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The Twin Cities' Most Humble Chefs

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Not so very long ago, mamas didn't let their babies grow up to be cooks. It's no accident that restaurant kitchens were situated in the back, with swinging doors firmly affixed to their entrances. Food was supposed appear out of nowhere, like magic. The people who cooked it were irrelevant — interchangeable cogs in military brigade systems, or miscreants who did the job as a means to some other end. For evidence of this, look no further than food's favorite bad boy, Anthony Bourdain, who describes the life of the derelict cook in his famous tell-all book Kitchen Confidential.

These days, we delight in the cook as artist. We want to know who put together the plate, how they did it, what drives them, and how they can possibly be so capable, so creative. For a while it was fun — what cook didn't like coming out of the shadows for a bit, getting their picture taken, having ladies (and fellows) give them "that look"?

But another trend is brewing, one of kitchen crews wondering if they really have time for all this folly. Who has time for genius when the hood needs cleaning and the cost of beef won't stop going up?

There's no substitute for innovation, for being the guy who shaves kombu into his burger, or for striving to deliver what we all endlessly seek, as cooks and eaters: flavor. But the job is also, in much larger proportion, about hours of labor, dish washing, fixing broken stuff (Murphy's Law has never been so quick to manifest as in a kitchen), personnel, spill mopping, pulling ghastly filth from the grease trap, food cost, immigration law, HVAC, plumbing, pilot lights, fuses, pest control, and a million other tiny details that go into your painterly plate of monkfish.

It's easy to see why the ego cases, the screamers, the dicks, the delicate artists receive the hype. They're fun in the way Cruella DeVille is fun — everybody loves a diva. But at the end of the day she's a puppy killer, and you don't really want a puppy killer sticking his fingers in your soup.

There are many chefs who would rather let their work speak for them. They would rather not be answering our questions at all; they'd just as soon be tucked back in the kitchens, with the door closed, making something that we can eat, something that is an ultimate expression of who they are.

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This list could easily have been 30 deep. Or 50. Or even 100. Really, we could fill the pages of this paper with the names of guys and gals who have their heads down, deeply focused, up to their knees in the shit, elbow deep in the grease trap, with no time or inclination for the attention. Those are the ones who deserve our attention. Because if it's flavor we're in this for, they're the ones who produce it for us, every time.

1. Phillip Becht, Victor's on Water

If Phillip Becht has one message for you it's that he is not a hotshot, and probably would rather not be conducting this interview right now. And yet, he worked himself into a state of repetitive stress injury over his many years at the Modern Cafe, churning out the city's best, most honest pot roast, short stacks, and eggs your way, day after day, year after year. He had surgery on his pan arm (which you get, naturally, from wielding saute pans for a couple of decades), but now he's back at it at Victor's on Water. He says he's made a lot of "noodles" in his day, and he'll continue to make "noodles," by which he means dishes like squid ink Lumache with rock shrimp, charred fennel, and octopus ragu. Becht was drawn to the Italian format of the menu because "Italian is simple," he says, "and simple suits me." He's also the only chef I've ever interviewed who hung up the phone, and then called me back — not to tell me that he forgot a detail about the Lumache, but to say he forgot to thank his crew.

2. Adam Vickerman, Cafe Levain

Most young chefs trying to make a name for themselves are concerned about innovation, about how they can do something that's never been done in quite the same way before. Why sear a perfect fillet of fish if you can fill a balloon with essence of seashore and let it fly? But good cooking, like any good art, should be about making human connections, and a person is throwing good energy after bad if all that comes of the effort is alienation. Young Adam Vickerman embraces the classics: He thinks of Cafe Levain as his home restaurant, and after nearly four years as executive chef there, he has no plans to change or to stop. He's not interested in it being a destination restaurant, though it probably should be for its exemplary renditions of classic bistro fare, things like braised short ribs, apple tart tatin, and knee-buckling roast chicken. That chicken happens to be his signature dish, because of the effort it takes to do properly, every single time. It's a workhorse dish — reliable, crowd-pleasing, and humbly satisfying, day after day.

3. Ferris Shiffer, The Minikahda Club

He's virtually a celebrity figure in back-of-house restaurant circles, but the layperson has barely heard of him. He's an influence of some kind over every young chef — they look up to him as a godfather because his kitchen is a training ground: He turns cooks into chefs. And yet Ferris Shiffer enjoys the low-profile existence of a chef tucked away in a country club kitchen — if you wanted to try his cooking you would have to buy a membership to the Minikahda. And it might just be worth it. "I don't have an ego. I work in a sphere of anonymity," he has been quoted as saying in the local trade pub. He's a chef's chef. Country club cooking means you must be able to do it all — beef Wellington, sushi, crab cakes, kid food, pizza, rice pilaf, crème brulee, quiche Lorraine, chicken pot pies, celeriac veloute, ranch dressing — and keep 900 members indulged in their very personal and particular tastes. But remember, his clientele is high-end, so a member might bring in his friend the French vintner along with a couple cases of his wine, and Shiffer would be tasked with creating a coursed dinner around it. He can do that, too. Every chef in town knows him not only because of his dedication to the craft, but because in addition to keeping the air in the souffle and the crisp on the chicken, he's known as a mensch to all other restaurants — when someone's running low on eggs or bread, it's often Shiffer to whom they go running.

