By Adam Estrem
It was a rock-star feeling Sunday at the Minnesota State Fair, but not the usual musical rock stars that are becoming so synonymous with the Grandstand lineup. No, I’m talking about food rock stars.
Sunday was Minnesota Cooks Day at the fair and there was no shortage of celebrity awe at Carousel Park as local celebrity chefs from around Minnesota came to cook local food and prepare some amazing eats that normally would not be here, nor be found on a stick.
A foodie paradise was created for fairgoers and tastings that extend far beyond pronto pups and cheese curds. Local chefs like Truman Olson (Chowgirls Killer Catering), Jeffrey Lundmark (Domacin Restaurant & Winebar), James Winberg & Mike Brown (Travail), Lucia Watson (Lucia’s Restaurant, Wine Bar & To Go), Tom Hanson (Duluth Grill) and Ian Pierce (128 Café) just to name a few.
The event is surprisingly in its ninth year, and in talking with the director of the event Bruce Miller, he has never seen a turn out like the one on Sunday.
“The seats are full, people are staying to see all the demonstrations, and the enthusiasm is like nothing we’ve seen in years past,” Miller said.
Maybe this is a sign that regular people, not just foodies, are taking notice of great local food. I had the privilege of hanging around for three of the demonstrations and round table discussions. With each chef demonstration, a group of local food producers, from local bean farmers to local cheese makers, discussed things from sustainable farming to food politics. The conversation was lively, but not to be out done by the cooking.
Olson prepared some amazing local roasted vegetables, using local sunflower oil with three kinds of dipping sauces, showcasing different infused sunflower oils. Lundmark made the crowd drool cooking a Croque Monsieur, a fancy sounding version of a grilled ham and cheese.
“Basically my philosophy is to find the best local ingredients and let them stand on their own,” Lundmark said.
His Croque Monsieur involved two different kinds of cheese from Shepherd’s Way Farms, which was drizzled with a mornay sauce. The cheese provided that little zing needed to cut through the saltiness of the prosciutto inside the sandwich, which enveloped your mouth with a creamy sweetness only found when every ingredient sings together.
The next pair of chefs that rocked the stage was Chef Nina Wong from ChinDian Café and chefs Winberg and Brown from Travail Kitchen and Amusements. Nina cooked a very simple but extremely flavorful Asian-infused dish of chicken with mixed vegetables and noodles, which she said she chose because “the dish represents the Chinese New Year, longevity and wealth.” The dish was light, but full of organic flavors that did not compete with each other.
Brown and Winberg represent and embody the new rock star chef persona, but somehow keep the approachability, humor and humility of line cook, which could be one of the reasons that Bon Appétit Magazine just listed Travail as No. 4 in a list of top 10 best new restaurants in the country.
Their dish featured local foie gras produced by Christian Gasset of Au Bon Canard, a local (and the only local privately held) duck farm. The banter between Brown and Gasset made the discussion a pleasure to listen to. Brown, while describing his love for Gasset’s Foie Gras told a story of how Gasset knows every single duck on his farm, even saying that he has a “man crush” when talking about Gasset and his friendship.
With Winberg working feverishly behind the scenes and Brown being the personality, they had the crowd laughing all the way through the dish. The Travail pair cooked an amazing concoction that takes a genius boarding crazy to come up with. Foie gras seared with salt and pepper (sounds simple enough?), served with root beer grits and local corn nuts with watermelon, lime and cilantro. Sound crazy? It was — crazy good.
The foie melted in the mouth while the corn nuts provided a salty crunch that was indescribable. And yes, the root beer grits were rolled into little balls and deep fried, and had an amazing subtle sweetness with a big root beer flavor.
No local food event would be complete without the mother of the Minnesota local food movement, Chef Lucia Watson of Lucia’s Restaurant, Wine Bar & To Go. In her own quiet and humble style known so well to the Twin Cities, she showcased local beans and vegetables while Tom Hanson of the Duluth Grill (who was recently featured in the Los Angeles Times) cooked wild rice meatloaf with beef-stuffed squash.
Times are changing here for the Minnesota food scene. People are stopping and enjoying local food. Chefs are lining up to cook and talk about food and their enthusiasm is rubbing off on the public. Now, if only we could eat foie gras every day of the fair.
Adam Estrem is a writer, photographer, foodie and cook. After traveling the world and tasting the cuisines and wines of Mexico, Spain, France and much of Europe and the middle east, he has gone local and focused on restaurants and food producers of Minnesota. When he isn’t working you can find him in his kitchen, creating recipes and entertaining friends. You can follow him on Twitter (@mspfoodie) or email him (firstname.lastname@example.org).