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.
These days, Isaac Becker may be the proud owner to three outstanding Twin Cities restaurants, but there was a time, years ago, when his culinary career took a backseat to his dreams of becoming — wait for it — a rockstar.
Chef Becker admits, when he initially got into the restaurant biz, it was merely just a job he could get and as soon as he left one kitchen, he swore he’d never enter another.
Back then, he was busy playing gigs as the drummer of his up-and-coming band and never gave cooking much thought. After the band changed direction, and admittedly, lost some of its appeal, Chef Becker focused on the job that already built up the majority of his résumé and tried a new approach — working for restaurants where he really liked the food.
What started as just a “day job” quickly turned into a passion with inspiration to do more — and that motivation hasn’t slowed down since.
This James Beard award-winning chef now owns 112 Eatery, Bar La Grassa and Burch Steak and Pizza Bar, with his wife, Nancy St. Pierre.
I met up with the chef at his latest creation, Burch, to talk about his early beginnings and what’s coming next.
How old were you when you began cooking?
I guess I was 18.
Where did that interest in cooking come from?
It was just a job. A job I could get. At that time, I wasn’t really thinking about my future as a chef or anything like that. It was just the only job I could get, so I took it.
Did you come from a family of cooks?
No. I think I do have a little bit of foundation from my mom and my dad. We went to New York and we went out to eat a lot. My mom, when she was in college and I was a kid, she was a server downtown, at one of the fine dining restaurants downtown in the 70s. She would tell me about things and a couple of times I ate there but no one’s really a cook in my family.
You started in this business at a very young age. When did you know you wanted to go into the culinary world?
For a while, I had a string of kitchen cook jobs and every time I got out of one, I’d swear I’d never get another job in a kitchen again. But after about three years, that was a job I could get because I had experience. So I kind of stuck to it. There was a place called Lowry’s, which is now Rye. It had just opened up and my girlfriend and I were eating there and I thought, “you know, I should get a job working at a restaurant that I like to eat at, where I like the food.” So I applied there and they really took a chance on me and gave me a job because I didn’t really have any experience. And I worked there for five years. While I was there, I was in a band and my goal was to succeed in music. But I also enjoyed the work and the craft of cooking. After being at Lowry’s for about five years, I realized I liked it. So I quit and got a job at D’Amico Cucina. That’s where I really felt like I was inspired. That’s when I knew I wanted to stick with it.
What was your band called?
Uncle Big Dad. (laughs)
So, were you lead vocalist or?
No, I was the drummer.
At what point did you move away from the band and focus more on cooking?
Well the band, we were pretty popular for a while but then we kind of changed our style and we got less popular and it became a lot less fun and we weren’t making any money and I just, I got kind of sick of it.
Do you still dabble in music at all?
I play my drums a little bit but not really.
When you first started with the D’Amico family, what was it that made you inspired?
In those days, D’Amico Cucina was – at least to the people I knew in the business – the premiere fine dining restaurant in town. I was pretty young, I was in my early, early 20s but it was the kind of restaurant that you were even intimidated to go eat at. I just felt like, it was a challenge for me to even try to get a job there. And actually, the only reason I got a job was because I had a connection.
Is that when you first met Jay Sparks? I hear you two had an interesting first meeting.
Yeah. I had two interviews – one at a steak house in town, maybe Ruth’s Chris? And I had an interview at Cucina. Well I got the names of the chefs mixed up. So I went to Ruth’s Chris and they weren’t interested in hiring me and it didn’t seem like a good fit for me. The same afternoon I went to Cucina and rang the back door. Jay answered the door and I didn’t know who he was and I said, “Is the chef here?” And he said, “I’m the chef.” And I said, “Well, I’m looking for Steve Smith.” And he said, “Well, I’m the chef.” And I said, “Well, I’m looking for Chef Steve Smith.” And he got kind of mad and was like, “No, I’m the chef.” And finally, I was like, “OK, OK.” And that was how that interview started.
And then he took me to his office. And Jay’s a great guy, I love him but his interview style is kind of odd. He was like, “Well, do you like tomatoes?” And I said, “Kinda.” And then he said, “Do you like anchovies?” And I said, “No, not really.” So he said, “Well, we don’t really need anybody.”
