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At Travail Kitchen & Amusements, in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, chef-owners Mike Brown, James Winberg and a team of 18 or so co-chefs take turns waiting on tables, working the line and creating some of the country’s most entertaining avant-garde food. Here, Brown on what sets their restaurant apart, his favorite cocktail and an essential store-bought ingredient (read James Winberg’s Q&A).
Restaurant: Travail Kitchen and Amusements (Robbinsdale, MN)
Education: Le Cordon Bleu (Mendota Heights, MN)
What are you known for?
The affordability of our tasting menus. Our 15-course tasting menu serves two people for $125. The eight-course menu for two is $60 to $70.
What inspired you to keep your prices low?
We did a lot of fine-dining work, but come from more humble beginnings. My mom was a Spanish teacher, my dad was an airline mechanic. Every time they wanted to come check out what we were doing, they could only do it because we worked there. We liked doing that kind of food, but wanted to make it available to anyone.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure is another great one. Besides the sous vide techniques, the introduction nails the mind-set you need to do this sort of food—that kind of Rocky, Eye-of-the-Tiger attitude. There’s a passage, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, but perfect practice makes perfect.” We quote that in here all the time.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
The first dish that I ever invented—that my mentor Kevin Binkley put on the menu at Bouchon—that was a big deal. It was a take on s’mores. We put it in this crazy plate that looked like a spaceship. It had a small bowl in the center, and a wide rim that curved downwards to the table so any sauce would dribble down the rim. The dessert had peanut butter, graham cracker puree and marshmallow fluff toasted tableside. When it got to the table, everyone’s minds were blasted.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Pepper. Black pepper, pink peppercorns, long pepper, Sichuan. I’m always trying to bring some sort of floral pepper spice into the mix.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
I’d take Thomas Keller out to eat at Piccolo. Chef Doug Flicker is just a crafty, creative dude. And he’s in his 40s; he has a more mature style that I think Keller would like.
If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring?
I’d pack dried pasta, hot dogs and I always like to have tortillas on hand. Anything you find, you just wrap it up on a tortilla. James Winberg: Don’t forget some Sriracha. MB: And if you run out of TP, a nice flour tortilla would do the job. Sriracha and tortillas would get me through World War III.
What’s your favorite food letter of the alphabet?
M for mustard. I’m not kidding. I went skiing last weekend and all I ate was a big soft pretzel and a cup of mustard out of the pump. People were staring at me.
For myself, I like a tequila-mezcal scenario. It’s always got a citrus element and bitters, and typically gets whatever name the bartender gave it, something random like Russ’s Kneebone. The smokiness, oh my God! Mezcal really gets me going.
Best new store-bought ingredient?
Potato flakes. Not for making mashed potatoes, but for breading things. They offer a nice golden color and crunch to anything you decide to put them on. They’re easily adherable once you put on an egg wash. And they’re appealing to the gluten-free set.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
I have a sweet tooth. If I didn’t stop myself, I would eat an entire pan of brownies, or an entire jar of peanut butter and jelly on toast and drink a half-gallon of milk, and you’d find me lying on the kitchen floor.