JD Fratzke's Long-Awaited Restaurant Is a Midwestern Supper Club for the Ages
JD Fratzke was looking at an old journal recently — one entry in particular. It was from a work trip in Paris 12 years ago, back when he was a rising chef in St. Paul's nascent restaurant scene and finding his way as a young father.
"The night I wrote it," says Fratzke, "the top dog in my company told me 'I had to give up my family life in order to achieve this position.' Don't get me wrong; being in this business is great, and I give everything I've got when I'm here. But I also know that my highest calling is at home."
This helps explain why Fratzke pumped the brakes on his blockbuster career last November and took a gamble on Artisan Plaza, a multi-faceted market/food hall in the tiny Southeastern Minnesota town of Cannon Falls, which includes his just-opened fine-dining concept Falls Landing. Having already left an indelible mark on local diners with The Strip Club (a highly influential steakhouse Mpls.St.Paul Magazine called "one of the most important Minnesota restaurants of the past decade") and a healthy number of other hits he helped nurture (including Bar Brigade and Saint Dinette), Fratzke decided other things were more important. Things like finding a better work/life balance, helping his 14-year-old daughter learn how to skateboard, and having time to actually write in his writing room.
Turns out that's why Fratzke moved to the Twin Cities in 1992: while he'd grown up near the Wisconsin border and started college at Winona State, the Bluff Country-born chef wanted to wrap his journalism studies at the University of Minnesota and become a war correspondent.
"A lot of people are wired a certain way," he says. "I was always, for lack of a better term, spiritually aggressive, so I tried to turn that into a positive force when I was 19. The goal was to go into very dangerous places and share the ugly side of things so they wouldn't happen again."
The only problem was a lack of funds and the realization that he didn't want to become "another knucklehead with a degree and a lot of debt." Fratzke is quick to clarify that there's nothing inherently wrong with going that route; it just wasn't for him. "No one in my family had gone to college," he says. "They'd all done blue collar work, so their attitude was 'get a job, pay your rent, and quit asking people for money'."
As harsh as that may sound, Fratzke's tight-knit family was simply trying to set him up for success — a future both fulfilling and realistic. So that's what Fratzke did: he put his head down and worked, starting with stints as a dishwasher and prep cook. He didn't look at restaurants as a proper career path until a few years later, when he landed a fine dining gig at Pronto Ristorante and its executive chef explained one of the night's specials by reading a passage from a library book.
"It was a travelogue from the 19th century," says Fratzke. "That's when it hit me like a ton of bricks that every interest I have in life can be put into flavors on a plate. It's when I thought, 'I want to do that.'"
And he has ever since, culminating in a culinary director position for Matty O'Reilly's growing restaurant group in Minneapolis and St. Paul — a role Fratzke relinquished just before the holidays. Aside from needing a long overdue break from the daily stressors of running five thriving businesses, Fratzke was looking for a creative outlet that felt more personal. A return to his roots, if you will.
He found it in Cannon Falls's rural community of about 4,000 people, which is located about 45 minutes away from Minneapolis on Highway 52. While its biggest claim to fame was Pachyderm Recording Studio during its heyday several decades ago (see: Nirvana's final album and the totally '90s tracks of Soul Asylum, Live, and PJ Harvey), Cannon Falls is quite sleepy compared to its neighbors. Dave Olson — the owner of a regional trucking company called Avalon Express — vowed to shake that situation up last summer when he unveiled Artisan Plaza’s broader plans as a full-on destination for intrepid day-trippers and discerning locals alike.
The only thing missing was a core team capable of hitting those high water marks, so Olson started by hiring Jimmy Layer in January. Much like Fratzke, the longtime general manager of Minneapolis' beloved Birchwood Cafe was looking for a life change and unique challenge.
"I was interested in doing something out of the ordinary," says Layer, "and bringing a community together through food and hospitality. It takes real vision to step this far out and take the chances Dave has; it's pretty scary and spectacular all at once."
