Here's how chef Stewart Woodman dealt with the catastrophic loss of his restaurant, Heidi's Minneapolis, which was destroyed by fire on Feb. 18, 2010: He wrote a cookbook.
"Shefzilla: Conquering Haute Cuisine at Home" (Borealis Books, $27.95) is a collection of 150 concisely written recipes -- many familiar to fans of the restaurant and developed with his spouse and business partner, Heidi Woodman -- as well as two dozen brief first-person essays, all stamped with the same Shefzilla name that Woodman uses for his witty and insightful blog.
In a recent conversation at the new home of Heidi's, now under construction in the Lyn-Lake neighborhood in Minneapolis, Woodman discussed writing recipes for home cooks, offered tips for buying seafood and recalled the family-affair aspect of the book's development.
Q Did "Shefzilla" come about as a result of the fire?
A We had agreed to do a book, but it hadn't necessarily taken a form. Originally I had submitted an idea that was a little bit more "Kitchen Confidential"-esque, but the writing wasn't very good. The publisher said, "Some of the stuff on your blog is more interesting than this." They suggested writing about the emotional impact of these experiences, as opposed to what the experiences were.
Q A failure of so many chef-written cookbooks is that their restaurant recipes don't translate to home kitchens, but you developed these recipes in what you describe as the "wimpy" kitchen of your south Minneapolis home. Is that the secret to the book's utility?
A It used to drive me crazy, cooking in that kitchen, even though I'd only done it, what, two or three dozen times? There's just no space.
We wanted to write a book that wasn't too restaurant-ey. We wanted to do it so that a home cook could really cook from it. We took the recipes and laid them out and said, "Let's break down the work." Heidi has a sense for those kinds of particulars, and she would say, "You need to remake this one," or "You're missing things," or "What you did doesn't make sense." My training is more of a traditional apprentice model -- I went to school, but it was a supplement to the work. But she went to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America], and she has that academic approach.
Now I'm designing this [new restaurant kitchen], and I'm thinking that I don't want it to be too big, I don't want it to be too different from my kitchen at home. It's exciting, because we're now getting into recipe testing for the restaurant at home, so we're fielding the next Heidi's at home.
Q Was throwing yourself into a book project a therapeutic way to deal with the fire?
A Certainly the writing, some of it felt very therapeutic to me, which is why it is so personal. And I wanted to give away some recipes that had been stars at the restaurant. In some ways that was kind of liberating to say, 'OK, these were great recipes that I love and were very suitable for that location and that space, and now it's time to give them away and move on and do other things.'
In some ways, I don't want to make those recipes anymore. I want to move on and do other things. I can't wait to hear what people think, when they cook at home and discover those recipes and make them their own, that's the part I'm really excited about.
Q Your sons Isaac and Aaron appear in lots of photographer Kate N.G. Sommers' work throughout the book. Did they provide helpful feedback?
A Totally. Especially when we were doing preliminary testing at home and creating dishes, we would not necessarily say, "Well, how do you like it?" but we would see how they would eat. We wanted to say, legitimately, that you can prepare this for your family. Our kids aren't any different from anyone else's kids. They're probably exposed to a wider variety of things, and not exposed to much in the way of junk food, but they eat macaroni more than anything else.
Q What was their reaction to the slow-cooked curried goat?
A That was one of those dishes where we didn't tell them what it was. We cooked it, and Heidi and I ate it, and we kind of said to each other, "Let's see how this goes over; we won't tell them what it is." And they loved it. The other day, somebody said, "Oh, I loved the goat recipe," and Isaac was like, "There's a goat recipe?" [laughs].
Q What should I make for dinner tonight?
A I'd start with the lettuce soup. It's my favorite kind of recipe because it has this element of, "I've had this lettuce in my fridge and I've never thought to roll it up into a soup."
Q You work a number of useful tips into the book. What's the deal on buying fish?
A It's a matter of finding a fishmonger that is going to be a little more interactive, and less intimidating. The hardest thing about buying fish is too often it's so convenient to want to buy it at the supermarket, but you shouldn't. You're annoying them by saying, "Can I smell that?" You get the impression they want to say, "Cook something else." The other reason I don't buy at the supermarket is I don't want to have to give someone a story about why I want to smell the fish. I just want to smell it. That's how you find out if it's fresh, it's a matter of getting in there and doing that.
Q No one produces a cookbook in three months; that's insanity. Did you know that going in?
A The publisher was telling us that it was insanity, but no, that's just what we did. But it was awesome; it was an incredible experience. I feel closer to the people who care about food and want to be cooking. It's certainly not a lucrative proposition. Whether or not there is any money involved at all is an open question. No one is getting rich in publishing. It's kind of daunting to think of how many books you'd have to sell to be lucrative. But would I do it again? Yes, I'd love to do another book. Just not right now [laughs].
Q What's going on with the restaurant?
A The restaurant is not going to open when we hoped it would. It will open when it opens. I know it will be before Feb. 18. But the book is out and it feels really nice to know that -- and this is going to sound egotistical -- the people who loved the food that we were doing can have it and enjoy it.
I'm just so excited to get to work. All of a sudden I've fallen in love with cooking all over again. I'm just so champing at the bit, wanting to get back to work. I'm trying not to be my own worst enemy. I'm trying to be patient and let things happen in the time they are meant to happen, because I think that we're going to have a beautiful restaurant, and I'm really excited about that.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757