When Landon Schoenefeld first came up with the concept for his tiny 14-seat restaurant, Birdie, it started as a conversation between himself and then-Haute Dish (his first restaurant) cook Jessi Peine.
Peine is an avid gardener and self-professed “produce geek,” and she liked growing weird things, thinking of ways to use them, and selling them to Schoenefeld to use in the restaurant. Things like coriander flowers and pea blossoms.
They both loved it, and wanted to do more of it. Peine said they should. Schoenefeld agreed. He got to spinning his wheels. Birdie would be a tiny annex of the hot new diner Nighthawks, where the menu would begin with ultra-seasonal produce, as ultra-local as possible (like, Peine’s garden local) and a dinner-party number of guests who would get a nightly shot at all of it.
Schoenefeld asked her if she wanted to do it. She said "yes!" of course.
Peine says she always enjoyed working with Schonefeld because he respected women cooks. He taught her how to skin a turkey with one hand “because that’s how Julia Child did it.” He said Peine made the best gnocchi because she had small hands. He was always respectful of her work. When he hired the rest of the kitchen for Birdie, he made a decision: He was going to hire all women.
But those women, Peine, Tlanezi Guzman, and Brittany St. Clair, didn’t want to turn that fact into a big deal.
“What if one of us got more attention than the others? We were worried about stepping on someone’s toes. About coming off as a hotshot,” Peine explained.
In fact, when I reached out to the kitchen crew over a year ago, when the restaurant was new, to possibly highlight this all-female kitchen, they declined. They didn't want to be known because they were women, or for any other reason, for that matter. They just wanted to cook, and to make their guests happy through food. Being in the media did not interest them in the least.
But now that Landon Schoenefeld is stepping away from Birdie and Nighthawks, the trio of chefs have a conundrum on their hands. They prefer to stay out of the spotlight. Collaboration is their favorite part of the job, and not a single one of them has any interest in becoming a celebrity chef.
And yet, for a project as specialized as Birdie, where a meal is purchased with $100 tickets and the chefs serve the plates directly to the guests, people are going to want to know: Who’s at the helm?
Well, they are. They’ve always been.
Even with Schoenefeld “in charge,” Birdie has always been about collaboration. While each individual was always responsible for creating innovative dishes for a menu that changes weekly, the others were equally in charge of keeping each other honest. If there was a way a dish could be tweaked or improved, then it would be.
It’s what they say makes Birdie the “dream job” that it is.
“I’ve always worked in kitchens where there’s a head chef and you do what he (or she) tells you to,” says Peine, who says she came to professional cooking late, at age 30, in part because she didn’t think the field was “for her,” as a woman.
Birdie has flipped that notion on its head, the three say.
And now that Schoenefeld is moving on, that collaboration will only escalate.
“We don’t need a leader,” says Guzman. And that’s the message they had for investors, who were wondering what to do in Schoenefeld’s absence, and also the customer base, who sometimes only saw the name and face of the celebrity chef.
"It didn't matter how much of us people saw, at the end of the night [certain people] would still applaud for Landon," says Peine.
But now that the illusion of the “leader” is stripped away, the essence of Birdie can, perhaps, truly soar.
Birdie is open for four dinner seatings weekly: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday for two seatings. Tickets are $100 for eight to 10 courses.
3753 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis