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.
You could say he’s a dime a dozen.
From the incredible kitchen at La Belle Vie, Chef de Cuisine Mike DeCamp leans on years of experience and a natural talent over the now-typical route of culinary school or collegiate courses. He quickly climbed the ranks, learning from chef mentors and plenty of reading that kept both his enthusiasm and his cooking at its peak.
Starting his first restaurant job in his early teens, DeCamp earned the nickname “Young Chef” – a moniker he still uses today (see Twitter).
Now, as La Belle Vie celebrates 15 years of impeccable service, DeCamp is scratching his head, wondering how the time flew by.
We sat down to chat with the chef about his recent James Beard semifinalist nomination, the restaurant’s anniversary and how his journey began.
How old were you when you began cooking?
When I first started cooking, I was 13 at a pizza place in Medicine Lake. Well, I mean, I started cooking when I was a kid with my great-grandma but not very fancy or anything like that. The pizza place is what really made me enjoy it.
Is that when you knew you wanted to go into the culinary world?
Yeah, kinda. When I was 16, I was working at a place in Wayzata called Chez Foley. It’s not there anymore but I worked with a guy and he kind of showed me that food can be more interesting than just home stuff. So that was kind of the time when it all clicked.
What made you want to do this full time?
Well, it was kind of all I had ever done. So I really didn’t know any different than this. And it seemed fun. So what could be more fun than just making food all the time. That’s what made me enjoy it at first and eventually, I just fell in love with it.
You mentioned your great-grandmother, did you come from a family of cooks?
Not really. Whenever I say her, I know that everybody pictures that I used to make this or make that with her — we made pies. You know, great-grandmother home-style stuff. Nothing fancy, but you know, she enjoyed it and I enjoyed doing it with her. It was just something we did together. I think that’s how grandmothers and great-grandmothers babysat their grandkids — by cooking with them.
What would you say was your first memorable meal or a meal that stuck out for you?
That’s a terrible question. (Laughs) No, it’s a good question, it’s just terrible to try and narrow it down to one. There’s been so many. When I went to Charlie Trotters that was my first … and for many people, I think that would be the answer, too. I went to Charlie Trotters and that was my first really grand restaurant that I’d been at. A lot of times, it’s more the company that makes the meal, as opposed to just the food. My bachelor party, Tim (McKee) and all of my close friends went down to New Orleans and my favorite meal I think we had there was at a place called Cochon, it’s one of Donald Link’s restaurants.
Not long after that I got married and then on our honeymoon, we went to Napa. Meadowood was also another really fantastic meal. So I think those would be my three most memorable meals of my life.
Tell us a little about your training and education that led to your position now.
Just in the kitchen. I didn’t go to school for cooking — well, for anything, I guess. Just coming up through kitchens, working with Tim, reading on my own, I guess teaching myself and working for people like Tim and the guy I worked for in Chicago. Just learning on the job, basically. Tim and I joke, there’s not too many of us left anymore that didn’t go to school. Everyone who works here now, has gone to school. And then everybody who works everywhere, pretty much, has gone to school. We’re a dying breed, I guess you could say.
What inspires your cooking?
You know, I’ve been asked that question a lot these last couple of days. Everything. Everything does. I read a lot so it all kind of does. Everything influences my cooking — I read interior design magazines and I get ideas from that to you know, we don’t do it here but right now I’m reading a book on Vietnamese home cooking by the guy from The Slanted Door in California. Everything does. Just because we don’t do it here, doesn’t mean I can’t get influenced by that stuff. It’s a pretty general answer and I apologize for that but everything does — the seasons, everything. At least for me, personally.
What is it about being a chef that motivates you? Pushes you to continue challenging yourself?
There’s an argument to be had that La Belle Vie is one of the best restaurants in the state — and that’s pretty good motivation to stay there. There’s nowhere to go but down from there, pretty much. That’s plenty good motivation for me. I want to make sure we stay where we are and maintain where we’ve built ourselves up to.
Speaking of accolades, congratulations again on the James Beard Award semifinalist nomination.
Thank you. It was a big surprise, too. Big surprise.
Where were you when you found out? What was your initial reaction?
