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Chef: Steven Brown
Restaurant: Tilia (Minneapolis)
Experience: Levain, Porter & Frye (Minneapolis)
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
My friend and fellow chef Doug Flicker taught me about having dedication and passion, and about being playful with food. I’d gone through the “grad school or die” scenario and decided I wanted to cook. Not having gone to cooking school, I was wandering aimlessly in the desert. I happened to get a job at Loring Café and met Doug there. He was the first person I’d known who was wholly dedicated to cooking, in an almost monastic way.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
Brown butter and butternut squash soup, and every year we do a variation. It defines my style because it’s very humble, plentiful and simple, but I hope we elevate it to something that’s more than what’s expected from it. I created it after friends told me about an amuse bouche they’d loved at David Kinch’s Manresa.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
The first dish I ever made myself was scrambled eggs when I was five.
For a neophyte cook, the most important thing you need to learn is to execute something well. The most basic stuff: Curing and braising are what I’d focus on. It’s a long road. Being able to roast a chicken would be a fantastic start. Keep it very simple, start off with high heat, finish it low and slow to get the skin crispy. Once you get that, you can add and build on flavors: lemon, garlic, thyme and bay leaf.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
Massimo Bottura at Osteria Fracescana in Modena, where I cooked briefly, before the restaurant was famous. I love Massimo’s approach to cooking. He was almost a heretic. I loved that he was happy to embrace who he was and express his personality through the food. He was open-minded and wanted to mess around with classic Italian dishes.
Favorite cookbook of all time.
When I was a kid, before my youngest sister was born and while my oldest sister was in school, I spent a lot of time with my mother and was fascinated with the Betty Crocker Cookbook. I aspired to make baked alaska and vichyssoise. I haven’t looked at it in years, but it seems somehow indelible.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Fortitude. There are a lot of flashes in the pan, but you have to keep at it and stay curious. People forget how repetitive cooking is.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I really admire people who have the skill of charcuterie. It’s sort of the opposite of line cooking. It’s an exercise in patience. Someone buys a hog leg and two years later they can find out if they’ve done a good job.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how do you use it?
I really like cooking with sweet wine. It’s amazing that you can take a couple drops of something as simple as Marsala and it can transform a dish. It might seem excessive and expensive to buy it, but just a little bit can go a long way. It goes super well with mushrooms.
What is your current food obsession?
I’m really interested in wild plums. They’re really delicious. I also love chokecherries. They’re incredibly astringent and great as jam and syrup, which my mom used to make. At the restaurant, we serve them with foie gras.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
The Catbird Seat in Nashville, Tennessee, because the food looks delicious and unbelievably beautiful. I love the idea of dining where there are no servers and the cooks take care of your every need. Erik Anderson is my friend and I’ve never been there.
I’d like to go to Le Chateaubriand in Paris, because it’s small and I’m interested in the connection between chef and food and people. How diners react can be very rewarding. Cooking for 25 years now, what I appreciate the most is that people are happy and are genuinely enjoying the food.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
I’d like to go to Vietnam and eat the street food. As a child of the ’60s and ’70s, I have a lot of curiosity about Vietnam. I have some familiarity with the flavors and culture because we have a Vietnamese and Hmong community here.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
The experience itself is what I always bring back. I’m not really into the physical objects. I was just in Alto Aldige and going to wineries and meeting people. It was incredibly fun. I was eating speck everywhere and I bought a piece at an outdoor market, intending to bring it home. As the trip went on, I kept eating little bits, and by the end of the journey it was gone.
What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
I like mentoring people in my field. I get great satisfaction from seeing people I work with do well and providing them a place to practice their craft.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I’d love to do a micro fine dining thing. Feeding a couple of people, serving the food, making the food, doing the dishes, going back to the very simple things and not worrying about the administration, but focusing on the guests and the food. It would be like having a dinner party every night.
If you were going to take Anthony Bourdain out to eat, whom would you choose, and where would you eat?
I’d take Anthony Bourdain to Matt’s Bar in Minneapolis for a Juicy Lucy. It’s the culinary gift of Minneapolis to the world: a cheeseburger with two patties and the American cheese smashed inside, so when you cook it, the cheese becomes molten. Matt’s Bar claims to be the progenitor.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
I’d bring charcuterie like mortadella, a loaf of crusty white bread, some Vermont cheddar, cornichons and a nice bottle of Brunello.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Ormers, which are crustaceans in the snail family and are referred to as the “truffle of the sea.”
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
I routinely drink Minute Maid orange-tangerine juice right out of the carton from the refrigerator. My favorite snack is cold fried chicken. I love frying it myself and eating it the next morning.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
I’m interested in rice bran oil, which I get from different purveyors. It is so much better than canola for frying. It’s got a high flash point, is not as viscous as some other oils and is completely tasteless.
Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
Pre-shift ritual: Taking five minutes to collect my wits and psych myself up. Visualizing the experience before it happens. Post-shift ritual: I love an ice-cold lager at the end of the night. It’s hard to go straight to bed after work. I need to reconnect with my co-workers on a human level after service. That’s really important. I spend more time with them than I do with my own family. The only aversion I still maintain is to green bell peppers. They take over whatever is with them.