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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."

Tucked alongside the Saint Croix River, which separates Minnesota and Wisconsin, the town has the kind of vistas that baby boomers might have seen in elementary school on View-Master slide reels. The snow here, as the toothpase commercial used to say, gleams whiter than white, and the town's canopy of pine trees has remained pristine for centuries. Somehow Stillwater escaped the fate of Minneapolis and St. Paul, which were paved over by railroad robber barons a hundred years ago. "Stillwater is a real Christmassy town," McKee says. "Everybody who lives here, my family included, really gets excited about doing it up the old-fashioned way." Strings of white Christmas lights--blinking or content to do nothing but shine--drape almost every picket fence and circle every pine, like the pearl necklaces of a beloved aunt who comes each Christmas with too much food and too many presents. But most striking of all are the town's many 19th-century Victorian houses, restored over the generations by locals who still don't know what the word gentrification means because it's never really happened in Stillwater. "There's no way a Christmas tree can look any prettier," McKee says, "than in that kind of home."

McKee's Christmas dinner will take place in his own house, built in 1884. "On Christmas Day, we'll have my eight brothers and sisters over, their significant others and their children, my parents and probably some stragglers," McKee predicts. "It's the same way we've always gathered together"--though the menu has changed slightly since Tim took over from his mom.

McKee didn't attend culinary school but learned Mediterranean cooking from reading books by Paula Wolfert and Elizabeth David and from working--first at Azur, a now defunct Minneapolis restaurant, then at D'Amico Cucina, where Jay Sparks, the executive chef, was his mentor. "I only wish I could take credit for Tim's success as a chef," his mother, Joyce McKee, says. Mrs. McKee, who lives in St. Paul, might have been happier than anyone else when her son moved to Stillwater. "I just thought Tim moving to that big old house was the perfect time for him to take over making Christmas dinner every year," she says, laughing. "Now I can finally sit back and enjoy. I'm free!"

McKee, armed with a DCS six-burner commercial stove, accepted the challenge. As in the old days, his would be a formal Christmas meal, featuring a standing rib roast. "I think tradition is very important," he says. "So we'll have that standing rib roast, but for a change maybe I'll make a stuffing with chorizo or curried oysters or give the meat a coriander crust. Or I'll serve cranberries but only in ice cream and a pear tart. No one is going to be asking, 'So, Tim, where's Christmas dinner?'"

Joyce McKee, anticipating her third year of emancipation from the Christmas kitchen, says she doesn't care if her son plays mad scientist with his recipes or just puts a little twist on some longtime family favorites: "He's so creative that I wouldn't question any of his choices." She pauses, then laughs a bit conspiratorially. "In any case," she says, "he's finally the one feeling the pressure, not me. It's his kitchen--and I'm just a tourist."

Story by Neal Karlen, a frequent contributor to The New York Times. He is the author of Slouching Toward Fargo (Avon).

Published December 1999
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