I was friends with the Schutte family, who used to own The 510, and I was telling my friend Brad Schutte about this terrible interview I just had with Jay and he was like, “Oh, I’ll have my mom call him” or he said he’d do something. The next day I got a call back from the sous chef, who happened to be Tim McKee and he said, “We’ve got a job for you.” And Jay’s never said, I don’t know, he acts like he doesn’t remember. He’s never really said if the Schutte’s called him or not. But I think it’s a pretty strange coincidence.
You worked at a number of well-respected restaurants before opening your own. What did your experiences working within the D’Amico family or working at Lowry’s teach you about owning a restaurant?
I was the head chef at the Campiello on Lake Street and I was the head chef at the Campiello in Eden Prairie and then I was the head chef, opening chef at Café/Bar Lurcat and I helped open the Café Lurcat in Naples, Florida … they’re pretty big operations and they were busy when I worked at them. I learned and I really got practice on how to be proactive, how to react to things, how to make decisions fast, get better at making decisions that are best for your restaurant. And they seem like simple things, but not always. Plus, they’re really demanding across the board – they’re demanding with the food, they’re demanding with the service, they’re demanding with the business, the numbers. So a lot of experience with having to meet every month with the owners and having to explain what your numbers were, why they were the way they were – whether they were good or bad, you had to tell them why. So you had to know what was going on.
So by the time when I got to the 112, that was, in a lot of ways, really easy because it was tiny compared to any restaurants I’d worked at before. Everything was on a much smaller scale. I had to physically work hard and put in a lot of hours, but the management part and the business, financial side was pretty simple.
What was your inspiration with 112? What did you want it to be?
Back then – well, now I have two restaurants that are concepts – but back then, I was really tired of concepts. In fact, the name of the restaurant was going to be “Concept Eatery,” to kind of flip my nose at all the concepts in town. My wife said that’s stupid. But the “Concept Eatery” is our LLC name. I just really wanted a restaurant – I mean, I’ve said this a million times but – just a place where I would want to go. And there wasn’t anything – one of my best experiences was going to the Blue Ribbon (in New York).
When I worked for the D’Amico’s, we did a James Beard out there and when we were done, you know, it was late. It was 10:30 p.m. or 11 p.m. The people who actually lived in New York and worked the event with us said, “Let’s go to the Blue Ribbon.” All the chefs go to the Blue Ribbon. This was in 1996 or 97. We went there and it was the funnest, coolest thing that I’ve ever done. We were there until almost 4 a.m., eating oysters and having a great time. There was nothing in Minneapolis that was open past 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. So I really wanted to have a full menu of what I think is interesting food until 12 or 1 o’clock in the morning. That’s what inspired me to do what I did at 112.
With 112, you went from making food that you found interesting and would want to eat and to owning one of the most popular and highly acclaimed restaurants in the Twin Cities – and beyond. Did you know it would be as successful as it is?
No. I didn’t think anything I was doing was that special. To me, it’s like, being able to get foie gras, sweetbreads, lobster sometimes, the things on my menu were things that you can only get at fine dining restaurants so I guess one of my things was that I wanted to give that to everybody, at a reasonable price and in a more casual, relaxed atmosphere. Not a place where you’re scared, intimidated or go broke at. But no, I never thought that it was going to be that big of a deal. I wanted people to like it and I wanted to be able to survive, make a living, but that was my only goals – have it be a working business and stay afloat.
After a few years, you opened Bar La Grassa. What was behind that decision – and what was your inspiration?
The pasta bar and actually the name La Grassa was actually something that Nancy and I had talked about for years. But 112 was too small. The kitchen was too small, the menu at La Grassa couldn’t be done at the kitchen we had at 112. Pasta’s probably my favorite food – I have a ton of experience with it between all my years at D’Amico’s. When I was approached to do the project, one of our partners said, “we need a concept, do you have one?” and I rattled it off, the whole La Grassa thing I pitched in about 10 minutes because it was something that was already built in my mind for years. So then when we pitched it to investors, it was the same thing. I had this complete plan – down to what the dishes were going to be, the menu layout, everything was already done in my head. That was kind of easy in that way because I already knew exactly what I wanted. There were other challenges in terms of executing a menu that big, big restaurant, lot of customers, but the concept was done. That was cool. I was happy about that. But then all of a sudden I’m doing a concept when all I’ve done is poo-pooing concepts. Now I’ve got a giant one.
