The 8 most interesting food moments of 2016

Sadly, Saffron and its delicious octopus left us in 2016.

Sadly, Saffron and its delicious octopus left us in 2016. Alma Guzman

This year has been a doozy. Daily headlines made our heads spin.

Thank goodness we could turn to food to calm us.

Then again, there were times even the food world went topsy-turvy, even in our little town. Here are a few stories that particularly captivated us this year — some good, some bad, some tasty, some not so much.

Chef Landon Schoenefeld and brewmaster Todd Haug leave town

Thanks to social media cycles, images and brands are born every minute and nurtured with fetishistic fervor. But often that’s all they are: images, bearing little or no resemblance to daily realities.

We got that message loud and clear when two of the biggest images in local food and drink dropped their respective mics and opted out.

Todd Haug

Todd Haug E. Katie Holm

Todd Haug was not just the brewmaster for the wildly popular Surly brand, but the very image of its hardcore styling. “They marketed the shit out of me,” said Haug on the heels of his announcement that he’d be leaving the brewery. While his face, personality, and very name were stamped all over the multimillion-dollar product, he says he wasn’t really getting a piece of the pie.

“I’m just a lowly brewmaster,” he said. Lovers of his product were saddened, and now that he’s heading off to Chicago to Three Floyds Brewery, where he will ostensibly be getting a sweeter deal, we wonder if our glorious suds will be the same. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, Landon Schoenefeld, one of our native sons of big-time cookery, formerly of Haute Dish, Nighthawks, and Birdie, has a host of similar woes. He told Tom Crann of Minnesota Public Radio that he’s “a 35-year old man who works 80 hours a week and is living paycheck to paycheck.”

Schoenefeld is widely recognized for his contributions to local culinary culture, but he says he doesn’t feel successful, and those feelings have driven him to depression and suicidal thoughts. He too is leaving our local food scene to try out another market, and he says he won’t be owning restaurants anymore.

We wish them both well. More importantly, we hope the industry finds a better way to repay and sustain the individuals who work tirelessly to give us the life-affirming moments we all love so deeply.

The city tries to help with the Working Families Agenda

The city of Minneapolis’ heart was in the right place when it proposed the Working Families Agenda, a wide-reaching overhaul of small businesses that promised fair scheduling, earned sick leave, and a livable wage.

But many restaurateurs said that if the policies were instituted, it would likely ruin them. After extreme backlash, the mayor announced that the city would back off and work with the restaurants for a more feasible solution.

A handful of pioneers including the Birchwood, Common Roots, and Young Joni have already instituted workplace standards that will make restaurant work more like “real jobs” — with the livable wage and full benefits that many rely on.

Prince tragically passes, and we get a glimpse into his food world

Minnesota was wholly unprepared for the untimely death of our beloved Prince Rogers Nelson. We wept and mourned, the collective grief palpable for months after the fact.

We got solace from his music, but also from learning more about the man who had been so famously private.

At City Pages, we met his personal chefs Ray and Juell Roberts, who cooked virtually every meal for the man in loyal silence, literally until his dying day. We bonded with them over tales of Prince’s most human habits: an insatiable sweet tooth, a penchant for coffee, a tendency to scramble up a couple eggs when he got a little peckish.

Prince’s superhuman talents made us forget that he was mortal. The glimpse into his humanity reminded us that he was in fact one of us.

Milkjam opens, Saffron closes; Esker Grove opens, Piccolo closes; our evolving food scene marches on

Sentimental midwesterners that we are, we hate to see beloved places disappear, especially while they’re still steady and robust. But if we want the sophisticated dining scene we say we do, we might have to harden our hearts a little.

The shutterings of Saffron and Piccolo, two of our most acclaimed eating places, are good examples of the healthy evolution of our eating scene. Sameh Wadi and Doug Flicker are two chefs at the top of their games, confidently shuttering restaurants that are still working well.

Why? Because evolution necessitates change. What was revolutionary a decade ago threatens to mold on the vine.

Better to stride on and take chances. How else will we get caramelized goat milk ice cream or chestnut soup that drinks like bolts of golden silk?

Drop that sentimentality. Good eating depends on it.

Crudo crashes and burns

If we needed any reminder of where we are and what we’re ready for, the failure of crudo was it.

Sort of a sideways cousin to sushi, crudo is the idea of brightening a single raw shrimp, say, with jewel-cut chive and a delicate lemon oil, and it just didn’t take around here. We may be gaining traction as a sophisticated food city, but we know what we want from our Italian food. Raw fish ain’t it.

We’re a landlocked cold-weather people through and through, and starch, sauce, meat, and cheese will always sustain us. Even one of the top slingers of crudo, Todd Macdonald (formerly of Parella), has turned his attention back to pizza and pasta with Red Rabbit, which is now open in the North Loop.

The internets call for a halt to the white-splaining of world cuisines

The old-school habit of slick magazines plucking, repackaging, and re-appropriating food traditions for a whiter audience is no longer a popular play. Readers are demanding change, and it seems as though they’re getting it.

Foodie behemoth Bon Appetit pulled a video of a white chef teaching viewers “This is how you should be eating Pho,” after widespread blowback and outrage.

Locally, we asked Vietnamese chefs to chime in using their own words. Yia Vang of local Union Kitchen said it best in a letter to the editor: “Allow us to have a voice, and please don’t be our voice.”

Local chef Brian Yazzie goes to cook at Standing Rock

One of the biggest stories of the year, in a year with a lot of Very Big Stories, was the standoff at Standing Rock, where a critical mass of individuals demanded, and ultimately received, a halt to an oil pipeline that threatened tribal health, water supply, and resources.

Practical considerations like food, shelter, and of course water might have seemed like afterthoughts, unless you were there. Brian Yazzie, a chef with the Sioux Chef, knew he had to do something about feeding the thousands who converged on this sacred ground.

Yazzie took his cues from the Sioux Chef, Sean Sherman’s project that turns indigenous pre-contact ingredients into cuisine. He wanted to feed the protesters, not with the unhealthy ingredients that Native people have been saddled with for generations, but with real food made from real ingredients. A donation drive garnered plenty of fresh vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Yazzie then made his way to the Dakotas to feed people with body-, mind-, and soul-fortifying food.

Food, like water, is life.

The tattooed bandit strikes out

It takes resolve, balls of plutonium, and a bit of stupidity to try to swindle the ladies and gentlemen of the restaurant industry, an occupation filled with some of the savviest rascals in their own right.

But one Nicholas Steffen got away with it, and he got away with it for a long time, endearing himself to chefs and restaurateurs, and then making away with thousands of dollars in cash and equipment. He’d get work at some of the best restaurants in town, including Piccolo, Travail, and Cook St. Paul, and do a really good job, too. According to the restaurateurs, he often became close with bosses, staff, and even their families. Then, they say, things would begin to go missing — cell phones, computers, blank checks. By the time he was suspected, he’d usually be long gone.

This story alone is interesting enough, but consider that Steffen would often get tatted with the names of the restaurants he swindled, and the plot thickens.

Steffen’s in prison now (not his first stay), and restaurant owners are probably keeping a closer eye on kitchen tattoos.