Third Bird's Lucas Almendinger on Multiple Career Paths and Starburst-Glazed Foie Gras

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2014 Iron Fork competitor Lucas Almendinger talks about his past, competition cooking, and glazing foie gras with Starbursts

Each week, we'll interview one of the chefs participating in our2014 Iron Fork competition. On November 6, these six culinary masterminds will go head to head to see who can create the most appetizing and healthful dish using a secret ingredient. Tickets are on sale now

Lucas Almendinger, of the newly opened Third Bird in downtown Minneapolis's Loring Park neighborhood, might not be a big name in the Twin Cities culinary scene yet, but given his recent critical acclaim and his top-shelf pedigree, he's definitely a chef to watch.

Almendinger has studied under some of the Twin Cities' biggest names and with a well received opening now under his belt, he is poised for a big break. He sat down with us to talk about his past, present, and the upcoming Iron Fork competition.

See also: Will the Third Bird have staying power in Loring Park?

Hot Dish: Are you one of those chefs that had a "food calling" or did you just stumble upon working in the industry?

Almendinger: My mom had a restaurant when I was like 14 or 15. She's an amazing cook. Actually, both her and my dad are really good cooks. So I kind of grew up in an environment where good food was really appreciated. It was just a little diner. I'm from South Dakota and there were 900 people in the town. We'd do a lot of really traditional fare, but it was all executed really well. All of the pies where homemade, all the bread was homemade, and we did brunch and she made homemade cinnamon rolls and scones and things like that.

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Buffalo Fries at Third Bird

After working for your mom, did you continue to work around SoDak?

No, I didn't really love the hours, I didn't really like the work, and there was very little money in it, so I moved to Phoenix after high school to learn to build and repair guitars. After about a year of doing that, my then girlfriend, now wife, was going to be moving up here to go to the U of M, so I decided to move up here to do that. I initially wound up in the cabinet industry, which I did for about seven years. Then I got kind of sick of it. That was right around the time of the housing crisis and work was getting spotty. I knew I didn't like doing it and I was getting laid off all the time, so I started to look back into cooking.

When you decided to get back in the game, where did you start out?

I think I was 20 or 21 at the time, so I was like, you know what, if I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it all the way and I'll move to New York and I'll go to school and work out there for a while. Part of doing that was spending six months working in a professional kitchen because they didn't want you to go to school and get saddled with a bunch of debt only to realize that you don't like it.

I originally went to La Belle Vie, Alma, and W.A. Frost. I ended up clicking with Leonard Anderson over at W.A. Frost and he was going to do the six-month thing with me and then wrote me a letter of recommendation so that I could move out to New York to be the next Eric Ripert. About halfway through, he sat me down and told me that I worked really hard, that I was smart, and he knew that I was reading cookbooks and he told me that he could pay me $9.50 an hour to work part-time and that he could teach me everything that I'd learn in culinary school or that I could keep doing this, he'd sign my paperwork, and then I could move to New York, rack up $70,000 in student loan debts and then go work out there and make $5 an hour living in a closet. When he put it like that, it seemed like a pretty easy choice.

Do you think that was the right way to go?

I think that for me, it was the right way to go. I think culinary school is really good for the right person and I think that not going to culinary school is good for the right person. It just really depends on who you are.

Do you still make guitars?

I'm working on three right now, but it's been like an 80-year project. I keep telling myself that each year, I'm going to get it done, but then each year tends to be busier than the last. I just need to go hide somewhere and finish them.

You worked for Leonard Anderson at W.A. Frost for a while, but after that where did you wind up?

After Leonard left, I continued to work there under chef Wyatt Evans after he took over. After that, I went to work with Landon to help him open Haute Dish and I also took a job over at Sea Change with Erik Anderson. I stayed at Haute Dish for about five months, but I kind of burnt myself out rather quickly with opening a restaurant while working at Sea Change. I ended up going back to W.A. Frost part-time for about six months.

