Scott Graden, chef/owner of the New Scenic Cafe in Duluth, has immersed himself in his first cookbook, a real beauty filled with nearly 130 recipes — including pie, hurrah — that will be familiar to anyone who has made the pilgrimage to his worth-the-journey lakeside restaurant.
In a recent telephone conversation, Graden discussed cookbook inspirations, the merits of lard vs. shortening and his love of pistachios.
Q: Why a cookbook?
A: I’ve always wanted to write one. I think that a cookbook is an overall part of a restaurant’s DNA. Not everyone can get to our front door, and some of the ones who do want some kind of memorabilia. Another motivation was the innumerable requests that I receive for recipes. Instead of chasing e-mails, and tweaking recipes to home size, my status-quo answer became, ‘It’s going to serve everyone better if I put as many of our favorites into a cookbook.’
Q: It’s a substantial, coffee table-esque book, just over 400 pages. Are there any authors who you turned to for inspiration?
A: “The French Laundry Cookbook” — that’s a bible. I’ve always been enamored of Charlie Trotter’s work, that’s a 10- to 15-year-old crush. Magnus Nilsson [of Sweden’s Fäviken], I like his work a lot. And I have to say Alice Waters. We find people to take inspiration from, but it’s also easy to be pulled into the vortex of other people’s work. It can be hard to separate your work with the work you’ve been inspired by.
Q: Your menu, and therefore your book, has many global references. Where does that come from?
A: My stepfather traveled the globe, and when I was a child, he would dabble in the kitchen. My friends would say that we had weird food; it wasn’t lasagna from Stouffer’s. But to me it was normal. I spent time in India and China, and I was bitten by the Oaxacan bug. I really took to Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy. I guess that’s why, when I want to do better, I look globally, and not to my neighbor.
Q: Was it always your plan to shoot the bulk of the book’s images yourself?
A: I’m not a photographer, but a friend of mine encouraged me, with some aggression [laughs]. He said that I would frame my food best, that any picture I would take would resonate with how I saw the dish. He said, “That’s a lot of conversation to have with a food photographer.”
Q: What a relief to find that the book includes recipes for the New Scenic’s extraordinary fruit pies [find a recipe for strawberry-rhubarb pie at Startribune.com/tabletalk]. What are your feelings regarding pie crust?
A: Traditionally, I used lard. That’s what my grandmother used. But then a favorite customer of mine, a vegetarian, came to me and said, “I really want to enjoy your pie. Would you just make the crust out of Crisco?” Crisco? That’s blasphemy [laughs]. But then I thought about it, and this business is never going to be just about me. It turns out that more customers were against lard than against Crisco. I’ve never had anyone say that they were disappointed with Crisco. It’s still wonderful; it still works great.
Q: Can you share something about the glamorous world of restaurant ownership?
A: For the first five years, I lived in the garage outside the restaurant, with an electric heater and no running water. I remember lying on the couch in my sleeping bag, in tears, and wondering what the heck I was doing. I was working harder than anyone I knew. I was married to my business, which meant that I couldn’t maintain a relationship with a girl to save my life. I loved when summer came because I could go down to the lake and bathe. But I was also living my dream. I was doing what I wanted to do and where I wanted to do it. I mean, I have the most beautiful freshwater puddle in the world in front of me. People are praising my work every day. That’s when I thought, “Why am I complaining? Shut up, and get to work.”
Q: One tidbit I enjoyed discovering in the book is that when you bought the Scenic Cafe — which started as a drive-in in the 1960s — it was your initial plan to change the name to the Pistachio Cafe. Really?
A: Oh jeez, is that still in there? [laughs] We had to edit out 92 pages. There’s so much in there that it’s hard to remember. But I’m in love with pistachios, I think it’s the best nut out there. They’re good for you, they’re sexy, they’re salty, they’re crunchy, and you can do so much with them. And it’s fun to say “pistachio,” especially if you’re Italian.
We wanted to find a way to differentiate from the Scenic Cafe. We played around with the name the Nut House [laughs]. When we bought the Scenic — it was on April 1, 1999 — it was on a contract-for-deed, and we couldn’t substantially change the name until we had paid for it. The owners wanted continuity in case they got it back. Now I’m glad that we didn’t change the name, I’m glad it’s the New Scenic Cafe. It continues the heritage. It validates the past.
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Where to buy
“New Scenic Cafe: The Cookbook,” ($50) a collaboration between Scott Graden, writer Arlene Anderson, editor Barb Olsen and chef and graphic designer Eric Sturtz, is available at the restaurant (5461 North Shore Dr., Duluth, www.newsceniccafe.com) and at Common Good Books in St. Paul, Kitchen Window in Minneapolis and Duluth Kitchen Co. and Blue Heron Trading Co. in Duluth.