I was in my car, reading twitter when I found out. Rick Nelson (Star Tribune) had posted on Twitter that I was on the list but then I looked on the list, and turns out there was a mistake on it. They put Tim (McKee) when it should’ve been me, since he’s not actually eligible for the award. So it was a little bit like, ‘Well, am I or not?’ But then Tim called Rick and it all got sorted out. I actually got a call from the Beard House apologizing for the typo. It was exciting and it felt great and then I saw the list and it felt like, ‘Oh.’ First thing in the morning is when everyone was looking at it so they saw Tim again instead of me. But you know, no big deal. As everyone says, it’s an honor to be on there and it truly is. And now I can actually say that.
Is that added pressure for you at all?
No, not really. I think we put enough pressure on ourselves around here that it’s not added. Like I said, it was a bit of a surprise. It’s great to be on there but we’re just going to keep doing what we do. No changes or anything.
It seems like every year the nominations come out, there are more chefs, more restaurants from the Twin Cities being recognized. What’s your take on the way our local food scene is growing?
It’s fantastic. The food scene is fantastic — it always has been. I mean, forever. As long as I can remember, it’s been fantastic. There’s less restaurants like us, at La Belle Vie — we’re kind of the one fine dining restaurant left, which is good for us. I never want to be in a city that doesn’t have a restaurant like this, that special occasion that you want to come and get pampered completely restaurant — that’s what we are. As far as everything else goes, I like that places like Butcher and the Boar, more casual-type places, are opening. It keeps growing every month. It seems like more restaurants are opening every month. I’m glad to see that. It means we have a strong community that everyone wants to go out and eat in those restaurants, otherwise they wouldn’t be opening more and more restaurants every month. It’s fantastic.
Living in Minnesota, it seems like everyone grew up with some sort of food deal. There’s a lot more small farms here than I think there are in a lot of other parts of the country. I can think of a lot of people who work here who have some sort of a small farm-ish thing in their family. I think there’s a lot more of that in Minnesota, and in Wisconsin, too, than in anywhere else. I mean, Iowa has giant farms, Nebraska, California. Here we have small farms, which is kind of nice. To be certain, there are plenty of small farms throughout the country but I think maybe we have more small farms here.
La Belle Vie is celebrating 15 years this month. What’s it like to be part of that great history?
Well, and I’ve been part of it for most of it, too. I opened it in Stillwater, too. It’s awesome to be turning 15. A lot of restaurants don’t make it that far. I think it’s just a testament to the dining public, like we were just talking about. They want us around and we’re going to continue to keep doing what we do. Obviously they like us for it — we keep doing it and they keep coming. So it’s just fantastic. Fifteen years is great. It’s flew by, though, too, I gotta tell you.
Does it feel like 15?
Not really. I mean, I was there and then I left, I came back, I left, I came back. I’ve been here the whole time at this one. But it’s been seven years in this location, which it doesn’t seem like it’s been seven years. That’s for sure.
So tell us about the big shindig. What all do you have planned for the anniversary party on March 24?
Well, we’re having a lot of guest chefs that have been through the kitchen. Jack (Riebel, Butcher & the Boar) will be here, Tyge Nelson (Chino Latino), Shawn Smalley (Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque & Pirate Bar), Matt Bickford (Icehouse and Be’Wiched), Jamie Malone (Sea Change), from their respective restaurants. But we’ll be having a caviar bar in the dining room. They’ll each get a chance to man the caviar bar and hang out with guests. It’ll be fun. They get to have fun. I get to work. But somebody’s gotta make sure everything’s going OK. Michelle Gayer (The Salty Tart) and Adrianne Odom (Parasole Restaurants) will also be here doing some pastries and stuff like that. It’ll be a fun night.
What will it be like to have everyone under one roof?
It will be great. Not all of us worked together at all of the same times but we all know each other. At one point or another, we all worked together, kind of. It will be great. They’re all great friends of mine. Matt Bickford, Tyge Nelson and Shawn Smalley were all in my wedding. We’re all really good friends. It will be great. It’s like hanging out with friends. I have to work, of course, but it’ll be nice to have them all around. I see them all far too infrequently.
Check back next week for Part 2 of our chat with Mike DeCamp. The 15th Anniversary party for La Belle Vie is on Sunday, March 24. Tickets are $150. For more information on the birthday party, call the restaurant at 612-874-6440. For more information on La Belle Vie, click here.