Reporting Sara Pelissero
The Twin Cities are blessed when it comes to talent in the kitchen. The culinary minds at the helm of our favorite restaurants receive critical acclaim and top honors from food enthusiasts and reviewers alike. But who are the people behind the chef’s coat? Our Chef’s Profile aims to find out.
Steven Brown has proven that simple ingredients and an easy approach — both in the kitchen and out — can make for some extraordinary results.
As partner and executive culinary director of the sensational Tilia, he took a modest motto — “Good food tastes good” — and turned it into an award-winning restaurant that’s been recognized on a national level.
In a similar way, his approach to discussing the things most important to him — his family, his staff and the food he creates — starts simple but is backed with enough passion and conviction that it turns almost poetic.
When you’re at home, what do you like to cook for yourself or for friends and family?
The most recent thing I made was probably French toast for my daughter. I have this really old hand-crank egg beater that ironically belonged to my mother – she got it as a wedding gift in 1960. And I used to make stuff with it when I was a kid. I don’t know how I ended up with it but my daughter loves it. She couldn’t decide what she wanted so I said, ‘Well I’ll just start making something and you come downstairs.’ She’s six. And she could hear the (imitates egg beater) and she said, ‘I know what you’re making!’ We had a big laugh. It was fun. You know, we live in a great neighborhood. We live in Linden Hills, too, and there’s a lot of great people on my block. We just had a Halloween party thing and I made some turkey chili. I generally make pretty simple stuff. … I kind of figured out a long time ago, right when I first started cooking, I would be at home and I would want to make something like I would in a restaurant. But what I realized is, I don’t have a walk-in cooler the size of Toledo and boxes of fresh herbs and demi-glace and all these things at my disposal. So I really learned to cook things that hopefully have a lot of flavor, but not necessarily restaurant-type food. That’s a pretty big undertaking.
I have some friends who now live in San Francisco, and I met them because they were customers in a restaurant that I worked at, but he was an architect and she worked at Best Buy and for them, they would spend all day Saturday shopping and making and have dinner on Sunday night. They would have all these super high-end cookbooks and would make all these recipes but it was like a two-day process to make dinner for them. For them, that was relaxation.
There’s a dish that we serve here since we opened that’s shrimp with a kind of spicy scampi sauce but my wife was complaining one weekend that we didn’t have anything to eat so I made this and it’s got fermented Chinese black beans and garlic and ginger, Yuzu lemon juice and some peas. It sounds kind of strange but that’s what I found on our freezer and refrigerator and anyway, she was surprised that it was really good. And I thought it was pretty good, too, so we serve it here.
When you’re out of the kitchen, what do you enjoy doing? What’s your favorite pastime?
My favorite pastime? Well, I don’t have a ton of free time right now but I really enjoy my family, my daughter, like I said she’s six and we try to do fun things for her. We went to Pizzeria Lola on Sunday and had a great time, you know, played tic-tac-toe and coloring and making alphabet letters with Goldfish. I have a couple of old cars that I like to mess around with – it was actually such a nice day that I decided to take my old convertible out. I just got it out of storage after a long time – 10 years. But you gotta make hay while the sun shines.
Where are some of your favorite places to dine?
Well, I love Piccolo. I keep thinking I want to go there. I think Restaurant Alma is fantastic. I like a lot of, kind of, more humble places, I guess. I’ve long been a fan of Pho 79, they have these little some kind of Vietnamese-spiced meat that’s rubbed with coriander and garlic and ginger and they wrap them in grape leaves and grill it – I love those. Every time I go there, I have to have those. I think those are all wonderful, wonderful things. We live not too far from Barrio in Edina so we like going there quite a bit. I like to patronize places where my friends work at – we just went to Union, a couple of friends are working there, decided to go see that, see what becomes of it.
What are your thoughts on the Twin Cities restaurant scene?
I’ve never really lived anywhere else. In my early 30s, I had a chance to move to New York – and I thought I was too old. (Laughs) If I only would’ve seen myself now. But yeah, like a lot of cities, it’s come a long way. One of my heroes in town is Larry D’Amico. I just love him and I think their restaurants are fantastic. The adjunct to that is that their employees stay with them a long time, which I think is really admirable. They obviously must be doing something right. Larry likes to joke, when D’Amico Cucina opened, there was no fancy food – there were steak places and Italian food was white sauce and red sauce. So that transformation has taken a number of years, but I think it’s great. I think we certainly have nothing to be ashamed of – I think there’s a lot of great places and it continues to get better. I think for a long time, there was maybe just a handful of places, and like I said, that sort of democratization of good food has really kind of come and gone down the pipe, so you can get really good places. Have you been to Ngon Bistro in St. Paul? I think that’s a fantastic place to go – again someone taking a food they know and love, and sort of applying that contemporary idea of locally sourcing, and getting local ingredients and applying that. It’s pretty awesome.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
My biggest guilty pleasure food? Well. We made Chick-fil-A’s the other night here and we were making biscuits for Sunday brunch, deep-fried chicken with pickle mayo and BBQ sauce and cheese on it. I have to say it was pretty delicious. I don’t know if that was a guilty pleasure or not, but it was definitely pleasurable.
Is there an ingredient that you would prefer never to work with again?
I don’t know if there’s an ingredient that I would never work with again. I’ve certainly had some experiences. Once we got these lamb brains and let’s just say it was arduous to extract the lamb brains from the lamb. It was for Alex Robert’s 30th birthday and to be frank, I don’t know what we were thinking but we made these lamb brain ravioli’s and, I don’t know if it’s my biggest culinary regret but it’s one of them. Occasionally I’ll see Alex and we’ll have a laugh over that.
On the flip side, is there an ingredient you find yourself constantly drawn to?
Yeah, I mean, I like seafood. Growing up in the Midwest, I worked full time in a restaurant and we would have 13, 14 different kinds of fish every day, fresh fish, ocean fish. When you butcher a cow, it’s all kind of a cow, but it’s just amazing to me that you can open up this fish and it’s bright pink or this one is pure white, or just absolutely deep red. I just think that’s amazing. It’s really pretty astounding to me. I love it.
If you had to choose a “Last Meal,” what would it be?
A last meal, I don’t know but Doug Flicker would cook it. … I would probably request some sort of comfort food from Mr. Flicker. My mother used to make this no-crust coconut pie and I loved that. In fact, she used to make two, one just for my father and one for the rest of my family. It’s been years since I had it and I hold it with great review. I would want that for dessert.
When you look back on your career, what do you hope to be known for, in the culinary world?
That I inspired other people and that I was a good mentor and friend. I think, like I was saying before, I just told the staff the other day, you know, we probably spend more time with each other than we spend with our families and I’ve worked at a lot of restaurant, opened a lot of restaurant and closed a few, had a lot of laughs and shed a couple of tears, but the thing that I keep coming back to is the people that I worked with. I remember the bar, I remember the food, I remember the customers and all that stuff but really, right at the heart and soul is the staff and the things that you share, the jokes that you make, the things you go through together. It’s pretty solidly awesome. This is an interesting business and you really do work with people, you know. I really like that.