Steven Brown on the Chef Renaissance of the ’90s

Part of a series of As Told To conversations in honor of Mpls.St.Paul’s 50th anniversary, here is Steven Brown, in his own words.

The ’90s? Everything was so fucking cool. In 1992, Clinton won, Nirvana was everywhere—alternative music suddenly wasn’t alternative anymore, and it felt like, My team won. Finally. I didn’t have to go to graduate school. I could work in restaurants. Someone showed me an article in the early 1990s: “Being a Chef is a Career Now.” Some of these people were making 100K a year! Before that it was like, Cooking is the number one job for people entering or leaving jail. The ’90s were when being a cook stopped being only for Frenchmen and criminals and turned into something for hands-on owner-operators.

I moved here from South Dakota after I graduated college in 1985. I thought I’d take a break for a year, then go to graduate school. To study what, I didn’t know. So, I thought I’d cook at Fitzgerald’s in St. Paul, which was sort of a low-rent Kincaid’s, and figure it out. Mainly, I was a young drunken line cook going to shows. Run Westy Run was my band—they inspired my uniform, baggy jeans and Chuck Taylors. I’d get out of work and stand in front of the Uptown Bar. On Wednesdays I’d go to Lee’s Liquor Lounge to see Trailer Trash. A Grain Belt Premium and a shot of Jameson was $4: “Drink like a cook on payday,” we’d say. Maybe Son Volt or Uncle Tupelo were playing somewhere—you’d come out of the 7th St Entry through the main door and see what comps they were handing out; that’s how I saw Morphine.

Friends of mine had an avant-garde art gallery and coffee shop in St. Paul—Speedboat Gallery and Motor Oil. I’d wear what I called Dead People’s Glasses, these cool vintage eyeglass frames, and I’d sit there doing the things you do in your 20s: smoking Gauloises, reading Camus, wearing a beret. I used to wear a black beret to cook in; I hated cook hats. I’d have my Paper Mate Flair felt-tip pen and a notebook with a grid, and I’d make lists: What do I want to do with my life? What do I want from work? I want to work with my hands. I want to do things that make people feel good. I want to sustain myself. Then Speedboat would have shows in the basement to make rent—I saw Tilt-A-Whirl before the cease-and-desist letter made them change their name to Arcwelder. After shows in the summertime, we’d go skinny-dipping in this fancy apartment-building swimming pool behind the Walker or up at Clear Lake.

Lucia’s had an opening—they asked me to make mayonnaise from scratch, pesto from scratch. I was getting started, and they were like, “You’re hired; the other guy didn’t even know what pesto was.” It was a different time. I remember Classic Provisions showing up with farfalle in three colors. Ooh. Three. Different. Colors. Ooh-whee! We had to go to Bill’s Imported Foods for olive oil—there was no other way to get it. A lot of people I cooked with had bands, art, writing, film, whatever. I wasn’t the weirdest guy there; I was normal. Actually, because I didn’t do heroin, I was better than not weird: I was chef de cuisine. Instead of applying to grad school, I just kept cooking. We played a lot of Neil Diamond back in the kitchen, Hank Williams, and insane amounts of Killdozer.

In the Reagan era, Bush the First, it felt like everyone was supposed to put on a tie and go into the corporate world or be some nonconformist artist and starve. Fred Durst and 50 Cent weren’t selling juice drinks; Tony Hawk wasn’t making millions. But then when Clinton got elected, it was like the page turned. You could be alternative and buy a house. My roommate was the projectionist at the U Film Society when the big news was that Miramax paid $1.2 million for Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I remember guys from Seattle wearing flannel on magazine covers, and they looked just like all of us at the Uptown Bar. It felt like a cultural shift and awakening. I got a cooking job paying $32,000 a year. I thought I was rich! I bought a house in Kingfield for $87,000 and woke up hyperventilating, thinking that no one should ever owe anyone that much money.

Doug Flicker was my friend on the line at The Loring, and when he and Mel Goodin and Scott Davis opened Auriga in 1997, it felt like small-scale, intimate, hands-on, creative, self-supporting—everything in my notebook. We made it.

Of course, none of us would have ever believed that the Uptown Bar could be replaced by an Apple Store that would be replaced by nothing. Hey, we used to hang out with rock stars in that nothing! OK, now I feel bad, and I’m lonely, and I want to go to the Uptown and get a drink. So, we really are doing the ’90s.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl was born in New York City little aware of her destiny—to live well in Minnesota. Dara writes about food, people, places, and now and then, things! She has five James Beard awards out of 13 nominations, and has won three CRMAs.

Read more by Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl

June 5, 2022

7:01 AM

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