In 1997, when Tim McKee left Minneapolis's enormously popular D'Amico Cucina, many of his most devoted patrons thought he had gone "ice fishing without his jiggle stick," as they sometimes say in Minnesota around Christmas. Named one of FOOD & WINE's Best New Chefs of 1997, the 30-year-old McKee packed up his wife, Amy, and their two small children and left the city where he'd helped prove that Minnesota dining meant more than chowing down at a smorgasbord, as Frances McDormand did in Fargo. But he wasn't chasing greater fame in New York or Paris. Instead, he traveled 25 miles east to open a French-Mediterranean restaurant named La Belle Vie in a pinprick on the map called Stillwater, Minnesota, population 15,000.
Stillwater is a unique refuge. Its two most famous residents, Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange, can be found bundled up in the grandstand as they cheer on the Stillwater High football team. The town is a perfect retro-village, sophisticated and prosperous enough that La Belle Vie can thrive, offering such dishes as rabbit loin with a coppa (cured pork) crust and a port reduction. This cuisine, served up for the denizens of Lake Wobegon, would please the most finicky eaters from Palermo to Rodeo Drive.
McKee had long pined for a simpler place to live and work that would keep him within easy driving distance of his parents and siblings in the Twin Cities--what he approvingly calls his "crazy Catholic family of nine kids with two parents who are still happily married and who all still get together on Christmas, no excuses." And then, he says, Stillwater has "that scenic aspect."