4. Don Gonzalez, Forepaugh's

If you think of Forepaugh's, you might think about wedding banquets, Victorian architecture, and the ghost that famously, supposedly, haunts the space. (For his part, Don Gonzalez says he doesn't like to think too much about it — he works odd hours and doesn't want to get freaked out.) But peruse the menu — or should we say menus; there are at least half a dozen different ones going at all times — and you will forget about bland banquet fare and chafers of warmed-over eggs. Instead you'll be thinking about things like chermoula flatbread, Malaysian samosas, Chinese longbeans, or a Cubano. Beef Wellington is there, too, and all the steaks your suburban dad with an expense account wants to eat, and eggs Benedict and even cheesy potatoes. Gonzalez grew up in a family of female cooks, with an English grandma who made him coddled eggs and toast points, and a Puerto Rican mother who told him if he didn't like something to cook it his damn self. So he did. And he kept doing it until he got it right. Forepaugh's is famous, yes, but not because there's a name chef prancing around an open kitchen. The kitchen is actually in the basement, where all old-fashioned kitchens were once situated, and that's where you will find Gonzalez. And if you really want to get a look at that ghost, remember that she was a chambermaid and if she's anywhere, she's probably in the work quarters too, where anything good and legendary truly gets done.

5. Patrick Atanalian, Sanctuary

Out of all of our humble chefs, Patrick "Frenchie" Atanalian probably fits the chef stereotype best. He's French (which is his answer for how he got into the business), so you could use him as your prototype for the next excitable Pixar animated chef. But aside from that there's nothing really typical about him. He might have been doing this for longer than anyone — "this" being a six-day-a-week dedication to his work, never turning over his kitchen to others, except during his months-long recovery after a surfing accident he sustained on vacation. Seems a giant wave came along and knocked his brain just ever so slightly into the wrong position, causing enough damage that he had to learn everything all over again — walking, shoe tying, cooking. Chomping at the bit to get back into the kitchen, he worked in 15-minute increments until he got it right — all over again. He's been at it for three decades or more, and at times seems positively flummoxed about what "kids these days" are up to. Vegan butchers, say what? But if you're looking for an experience that's somehow at once classical yet weird, familiar yet goofy, challenging but comforting, look no further than his kitchen. The fact that it can come off as altogether grown-up yet still famously incorporate gummy bears is testament to his mad-scientist ways — you won't see him in many magazines because he's too busy tinkering. [page]

6. Paul Berglund, The Bachelor Farmer

The irony of this story's premise wasn't lost on us when we set out to write it. If a person indulges his own humility to an extreme degree, how will we ever, you know, know him? Paul Berglund was just such a case. I realized I had never met nor talked to the man, despite the Bachelor Farmer consistently being on our lists of favorite kitchens. He did a tour of duty in the Navy — not cooking but driving ships — but that old cliché you read in all the food writing about a chef running a tight ship? Not Berglund. Which is not to say his kitchen isn't running as fine-tuned as it would be if he were breathing down everyone's neck like a drill sergeant. It's just that he's not: His kitchen is known to have an air of calm, even a self-effacing Scandinavian brand of quietude, which Berglund says he learned — where else? — in an Italian restaurant. After making the decision to go from the military to cooking, he landed at Oakland's Oliveto where he went under the wing of big-deal chef Paul Bertolli, and he stayed put for six years, a relative lifetime in the business. Talk of Italian slow food might evoke yawns in some, but there's real merit in tasting a soup 100 times, for instance, or getting to know the flavor of every lettuce leaf before dousing it in vinaigrette. Those are the things that happen in Berglund's kitchen — things that might even be described as non-events or un-sexy. Maybe so, but it's the singular focus required to make Nordic cuisine splashy, and remember that when driving a ship, slow and steady wins the race.

7. Aaron Slavicek, Bar La Grassa

Aaron Slavicek is telling me he doesn't really like the chef-as-celebrity thing. "I mean it's fine...," he says, seeming to not want to offend the reporter in the room with the notebook, poised pen, and camera in hand. You probably don't know it, but he's running Bar La Grassa, arguably Minneapolis's best Italian restaurant. Chef/owner Isaac Becker gets the glory but it's Slavicek in the trenches, which is how he wants it. He also spent some time as executive chef of Cafe Maude, but left his post to become an unpaid intern. Sure, it was at one of the world's most important restaurants, Arzak in Spain, but you know what? It wasn't for him. He moved on to Zuberoa, another important place, this time in an old farmhouse, run by two brothers who were focused on traditional Basque cuisine. This was more his speed. The flash of freeze-drying, dehydration, and distillation doesn't do it for him, and instead he's focused on getting rid of every mise en place that doesn't get used each night, and starting completely from scratch every morning. This perfection, which he learned from Becker, isn't about money; it's about making something exactly the way it needs to be, no matter what. Slavicek isn't into the notion of a signature dish, or even willing to pick one thing he likes to cook in particular. What would he prepare for the most important person in the room? "Whatever she wants."

