself even harder into his craft, becoming "a monster on the line — that was my saving grace."

By the time he left New York, in 2002, his résumé was peppered with the names of some of the best chefs in the world — Éric Ripert, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Alain Ducasse — with stints in Paris and Monaco.

"He was a very quiet guy who just said little but did more than what you asked him to do," says chef Gray Kunz, an early mentor. "You could show him once and he did it well and there was no hoopla about it."

Working at Le Bernardin, Stewart met his future wife, Heidi, though it would be years before they started dating. She had considered him, she once wrote online, "a blowhard." But in Stewart's cookbook, the couple recounts a New Year's Eve party where Stewart put his hand on her midriff and made a play.

"Finally, you've grown some balls," she told him, but added that he could take her out some other night.

When the Twin Towers fell that September, Heidi was eight months pregnant with their child. The attack devastated the businesses of Midtown and Lower Manhattan, and suddenly Stewart found himself out of a job. With a newborn in tow, he considered his options and headed to Minnesota, where his new wife had grown up, in search of a new beginning.

Today, Stewart Woodman doesn't consider his upbringing an excuse for bad behavior, but he's aware of how it has affected him. Sitting outside a coffeehouse in St. Louis Park, hunched over his seat, he reflects on fatherhood and his two boys, now 9 and 12.

"It was so vitally important for me when I had kids," he says, "to be a different guy than my dad was."

February 18, 2010, began well enough — with the news that Woodman had been named a James Beard Award semifinalist. But in the years to come, that day's raging kitchen fire and its aftermath would be what many still remember.

A young cook had stepped away from the stove while braising lamb shanks, and by the time other staffers extinguished the flames, it was too late. The smoke had entered deep into the kitchen's vent hood, climbing into the attic and setting the roof alight — quickly spreading to four neighboring businesses, including Blackbird Cafe.

A "Fork the Fire" benefit was held a month later, raising money for the staffs of Heidi's and Blackbird (and another cafe), who hadn't received their final paychecks.

Molly Broder, a local restaurateur who led the organizing efforts and sat on the committee tasked with distributing the funds, recalls Woodman broaching the idea of giving some of the money to a charity. She shot his request down, she says, telling him that anything less than the restitution of wages would be inappropriate. (Woodman says he suggested giving a small portion of the money to a fire-related charity so that everyone could pay the good fortune forward.) To this day, however, rumors persist that he somehow managed to pocket the money.

The following year, American Family Mutual Insurance along with the property owners and two tenants sued, claiming the chef was at fault because the kitchen's automatic fire extinguishing system had not been connected. After much finger pointing among the businesses, inspectors, and hood cleaners, the case was settled out of court. But it would not be the last of Woodman's financial and legal troubles.

In June 2013, Birdhouse went out of business, followed four months later by the second Heidi's restaurant. In turn, 15 former employees filed a lawsuit claiming that they were owed $24,000 in back wages. The Woodmans, they alleged, were personally liable for having taken out a $50,000 American Express loan to keep Birdhouse afloat, using portions of credit card receipts from Heidi's to pay back the interest. However, those same receipts included customer tips — which by law belonged to the employees.

Cash was in such short supply during those final days of business that Woodman asked a server to buy $127 worth of plates from Ikea out of pocket. One vendor refused to fix a busted ice machine for weeks. Yet the Woodmans had consumed thousands of dollars in alcohol and food, or given it away to their friends, at no charge — for what they would later describe as "quality control purposes."

On October 4, 2013, the Woodmans called a front-of-the-house staff meeting to announce that they were splitting up. The couple intended to keep the restaurant going until the new year, believing it could survive that long.

It didn't. Sixteen days later, on what would become the restaurant's last night, Woodman sat down at the bar, sipping a glass of sparkling wine.

Two days after that, with the doors locked, a publicist issued a press released appealing to the public for the family's privacy.

[page]

Woodman turned a corner in his black SUV only a couple of days later to find a TV news truck parked outside his south Minneapolis home. Fuck that, he remembers thinking, and kept on driving. For 20 minutes, he looped lakes Harriet and Calhoun and returned to find the reporter gone.

He was home the next time a TV crew came for him, waving cameras in front of his window. This time, he ducked out the back door and peeled out of the driveway, tires screeching.