Once Layer was on board, he began to put Artisan Plaza's other missing pieces together, including an artful in-house butcher (Rick Koplin of Koplin's Village Market) and a former co-worker from Birchwood Cafe: service manager Alliya Lovestrand, who'd recently moved back to her nearby hometown of Northfield.
"I loved growing up there," she says, "and always knew I would return and bring my passion for food and people with me. We are lucky to be surrounded by so many farms in Southern Minnesota; I've always wanted to be a part of a project that highlights that."
Fratzke had a similar reaction when Layer reached out about overseeing Artisan Plaza's ambitious food program — everything from brick-oven burgers (the casual restaurant Oly’s Roadhouse) to choice deli cases (the market itself, a very chef-y idea of a well-stocked bodega) — and leading the charge in its fine-dining concept Falls Landing, which opened at the end of June.
"After working in the Twin Cities for so long," says Fratzke, "I wanted to cook for the people who actually grow this food. I also found myself looking at the next decade of my life; with my daughter getting older, I wanted to make sure we get to know each other as people before she goes off to school."
The importance of family comes up constantly for Fratzke, who spent much of his childhood hunting, fishing, and foraging with his father, uncles, and cousins near the Mississippi River.
"I was five years old the first time my dad put me in camouflage and Wellingtons," he says. "I still remember that day distinctly, right down to the toys I brought along to keep me occupied."
In case you're curious, they were a fire truck and ambulance Fratzke's grandmother had gotten him a few days earlier. He remembers her as "very German-American — very stoic. She had a great sense of humor, but at the same time, there weren't a lot of hugs and kisses in that family. She showed her love by cooking for us as well as she did."
That included single-pot sausage meals, beef that'd been braised perfectly, and dynamic vegetable dishes sourced from her garden. As for how those hunting trips may have influenced his zen-like approach towards cooking, Fratzke says, "My dad was very adamant from day one: 'If I ever catch you shooting something you're not going to eat, it's your ass.' The respect for life was there from the get go."
One thing that's never fun is the act of killing and processing a duck or deer, but even that was a crucial life lesson because it prepared Fratzke for the visceral nature of being a chef — having to face all of that flesh, blood, and bone head-on.
"There was nothing gross about breaking these things down," he explains, "and much more so, the respect for life I had been taught by dad and my grandparents — who had survived the Depression — is use everything. So every time I had a boning knife in front of me, I made sure those bones were clear, and the leftover bones were turned to stock."
Fratzke also learned how to look beyond the basics of beef, fish, and chicken. Game meat wasn't exotic; it was simply what was on the table half the time. Thanksgiving was especially telling, as turkey was often carved alongside increasingly wild forms of protein.
"One year my dad stuffed a goose with a mallard," says Fratzke, "and put teal breasts inside the mallard. That's just the way that we ate, and what we came up with."
There aren't any Franken-meat offerings at Falls Landing, but duck is always on the menu and reflective of whatever's in season. At the moment, that means a lighter preparation with artichokes, watercress, wild rice, and a bright lemon dressing. Other mains that put a modern spin on supper club and fish camp fare are a walleye roulade stuffed with crayfish and mushrooms, a 10-ounce beef sirloin gussied up with bone broth gravy and whipped potatoes, and crunchy fried chicken served alongside tomato bread, corn salad, and gravy. Starters are also slightly elevated but never stuffy. If anything, they are strangely familiar, including potato puffs with beer cheese and fried broccoli, fried perch ready to dip in red chile mayo, and sausage and peppers in a white wine sauce Fratzke's grandmother would approve of.
And the room itself? Between its finger-picking folk and Dixieland jazz, shelves of hardback books, beautifully restored bar, and lodge-like interior, Falls Landing feels a little frozen in time. Nostalgic without resembling an overwrought film set, it's the kind of place you could imagine Chicago gangsters hiding in during Prohibition or exhausted campers exchanging stories over a couple rounds and restorative dinner plates.
"We want it to feel like the early 20th century in a lot of ways," explains Fratzke, "Resorts weren't as polished back then. They were a lot more rustic — a refuge."