8. Christina Nguyen, Hola Arepa

It's the place everyone loves to love so much it's almost a status symbol: If you had your brunch at Hola Arepa, your cool card is nowhere close to expiring. You know the Caribbean blue awning; you know the food truck of the same name; you know the golden corn cakes of love called arepas and the perfectly seasoned braises and salsas; you know the genius of making a salad out of cheese curds by tossing them with citrus slaw, pickled onions, lipstick-pink watermelon radish, and ground cherries. But do you know the name of the chef responsible for it all? Her name is Christina Nguyen, and we can't help but think that if she were a dude, she'd be on the cover of all the mags with a spatula slung across her chest and a food truck tattooed on her bicep. But she's not. She's quietly cooking, name relatively unknown. We've even heard it said that "she's not really a chef," ostensibly because she's perfected one thing, and churns it out, flawlessly, day after day, month after month. But we're here to say, that indeed is a chef, and you should get to know her name if you don't want your cool card revoked. Again, it's Christina Nguyen.

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9. Lisa Hanson, Mona

It's the best restaurant you've never heard of. Mona Restaurant and Bar is located in what might be the most unfortunate real estate in the city. There's no street access, signage, or any indication of its existence, and yet every time we make our way to the strange little bar in the strange office building in the strange stretch of downtown, we're saddened. Saddened that we've forgotten about the place for so long, and saddened that Lisa Hanson is getting the sort of short shrift that she gets. But a few bites into her simple yet inspired small plates (all the dishes at Mona are served in small-plate form) such as deviled eggs with chorizo that are like an eye-opening take on your morning breakfast, or a lush duck pot pie made deluxe with foie gras and then brightened with cranberry balsamic jus, and happy days are here again. Hanson trained at the Culinary Institute of America, arguably the finest culinary school in the country. Then she worked at Aquavit, L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, and the Four Seasons in New York City, big deal spots, all. But she's a small-town girl from Winona, and she's admittedly shy. "I don't want to call some press person and say: 'Duh, here's what I'm doing!'" So as it stands, the accountants, consultants, and architects of the Accenture Tower have the best lunchroom in town all to themselves. Why not head over and give them some competition?

10. Hide Tozawa, Kyatchi

If you've spent any time in Japan, or paid any attention to Japanese culture, you have some idea how deeply the Japanese people hold modesty and discretion. It's rare to see a sushi chef get name status in the U.S., even though they're the kind of dudes worth following from business to business, like a good hairdresser. Hide Tozawa is many things — talented, cordial, and a sneaky wit — but he is also unflaggingly Japanese. He visits his native Tokyo whenever time permits, returning to his restaurant Kyatchi (the first sustainable sushi restaurant in the city) with his head full of ideas and intricacies relating to how things are done in Japan — properly, in a word. With a mind toward seasonality (yes, fish have seasons), migration patterns, and reverence of single ingredients, Tozawa says his sushi of choice is still the unassuming cucumber roll. That brand of restraint can be tough for the average Minnesota diner to swallow, and some critics have said the menu can feel a little austere, but sushi in its context should be about just that kind of disciplined frugality. He takes and uses only what's necessary, and treats it with the respect just three ingredients demand. He says he just wants to bring something different, namely authenticity, to the Minnesota Japanese dining landscape — no disrespect to anyone else.

The following are chefs and sous chefs we didn't have space to highlight, but who are infinitely worthy of being included on our list. We'd also be remiss to not give a serious shout-out to our legions of largely Latino kitchen laborers, without whom the entire restaurant industry would come to a screeching halt.

Andrew Craft, Grand Cafe

Nathel Anderson, Grand Cafe

Billy William, Sushi Fix

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Brian Morcom, Restaurant Alma

Brian Werner, Bar la Grassa

Christopher Uhrich, Strip Club

Daniel del Prado, Burch

Elizabeth Brockie, Spoonriver

Eric Stukel, The Minikahda Club

Jason Schellin, Smack Shack

Jeff Weber, Eli's East

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Jim Grell, Modern Cafe

Kevin Manley, 112 Eatery

Kyual Cribben, 112 Eatery

Sean Little, Red Wagon Remele Colestock, Haute Dish

Ryan Cook, Sea Change

Ryan Lund, Lucia's

Sam Miller, Birch

Todd MacDonald, The Minikahda Club

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Brahim Hadj-Moussa, Barbary Fig

Jim Christiansen, Heyday

Ben Spangler, Zelo

Hector Ruiz, Cafe Ena, La Fresca, Rincon 38

Steven Hesse, Libertine

Peter Thillen, Heyday

Don Saunders, The Kenwood

Doug Flicker, Piccolo

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Matt Eisele, World Street Kitchen