As the coldest winter in four decades began, Woodman found himself once again jobless, friendless, and jittery, hiding out in the apartment of Berry Holz, his new girlfriend. After he and Heidi had decided to split, Woodman purchased a Match.com account and asked the restaurant's PR person to help him edit it.

Holz says she had been unaware of Woodman's reputation when she first clicked on his profile. The subsequent news of Heidi's closing, which broke a few weeks later, scared her, but she remembers finding Woodman to be genuinely likeable and sincere. Through email, he'd come clean about his past and wrote of how he was moving beyond the angry young man phase of his life.

When he started therapy two years ago, Woodman remembers telling the doc, "Sometimes I'm such a fucking asshole that I can't fucking take it." The sessions, he says, have helped him recognize how sometimes he crossed the line from "classic chef behavior" into personal attacks.

"At times I was cruel," Woodman says, "and I certainly apologize for that."

Meanwhile, the former staff at Heidi's were making damn sure no one forgot about the money they were owed. A settlement was reached this summer following the Woodmans' filing for bankruptcy; the couple claimed only $500 in their checking accounts, having pumped their own money into two failing restaurants.

The former staffers recouped $20,000. But in the process, the Woodmans' attorney inserted a non-defamation clause into the agreement, which prohibited the cooks and servers from saying anything that could be perceived as negative about their former bosses. It's not an uncommon practice — but it's frowned upon by the National Labor Relations Board for producing a chilling effect on aggrieved employees.

Andrew Tanick, the Woodmans' attorney, put it this way: "We wanted both sides to just move on and get on with their lives and not call any more press conferences."

In private, Woodman says, he felt awful about the way things went down — "these were people that relied on me for an income" — and as the winter wore on, considered the real possibility of never working here again. He came up with a business plan for a gourmet sandwich shop and tested the waters of quick delivery by taking a job for the Jimmy John's at Snelling and Larpenteur avenues in Falcon Heights.

For more than two months, a man who'd once been the talk of the culinary scene found himself a faceless driver under a boss whom he describes as "satanic." It wasn't so much the yelling as the demeaning comments: Woodman recalls walking into the store and being asked, "What kind of fucking slob has their hands in their pockets?"

Woodman also threw himself back into a novel he'd been crafting for two years: a portrait of a young chef named George in New York toiling thanklessly under a tyrannical, self-obsessed boor who throws around insults like "chuckleturd." George is successful but only barely keeping himself together, turning acts of punishment — such as fish inventory — into pleasure without understanding why.

"He's doing what I did and a lot of people do for a long time," Woodman says, "and it doesn't make any fucking sense."

Woodman might have remained forever exiled from the Twin Cities dining scene were it not for Kaskaid Hospitality, the local restaurant holding company behind Crave, the Workshop at Union, BoneYard Kitchen & Bar, and others.

Dave Sincebaugh, the chief operating officer of Crave, recalls some trepidation when Woodman's name came up as the new culinary director, but found the out-of-work chef to be honest in wanting to be part of a team. In September, the company flew him to Las Vegas to shepherd a new restaurant and mentor young cooks.

At first glance, a place like Crave — which caters to suburban housewives who want to feel cosmopolitan — doesn't seem an ideal fit. But Woodman seems to be relishing the corporate structure. He doesn't have to fix a broken window or wrestle with insurance paperwork.

"He can let other people do what they do best," Sincebaugh says.

Still, casting off the rancid reputation of Shefzilla won't be easy. The distinction between man and beast, which was blurred by Woodman's own hand, has never been clear. He hasn't found cause to exhume the persona, but it might still be useful, Woodman says, in the right setting.

On a gray morning in October, Woodman sits in the kitchen of his new St. Paul apartment, nervously tapping the granite counter. Within arm's reach sits a butcher knife set and further still a tiny baseball mitt. The fridge is plastered with recipes for crepes and chocolate mousse, scribbled in children's handwriting.

His oldest son, Isaac, lies wrapped in a blanket on a nearby leather couch, recovering from stomach flu. His dog Dixie — Dixie Wicksie — a great dane and greyhound mix with tiger-like stripes, stands guard in the corner.

Over the conference call, Woodman speaks with his new staff about service and sluggish sales. When the conversation comes to the food, he reminds everyone that he'd recently emailed a video on cooking rice noodles. Even the simplest dish needs to be perfect, he says, and the approach should always be "fanatical and relentless."

Then comes a warning and a promise.

"I'm going to be a dick," he says with a smile. "Every station can expect to see more of me in that role."