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.
When La Belle Vie turns 15 this month, the man responsible for a significant portion of its success will also be the man “stuck” back in the kitchen.
Chef de Cuisine Mike DeCamp said in last week’s Chef’s Profile that while the celebration on March 24 is another day of work for him, it’ll certainly be a blast to have his former colleagues and friends under one roof.
Having led the kitchen for all of its seven years downtown and a few years during its Stillwater era, it seems DeCamp’s hard work is certainly paying off. Beyond being a semifinalist on the list of James Beard Award nominations, he’s also in the running for Food & Wine’s “The People’s Best New Chef.”
But we wanted to get to know the chef behind all the accolades — the one who loves spending time with his daughter, the potato chip addict and the man with the fierce beard.
You’re known as “Young Chef” both on twitter and in the kitchen. Where did that nickname come from?
I started working for Tim (McKee) in ’97. I was 17 so that’s kind of where it came from. I was the youngest person in the kitchen for a lot of years, so that’s just kind of where it came from. At Cucina, I got the nickname and it’s just stuck ever since. I’m not so young any more but “Middle-Aged Chef” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
I have to ask, when did you start growing the beard?
Ohh, I don’t know. I don’t remember. When I was in Chicago, I always kind of had this but when I went to work at this hotel, in 2002, no facial hair allowed. So I didn’t really like that so much but I had to do it, because it was my job. In 2004, I moved back and then … it just happened from there. I guess there’s not too many people that look like me.
How did you first meet Tim and how has your relationship evolved over the years?
I met Tim after I worked in Wayzata. A guy I worked with, he went to work at Cucina. A bunch of people left Cucina, D’Amico Cucina — it’s not around anymore — a bunch of people left and I think I was the only one that applied. So I, luckily enough, got the job and that was kind of it. I did a good job and I kept doing a good job so they kept me around for a while and then (La Belle Vie in) Stillwater happened and that’s it, really. That’s how I met him.
Tim is probably my best friend. He was the best man at my wedding. It’s great. We have a unique working relationship. We complement each other. We have kind of different styles, yet not too different styles. I try to cook to the style of the restaurant. This is his and Bill’s (Summerville) vision of a restaurant, so I can’t necessarily do everything that I want to do but it’s good for us to meld together. We both have ideas, they come together and we kind of decide on something. It’s great — it’s a great relationship. He’s one of the smartest food people that I’ve ever met. So it’s great to have, I hate to call him a resource, but it’s great to have a resource like him around, just someone to talk to about things or whatever. It’s great.
When you’re at home and away from the restaurant, which I can imagine isn’t a whole lot, do you like to cook at home? What do you like to cook for your family?
You know, not a lot. We don’t actually cook a lot at home, I mean my wife works — sometimes we have the same days off, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes when I get done with work, she’s getting done around the same time so we make a lot of one-pot meals, stir fries and stuff like that. Just put rice in the rice cooker and make stir fry. We make easy stuff. It ends up being very delicious. She’s a great cook, too. She was a cook before and now she’s in the front of the house. She cooks quite a bit more than me at home, to be true. A couple of weekends ago, my daughter likes steamed buns so we made a bunch of steamed buns and stuff like that. That’s the biggest thing we’ve made that’s not a one-pot in quite some time.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Well, they’re all guilty pleasures, I guess, aren’t they? … I’m kind of a potato chip guy. I generally try all of the new flavors I can find. I try to track different things down. Any kind of salty, I’m serious, Cheetos, Fritos, anything that comes in a bag or a tube, I think I’m good with. I eat all that stuff. I shouldn’t be saying that. I like Macaroni and Cheese. I grew up on that, you know. I like the Deluxe, though. I don’t like the powder so much. That’s the only thing that’s changed since I was a kid. Not one thing, really. I enjoy ice cream. But I think the potato chips gotta take it, anything like that.
Is there an ingredient that you would prefer never to work with?
I’m trying to think of a good one. … No, there’s some gross things that I think I’ve had in the past but I can’t think of anything that I don’t want to work with, really. … No, I can’t. I’ve had plenty of bad things. I’ve had some clams that are pretty bad but … I wish I could think of something. I like everything.
On the flip side, is there an ingredient you find yourself constantly drawn to? Right now, anyway?
Right now, smoked things, kind of. I know that’s not an ingredient. Smoke is more of a flavor than an ingredient. But I’d say yes, big on smoked things right now. Smoked things, pickled things, a lot of … I’m mostly Norwegian, that’s my background, my lineage and kind of a lot of those flavors, not that I grew up with them, but they’re there. Pickled things and smoked things and Rye — I almost said we drink a lot of Rye, which we do but we’re cooking with a decent amount of rye, we add rye in with flour to add another flavor, buttermilk. We’re not a Nordic restaurant but we add a lot of those flavors. That’s kind of what we’re working with now. None of it has to do with the new Nordic revolution that’s going on, it just kind of worked its way in there for some reason.
When you’re out of the kitchen, what’s your favorite pastime?
Well, my daughter’s my favorite pastime. That’s kind of a canned answer but she’s fun to be around. She’s 9, well, she’s going to be 9 in June. So it’s a great time. She’s great. She likes playing video games and stuff right now. My favorite pastime just is reading. I also enjoy movies but I haven’t seen a movie in the past nine months. Reading, that’s just my thing.
If you had to choose a “Last Meal,” what would it be?
Whatever. As long as I had friends around. As long as my friends were there, whatever’s fine. Maybe tacos. Just regular old tacos, maybe some carnitas or whatever. If I had to pick a meal before my time was done, with my friends, some tacos would be good.
Where are some of your favorite places to dine?
Piccolo — that’s probably my favorite. Tilia. They’re my two favorites right now. Right now I’m big on Parlour. Jesse Held, the bartender, is a friend and I’m enjoying it over there, plus it’s close to my house. I love going to Holy Land. Tilia and Piccolo are more, ‘I’m off with my wife and we’re going to go somewhere.’ But those are my favorite places. I like hole-in-the-wall places. The Global Market is pretty good, anything kind of in that area. I’ve been to great Mexican places around there.
When you look back on your career, what do you hope to be known for in the culinary world?
Well right now I’m kind of known as the guy who worked for Tim for forever. Hopefully someday, my own place. Just being one of the best places in the cities. I guess, always having maintained that sort of standard. If we’re the standard where everyone goes for fine dining in the cities, if I move on, that’s what I would like to continue on. I always try to do the best job I could. That would be great.
Read Part 1 of our Chef’s Profile 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.