Q: There’s a day-to-day aspect of restaurants that can be mind-numbingly repetitive. How do you maintain a fresh approach to your work?
A: Any type of work can be reduced to its mechanics. You know, “My job as a server is just walk to the table, say ‘Hi,’ take a drink order, come back, take a food order,” that kind of thing. And in the kitchen at Brasa it could be, “All I do is cook collard greens.” Everything can be reduced to that. But the good stuff in life comes from between the lines. It’s about enjoying the process and not just the end result. That’s what we try to foster here, otherwise you’re always living in the future, and not in the moment.
Q: How often are you in the kitchen?
A: It’s seldom right now. I’m the sole owner, and I have to wear a lot of hats, and there are certain things that only an owner can do. Raising capital for this project is a full-time job, and coordination and collaboration is a big commitment. Right now I haven’t been spending much time on the, but I do work on all the menu changes, and I collaborate closely with the chefs around that process. I want to be able to hollow out time where I can be in the middle of the operation. I like being the guy who’s helping bussing tables, and communicating with customers, and seeing the experience first-hand. I don’t know if you can do your job as owner without seeing the operation, being right in the middle of it.
Q: How often are you in each of your three restaurants?
A: I try to be in each one at least once a week, and I generally succeed with that. This period of time with the project has meant a lot of exceptions.
Q: Is your wife Margo becoming involved at Alma?
A: She’s not trained in the business, it’s not her background, but she’s a wonderful hospitality person. She’s my partner in life, and she’s my business partner, she just doesn’t happen to work at the restaurant. Without her, I couldn’t do it. She’s never really seen herself in the business, but she’s kind of said to me that she wants to stop fighting it. She’s said, “You know what? I’m in the restaurant business. We’re doing this together.” So she’s starting to spend time here. She’s helping with events, she helps with things around design, she’s my second set of eyes.
She’s also been working with our friends down the street at Alchemy, developing natural products and creating a signature scent for them. We’d also like to do lotion, body wash and shampoo for the hotel, so she has that project. I love that she’s stopped fighting it, because we’re moving together in a way that we never have. It’s a lifestyle, it’s like working on the farm. There’s no nine-to-five.
Q: I remember you once telling me that developers and landlords were constantly contacting you about opening additional Brasa outlets. Is there an expansion in the future?
A: I’d love to do more with Brasa. The concept has wonderful strong legs, and I hope to have the opportunity to see more growth. But right now, I want to learn as I go, and we’ll find a way to do that, at a rate that works for us.
Q: Brasa is such a high-volume operation. How do you keep the quality of the food so consistent? That’s always been my experience.
A: I’d say that from the get-go as a chef, consistency has been one of my No. 1 goals. At Alma, it’s different, because the dishes change constantly, but the way we cook fish doesn’t change. To me, consistency is one of highest things to attain, but it’s boring for some people. Some people want to go for that big punch in the plate, the presentation. But honestly, if you have a generation of cooks coming up who don’t put consistency over presentation, they’re never going to learn the things they’ll need to succeed as chefs and restaurateurs. We’ve succeeded because I’ve been teaching my staff consistency, and people know they can come here and get good food that’s cooked properly and cooked well. It also usually turns out to be delicious.
Q: At Alma, you’ve never really been concerned with signature dishes, have you?
A: I’ve never really had them here, no, although we may have some signature dishes of the season, but then the season changes, and the dish falls off the menu. I see them as both a strength and a weakness. People love going out and having that favorite thing. My good friend Isaac Becker is really known for his signature dishes, and he’s really good at them.
Q: Who can go to Bar La Grassa and not order that bruschetta with scrambled eggs with lobster?
A: Exactly. People want to get it, every time. And I have my favorites there, too. That’s why the majority of the menu at the cafe won’t be changing, or it will be just be slight changes or seasonal-driven variations.
Q: Are there any ingredients that are inspiring you right now?