When you have a menu that big like the menu at Bar La Grassa, was there anything you left off the list?
Yeah, there were. But there were other things that made it that I didn’t know about. Eric Sather, who’s the head chef over there – actually, I had Daniel del Prado, who’s the head chef (at Burch) was the sous chef there when we opened and those two guys are very talented. So I had my ideas and my menu items and the outline of what I wanted to make, those guys, when I’d show up to work and they’d have something else to show me. It was great. It all worked out really well. Since then, once I left 112, I really had to rely on the chefs that are operating the restaurants to … it was more of a collaboration than it used to be. I used to be very controlling as far as 112 went for a long time, but then when I left I couldn’t really keep that control because I wasn’t there enough.
At one point, you mentioned you and Nancy talked about opening a restaurant in another state. What made you want to open all of your restaurants in Minnesota?
To me, you know, everyone thinks about trying to get richer once in a while and La Grassa, to me, could be a kind of place that you could franchise. It’s accessible, it’s affordable, we have a working system … so we thought let’s try one in state and see how it goes. I don’t know how you do that (franchise). So we went to California and luckily the place we wanted – we would’ve signed on that first trip to California had the place that we wanted, had that deal worked. That deal didn’t work when we were out there so we came back. Meanwhile our youngest son was having problems at school, he was only in second grade so not big problems, but you know, we got terrified. Because I’m not Jean-Georges. I can’t just show up a couple weeks out of the year, look around and go back to my home. I would have to basically move out there. And then we did the cost analysis of what that means for all of us, flying back and forth. All of that. We got scared. So that’s why we stayed. And then this space (Burch) became available.
Didn’t Nancy say after La Grassa that she didn’t want to do another one?
Yeah and you know, they’re hard on us. They’re hard on our family. They’re really hard. Opening restaurants is really hard. We’re still in the process (with Burch). And we have kids and they need to be cared for but while this location was here, none of us could resist it – including Nancy. This place is what started the “why we did the restaurant.”
What was the thought process for Burch? What did you want to do with it?
Well, I didn’t know. We walked through here with Ryan (Burnet, a partner in Bar La Grassa and Burch) and Nancy and the realtor, the broker and then we walked across the street to the ice cream store and we started to talk about ideas for a restaurant. I didn’t really have one but Ryan said, “Well, you know, when my friends eat at La Grassa one of the things they always talk about is how much they like the steak. So would you consider doing a steak restaurant?” And it was like, yeah, perfect – that’s a great idea. So that’s how that happened.
Nancy and I, Ryan and his wife Amber did some traveling in the last couple of years – we looked at the space in 2011, so we’ve it a long time and kind of worked through what we wanted it to be. The basement was part of the lease and that was kind of a scary thing for me for a couple things – I don’t love craft drinks, I mean, I like a good cocktail but I don’t have experience with it, I’m a pretty narrow, I like a certain kind of drinks and I didn’t want to get into a whole business with drinks that might take too long, I don’t know. But I also didn’t know how we were going to have a bar, and what was going to attract you to go to it if we didn’t have something, you know, there’s no windows on it. So we were in California and we ate at Laconda and those people own four or five restaurants in San Francisco and while we were eating at Laconda, right next door was Laconda Pizza. So we were sitting there watching people going in and out of their pizza place and they were the same owners and once again, Ryan said, ‘Why can’t we do that? Why can’t we do something else?’ And that’s how that came about.
So is this it or do you think there’s another restaurant in your future?
I don’t know. I think this is it. I mean, this is still, there’s a lot of work to be done. Restaurants don’t really mature for at least two years I feel like so I don’t know how I’m going to feel in two years. I keep saying I’d like to do something smaller but that’s complicated for other reasons.