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.
If there’s one person that’s critical about the work that Chef Isaac Becker has done over the years, it’s probably Isaac Becker.
The James Beard Award-winning owner of 112 Eatery, Bar La Grassa and Burch seems like he’d have plenty to gloat about but he said he’s a bit more “glass half empty” about his success.
And perhaps that’s what keeps the chef so focused. He’s not going to pull out every trick in the book to knock your socks off and he won’t take any time to pat himself on the back, but what he will do is one of the reasons he’s accomplished so much in this industry.
His focus has been and will continue to be on the customer — ensuring those that choose to dine with him and his staff have an experience they’ll enjoy.
It’s what made somewhat simple choices — late night dining, fun and comforting food — award-winning and highly desirable to Twin Cities diners.
As we learned in Part 1 of our chef’s profile, Becker started in this business at a young age and never really intended to make a lifelong career out of it. Three restaurants later, he and his wife (and co-owner) are enjoying the ride of a lifetime.
In Part 2, Chef Becker chats about that momentous moment when he won his James Beard Award and we find out about his love of ramen noodles, among other guilty pleasures.
You’ve talked about staying inspired and getting ideas through an array of cookbooks and reading. Do you have any go-to cookbooks? What kinds of cookbooks do you gravitate towards?
A lot of times the book I dig through depends on what I’m looking for, like if I’m looking for vegetables. I’ve been pouring over “Vegetable Literacy” by Deborah Madison. It’s great. I don’t really have any books that I go to every time anymore. The ones I did have I’ve gone back to so many times I’ve worn them out.
What else motivates you as a chef?
What’s interesting is that, we’re opening Burch so I have to be here a lot. Being in the restaurant all the time in a way is an inspiration because you’re just here so much that your world has become the food and what you’re doing. Whereas, when things get easier at your restaurant and you can move away from them, it becomes hard to create and inspire because you’re not there as much. I think that’s part of the reason I wanted to do this restaurant (Burch) because I kind of started feeling like, well, it’s getting too easy for me to not spend a lot of time at the restaurants. The guys that are running them are doing such a good job and are very talented and it’s tempting not to go home early if you can, or come in later if you can and no one’s going to tell you otherwise. So for here, being in this again, I mean the intensity of this is inspiring in and of itself.
You met your wife at D’Amico Cucina when you were on the line and she was waiting tables. Do your kids have any interest in the restaurant business?
I don’t know. My oldest now, he’s 16, he’s like me. He loves music; he plays four different instruments and I think he’s kind of getting more curious to what’s going on. You know, we never made him work here or anything like that. So I don’t know. We’ll see. Maybe when he gets into college or gets a job. I’m not sure I want him to be in the restaurant business, you know. Late nights.
When you opened La Grassa, after successfully opening 112, were you more confident going into that venture that it’d be a success?
No, I never feel like I’ve got it figured out. I don’t ever think, “meh, check it off the list.” There’s always something that I’m freaking out about. It’s funny because I’m kind of a negative person by nature so I can dwell on negatives. If something good happens, it’s like “yay” but then I go right back to … I wish I could be as happy when something good happens that I am mad when something bad happens. But I never feel like “mission accomplished” ever. Never.
But what about the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest.
That was good. That was a happy day. That was great. That was a lot of fun.
What was that experience like?
It was great. It was one of the best things that’s ever happened in my life. I’ve never won anything. To win something like that, it was incredible. It’s like, it’s hard to describe the stress, I mean, I sound like I’m whining but I was nominated four years in a row. By the third year, I kind of wanted to win. I didn’t win the third year – Alex (Roberts) won and I love Alex but I didn’t win. The fourth year, there’s nothing that tells you “you’re the guy, you’re the winner,” there’s no reason why you’d think it’s yours.
They say, “OK, Midwest” and then they list off the names of the chefs and restaurants and there’s five or six of them. But you know, the one guy – I can’t remember his name – but they said his name and there’s this big roar in the crowd. Then they said my name and it was dead silence. No one knows who I am, you know. And I was like, “Uhhh, he’s going to win. Listen to that crowd.” And then they called my name and it was just like, I swear I thought I was in a dream. I grabbed Nancy and we walked across the stage and I remember thinking, “What if they change their mind?” (Laughs) Besides the joy of winning, it was like the biggest relief for me to just get that out of my system.
And to be recognized for a restaurant that you put so much hard work into and that’s flourishing …
Yeah, it’s great. I can’t pretend that it’s not. It’s been great for the restaurant. I feel like it legitimized me a little more in some people’s eyes. It’s for sure a highlight.
So moving on to a lighter side. What would you say is your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Ooh, I got a couple. I really like ramen noodles. I like those. They’re really cheap. Also Kowalski’s has this chicken cashew wrap that I get every once in a while because I can eat it in my car. I can’t resist a couple of hot pizza rolls when my son and his friends are having them.
When you and your wife are at home, what do you like to cook for your family or friends?
I cook for my kids and my wife, we cook, but we don’t entertain very much. My wife is actually the better cook in the house. She makes great lasagna, great meatballs, tacos – she makes things the kids really love. Mine are so … I have a hard time because there’s only a few things that I make that they like and they barely like them at all.
When you’re out of the kitchen, what’s your favorite pastime?
Nothing. I used to like golfing but I don’t golf anymore.
I think I read this already but are sardines the one ingredient that you would prefer never to work with again? Or something else?
Well I haven’t had a fresh sardine that I’ve liked yet. I know that they’re … chefs like them and foodies like them but I haven’t had a good one. Maybe the ones I’ve had aren’t fresh but I don’t like them. I would try them again if I knew exactly when they got out of the water and got to me but I just haven’t had one that I’ve liked. I’d never say that I refuse to work with it but I’d want to know some specifics.
On the flip side, is there an ingredient you find yourself constantly drawn to?
I’ve really been focusing on vegetables lately. I really like the process of curing them with salts and eating them kind of raw but salted.
If you had to choose a “Last Meal,” what would it be?
Probably steak. Red wine and steak.
Where are some of your favorite places to dine?
We go to Quang probably once a week. It’s kind of embarrassing how much we go there. We have lunch at Lucia’s. I like Bachelor Farmer. We don’t go out a ton, we go to lunch a lot. That’s probably about it.
What are your thoughts on the Twin Cities restaurant scene? How have you seen it evolve?
I think more than anything, there’s just a lot more choices. There’s a larger quantity because the choices in the early 90s when I started working, there was maybe three or four restaurants that were big.
When you look back on your career, what do you hope to be known for, in the culinary world?
I guess an honest chef. Someone that’s cooking for the right reasons, cooking to make food that tastes good that customers will enjoy. Not trying to impress … I guess just honesty. Being an honest chef. I feel like there’s a tendency with some cooks who make things that aren’t concerned with the enjoyment of the customers. They’re just concerned with “look what I can do,” they’re thinking about them, not the customer. I think it should always be, the eating and dining experience should always be about the customer. This new thing with who’s the chef, what’s he doing, all that is … when I started cooking, no one could give a rip who the chef was. Within the industry, people knew who certain people were, who the chefs were but the diners and customers didn’t care what the guy cooking’s name was or where in New York he worked. I’m tired of that. I think that we should go back to that. We should care what the customer’s experience is. When I go out to dinner, I don’t care who the chef is. I’m not there for that. That’s not why I got into this. I guess I’d like to be known as someone who got into this because I wanted to be, because I wanted to cook and make good food and not because I wanted to be a famous chef.