A: Understanding flour better, that has been inspiring. There’s this huge movement in the fitness world toward eating Paleo, and no gluten, and things like that, and that has led me to look at wheat in a more holistic way. You know, how wheat has been changing, and how we consume wheat. With the bakery opening up, I’ve really been inspired by the leaders around this movement, including Dan Barber, and Chad Robertson at Tartine in San Francisco. And small millers like Hayden Flour Mills out in Arizona, who are treating wheat like a fresh product, and milling as they go. There’s Steve Horton, formerly of Rustica, and what he’s doing in northeast Minneapolis. We have a small mill here that we use to add flours to our breads, and we’re seeing the possibilities of putting the nutritional component back into bread, to make it a truly wholesome thing. Working with Carrie, and seeing her vision for this, is really inspiring.
But you have to have the equipment to do it, and that requires a lot of investment, and construction. But I believe that people are hungry for it. There’s room for our version, and our vision, of it.
Q: You won the Best Chef: Midwest award from the James Beard Foundation in 2010, the second Minnesota chef so honored [Tim McKee of the former La Belle Vie won in 2009, and Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery won in 2011]. Did winning the award change have an impact on your career, or on the restaurant?
A: There were four nominations before I won the award in 2010, and in some ways, those nominations were the gift that kept giving, because every year we’d get all this press. It really drew a lot of attention to the restaurant. And of course, winning brought a lot of new people into the restaurant, and I think we’ve kept a lot of them as customers.
But in the end I think it’s more about Minneapolis. Winning the award brought a lot of attention to Minneapolis, it said, “There’s a lot of great things going on here.” And there always has been. What Tim [McKee] has done is good by any standard anywhere, and the same for Isaac [Becker]. What we’re seeing, more and more, is that this community of chefs has the talent, and the commitment to the trade, that you see in other cities.
Q: What about the actual award? Do you wear it when you’re making breakfast for your kids?
A: I have it in safe place because I did come home one day and the kids were wearing it. The medallion flew off the ribbon, and the green ribbon was all smashed up. I’ll probably bring it back to the restaurant. The idea was that it would live at home, as a reminder to stay focused and to bring that excellence every day. But I realized that I don’t need an award to do that. I do that just by my love for this profession, and for the love of my customers, and the community, and the people I work with. I’ll probably frame it and put in the restaurant at some point.
Q: What’s it like when James Beard award-winning Alex Roberts walks into a restaurant? I imagine that your peers treat you very well.
A: I still have such a hard time thinking of myself as anything other than as Alex the cook. I still see myself as a 20-year-old kid, and I’m not, I’m 44. Of course, you realize that, as you do accomplish things, or you have longevity, then people attach a certain reputation to you, so when you walk in the door, people have different thoughts about you. I forget that. But yes, people are really kind and generous to me when I go out.
Q: What are your feelings on Web-inspired trends?
A: I’ve always tried to turn off what the trend is. There was that period around 2000 to 2003, when everyone was putting up a website and showing what they were doing. In the winter, all of the sudden you’d see that Fifth Floor in San Francisco has got seared scallops with salsify, Meyer lemon and black truffle. And then I’d look at a menu from Michael Mina, and it was the same thing. That made me think, wait a second: the Internet is not about creativity, it’s about conformity. It’s the same thing with interior design, or food plating, it’s the Instagram effect. Things are trending so quickly, and piling on quickly, and looking so much alike.
I was looking for inspiration, but I realized that I was losing this thread that was running through me. That is, my own vision. For better, or worse. So I started sitting down with a blank piece of paper — or an old menu, since they reflect our past — and try to create from there.
From that point, I turn it all off. No Internet, no cookbooks, nothing. Then I collect ideas from people in the kitchen. From there if I have, say, spaetzle, I might want to re-examine it as a dish so I might go out and find recipes to see if there’s a technique that would improve the way I’m cooking it. I’m trying not to be so inward that I’m stuck in my own world, but you want to have this authentic process. Let’s find our own thing.
(Star Tribune photos by Leila Navidi).