Full disclosure: I used to work for Tiny Diner chef Brian Crouch -- way, way back in the day when we both were fresh-faced and full of vim and vigor. He was my first chef at a beloved little ragtag neighborhood place called Marimar, where essentially a bunch of kids got together and thought, "Hey, we're going to make ourselves a restaurant -- other people do it, so why not us?" They cobbled together their credit cards and their elbow grease and all that youthful energy and made a damn solid little restaurant.
This is only notable because I remember Crouch as this cantankerous, easy to set off, foul-mouthed, live-wire, cig-smokin' bad boy. Pretty much the picture of the TV chef.
See also: Tiny Diner has big dreams in Minneapolis[jump]
Not anymore. He's all grown up, as they say, evidenced mostly by the way he keeps a low profile.
"I'm just the kind of guy who grabs his lunchbox and goes to work," he tells me as I rush a phone interview. He needs to get into his new post at Tiny Diner to get his invoices together by noon.
He's worked in some flashy restaurants over his 20-plus years in the business: the original Levain, when it was all forward-thinking and flash, with a young Steven Brown as jefe, and more recently, La Belle Vie, where he says he mostly learned, even though he was already about two decades into the game. It's where he figured out how to make service easy.
"The hard work was before service. You had about 15 mise-en-places for every plate."
He was also the first person to sign up for culinary classes at the Bloomington Le Cordon Bleu in 1998. Like so many young men we've talked to over the years, he really had no idea what he wanted to do, so cooking seemed like as good enough a choice as any.
"It was something I could do without going to college for four years," he says. (As it turned out, snowboarding didn't pay the bills.) "I had moved out to Colorado and cooked out there a lot."
What kinds of places?
"It didn't even matter. It was all about having time to hit the slopes during the day." In fact, Crouch hated his very first cooking job -- making French fries at Spudsters in Roseville Mall.
"Fryer grease, a uniform, a mall? Figure it out, man."
He liked Le Cordon Bleu better, but he thinks they should eliminate some of the classes and replace them with things like refrigerator repair and Spanish.
He arrived at Tiny Diner by way of Barbette, where he also worked for Kim Bartmann, and says that she treats her people very, very well. Tiny Diner has a mission statement of being "a small place with big ideas," and after only a few short weeks on the job, Crouch is feverishly trying to sort through all of those ideas.
The patio garden is a big aspect to plan for come spring -- they'll grow everything they possibly can there, or at their plot of land on Minnesota's first organic farm, Garden Farme in Anoka County. And the monthly geographical menu inspirations keep the whole kitchen on their toes. This month they're cooking through the lens of San Francisco -- they've got a "Mission Burrito" on the menu and lots of veggie-heavy stuff like the Grateful Bowl with roasted veg, farro, quinoa, kale, tofu, and the like. It's actually one of the chef's favorite things to eat of the moment.
"My girlfriend has a lot of dietary restrictions for health reasons so we like to eat very healthy. I think it's possible to cook with less salt and no animal fat and dairy and still have it taste really, really good." He's very into playing around at home with quinoa these days.
Next month it's Milwaukee. He refuses to tell me what he's got planned for that menu, but will say that it's not just dishes that bring inspiration, but cultural influence, for instance, or anything that conjures up creativity around that geography. "It's tangential how some things come together, you know?"
The place is still a diner first, so if somebody wants to come in for a straight-up turkey sandwich, he can make that happen, too. But they're in Powderhorn, so they've got to accommodate for vegan, gluten free, and vegetarian diets. And they've got to serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, everything from pancakes crafted with the house-made flour they produce out of spent brewers grain from their neighbors Pryes Brewing Company, to a softshell crab sandwich, to eggs any style, to happy hour snacks like brandade tater tots.
Yet keeping all of that straight is the least of his worries, says Crouch. He's behind the scenes, tinkering with systems, and "tiny is truly the operative word," because the place really is small, and his storage space is limited, so he needs to be constantly thinking about efficiencies when it comes to ordering, inventory, storage, and numbers. "There's a lot of thought that goes into all of this. A lot."
"There are only a very select few of us [chefs] who enjoy the glamor end of this job. And those people have created a brand for themselves. But I know a few of those people, even ones that are pretty well known nationwide, and even they have to worry about the same kinds of things I do."
And with that, he's off. He's gotta grab his lunchbox full of quinoa and get to work.
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