As a Yucatán born, St. Louis bred Minneapolis transplant, Jorge Guzman says he knows he's got a little something to prove, since he's not even from the state of Minnesota. Yet he's just landed one of the highest profile kitchens around with some very deep Minnesota roots, at Surly Brewing. So he's quietly trying to do just that. When he gets nervous, he says he remembers the advice of chef/charcuterie master Mike Phillips, who recommended him for the job: "Just put your head down and cook."
And when someone suggests he's not up to the challenge, he's got a few choice words: "Fuck you, yes I can."
The task is indeed daunting. In the two or so weeks the beer hall has been open, he estimates that they've fed over 15,000 people, about 1,300 a day. And, he says, it couldn't have gone smoother. That's thanks in large part to a big staff (25 line cooks at a time) and good menu planning.
He's informed in large part by his roots. He was born in Mérida on the Yucatán in Mexico, where the food, in his estimation, is hands down the very best in the world. He remembers fondly large family lunches; the main meal is taken at 2 p.m., when grandfathers, cousins, uncles, godparents, and all other extended family would take a break to gather and dine in the home. His grandfather was the patriarch, serious yet kind. He ate the very same dessert every day: a salted sour orange. Guzman says he can still smell it.
He says his mother was a horrible cook. "Throwing a bunch of shit into a crock pot and it magically becomes food? Sorry, it doesn't work that way." So he may have been inspired to cook out of desperation. He started at 16. By then the family had immigrated to St. Louis, so he worked at Chez Leon, a traditional French restaurant with serious chef Gerard Craft. Then he spent four years working his way through college at a burger joint. Once in Minnesota, he moved on to Red Stone. "Not glamorous," he says, "but taught me a lot about running a large operation." Then he moved on to Tejas, Corner Table, and Solera.
As executive chef of Solera, Guzman was able to weave his Latin and Southern influence into the menu fairly easily -- "Spanish becomes Mexican, sort of," he says. But at Surly, it's more of a challenge. He says the first menu he worked on leaned too heavily on his own signatures, and instead the food needed to be all about the beer. "We sat down and said, 'Let's just make food that tastes great with beer,' and with those simple words, I was able go forward."
What they went forward with is a very comprehensive menu -- about 30 items deep -- ranging from the obvious burger (American cheese, lettuce, fancy sauce), to a bone marrow "Veracruzana style" in a nod to his heritage. They've even got a foie gras French toast. Guzman says he wants to try to appeal to everyone -- or everyone who likes beer, and likes to eat food with their beer, and that's a lot of different kind of folk. He mentions that a gentleman just flew from Japan specifically to check out the new digs, and then flew back out the next day.
While he needs to cater to the entire demographic, at the end of the day, he says it's just a place to "come and grub."
"If it was me, I'd come and smash some BBQ and a couple of beers, and be done with it." Meaning, he's not trying to get Michelin stars or anything, but does point out that Torst Beer Hall in Brooklyn just received one.
"We do want to be recognized, yes."
Surly will be adding a 800-person beer garden in the spring, as well as a fine dining restaurant.
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