Then I did a year at Sea Change and then Steven [Brown] was opening Tilia and in all of this, Steven and I had become friends. I kept badgering him until he finally got sick of it and decided to give me a job at Tilia. After about a year and a half there, I was promoted to sous chef. Then I left there to explore another opportunity which fell through, but when it did, I called up Jim [Christensen] because we had worked together at Sea Change, and he brought me in at Union as his sous chef. After he left, I took over downstairs and helped to oversee the transition to the Fish Market.

Was it you giving notice that put an end to Union Fish Market or was that something that was already in the works?

At the time that I had given my notice they had apparently already decided to bring Stewart Woodman in. After I put in my notice, we had a long talk and they asked me to stick around because there were some really exciting things coming and then Stewart showed up and I was like, oh, sweet, because Stewart is a fantastic cook and it would've been great to hang out and learn from him for a while. So I guess I don't know. Stewart was brought in as the culinary director for the whole company, so I don't know that closing Fish Market was in the plans before I gave my notice or after to be honest, but I'm definitely really proud of what we did while I was there. So now that you've landed yourself the lead job at Third Bird, how have things been going?

Really well actually. You guys just gave us a really good review and I just walked in and saw that one of our dishes was on the cover of Vita.MN, which is pretty cool too.

Okay, so let's talk competition. Have you done a lot in the way of culinary competition or is this new ground for you? What are your thoughts on competitive cooking?

No, this is my first time. I think that they're fun and that they're entertaining. As far as the Iron Chef thing goes, I've watched it and I've learned a lot of cool techniques off of it. I'm not going into this like I'm Bill Belichick before a Super Bowl or anything. You know, it's never a bad thing to put yourself into a situation that you've never been in. It pushes you to grow and it may be uncomfortable at times, but all of the people involved are super talented, well known guys, so it'll be really cool. I'll have one and a half eyes on what I'm doing and half an eye on them just to see if I can learn something a little different.

Is there anything that's got you feeling any pre-game jitters or are you all set to go?

I just want to get some food on the plate in an hour. I mean, if we were going into this knowing that we're going to have this many duck breasts or two pounds of oyster mushrooms, it would be a much more of a comfortable situation, but not knowing what you're walking into, and then having an hour to come up with something, is really challenging.

When we talked with Erick Harcey last week about what ingredients he'd be afraid to see, he said that he might throw a fit and walk off stage if he were to get something like gummy bears. Are there any items you'd hate to see as the secret ingredient?

I think if I got gummy bears, I'd just pour them into the bowl and explain that you can't beat an ingredient in its natural form.

So there are no ingredients that frighten you?

I mean, there are definitely things I've never worked with, mostly because they haven't been available, but they could be kind of horrifying. I don't think there's anything that would be a huge problem. I don't see a high probability of us getting tripe that we'd have to both clean and cook in an hour. Sweet ingredients always kind of present an interesting challenge when incorporating them into a savory dish, like gummy bears would be kind of tough. In the book Heat, there's kind of this famous story about Mario Batali going to a party and the only thing in the fridge was a lobe of foie gras and a bag of Starbursts, so he melted down the Starbursts and glazed the foie gras with it. So I guess that necessity is the mother of all genius or however that saying goes.

Are there any ingredients you can think of that might send you into a "hallelujah" moment?

If they give me like a pressure cooker and some pig's ears, I'll be really stoked, at least until I realize that they take at least 45 minutes to cook.

Are there any competitors that you're really excited to cook against?

I don't know if it's necessarily looking forward to competing against them, but I've met Erick [Harcey] once or twice in passing at events, but I've never met Don [Saunders] and I know Tyler too from his restaurants, but we've never properly introduced ourselves, so I think I'm more looking forward to getting into the same room as these guys.

Do you have any final words for your competitors before the competition?

Yeah. If you see me crying, don't worry about it, I'll be fine.

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