In the lull before the pre-curtain Guthrie Theater rush, the kitchen at Sea Change seemed like one of those British farces, where the actors zip in and out through swinging doors, narrowly missing each other. A chef with a tray of shimmering trout whisked by another holding a knife. In all farces, timing is crucial.

Rock music played, but not very loudly. There was little idle chatter and almost every conversation was scripted toward the opening act: the 5 o'clock surge. But there was no panic, just a palpable intensity.

Chef de cuisine Jamie Malone was cleaning sea urchins, spiny orbs that she cut open to scoop out the foamy insides. They were a new item that she plans to offer in November, but she was trying them on select customers that night.

"This is the best part," said Malone, holding the urchin up to her nose. "Smells like low tide."

She offered a sample to a visitor and Shanti Jensen, who manages the front of the house. It was a salty, musty, nearly overwhelming taste of seawater.

Jensen asked what body part it was.

"It's, uh, the gonads," said Malone.

A sly smile spread on her face.

Malone, 30, has become one of the Twin Cities' top chefs through hard work, quiet determination and a subtle, quirky sense of humor. On the job, she's intensely focused and unusually unflappable, and she insists that her team display the same calm reserve.

The Sea Change kitchen mirrors the U-shape of the thrust stage upstairs, giving diners clear sight lines to watch the kitchen staff perform. Although there was a large photo of Arthur Miller staring down on it all, there was little drama that night.

At least until Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, stepped into the kitchen to give Malone a hug and thank her for the meal. It was the only time she got a little flustered.

"She's usually like that, really reserved," said Tim McKee, chef/owner at La Belle Vie and the chef tapped by Sea Change operator Culinaire, the Dallas-based hospitality company, to oversee the restaurant's ambitious culinary program. "But she's got great command of the kitchen and rapport with the staff. She's built a really cohesive and professional team."

Following a dream

Malone grew up in North St. Paul and started cooking as a teenager; her fondest memories were of baking bread with her father. She was the kind of teen who rode her bike to the market on Saturdays, listening to "The Splendid Table" on Minnesota Public Radio.

A food nerd.

After high school, she traveled alone to Hong Kong and Europe, eating her way around the globe. She started a bead store with her mom and sister, but all day long she thought about what she would make for dinner.

So she asked herself what she would do if she had all the money in the world, and decided to study at Le Cordon Bleu in the Twin Cities. Her first internship was at La Belle Vie, under McKee, where "I learned everything: Keep your head down. Don't talk. Be organized."

She moved on to Porter and Frye, where chef Steven Brown was performing modern miracles with chemicals that few in Minnesota had heard of.

"I remember one of the interview questions was, 'What's a hydrochloride?'" said Malone. "I knew."

She helped open Barrio in Minneapolis and Edina, then bounced back and forth between them and Sea Change, where she became sous chef for Erik Anderson. When he left for Nashville, she sought the job, as did chefs from large cities.

"I just acted like it was my kitchen, until it was," said Malone.

Now the top chef of one of the metro area's top restaurants, Malone still studies relentlessly. She turned 30 in September, and got the book "Modernist Cuisine" for her birthday.

"It's about all I do: read books on food," she said.

Anderson said he saw "something special" the first time he cooked alongside Malone at Porter and Frye. "She just loves to cook," he said. "It's something you're born with. It can be nurtured, but it can't be taught."

Malone comes up with ideas for dishes at all hours, so she keeps a notebook with her to jot down thoughts. Then she gets together with sous chefs Ryan Cook and Adam Murphy and they start throwing ideas around. Pastry chef Niki Francioli punctuates the menu with such delights as a frozen passion fruit soufflé.

Sea Change is always seeking sustainable fish, and Malone is pushing more vegetables these days. For example, her abalone raw plate, with asparagus and bone marrow, "is a dish about vegetables; the abalone is incidental."

McKee describes Malone as "really creative and studious. She pays attention to what's going on in the culinary world, always reading the right books. She's able to take ideas she sees, build on them and make them her own. And she's got a great palate."

That palate is both sophisticated and simple. She says her custard concoction of egg, scallops and bacon reminds her of a "McDonald's bacon and egg breakfast sandwich." When asked to choose her death-row meal, she said "cheeseburger."

"I had a French fry sandwich for breakfast yesterday," she said with a small cringe of embarrassment.

Then there is the quirky humor. She held her index finger beneath her nose, displaying a small handlebar mustache tattoo on her finger.

The theater begins

The orders started coming in. "Four scallops, four clams, 10 rib-eye, all medium, two bouillabaisse, one veal."

Malone wanted to send some complimentary sea urchins to a table, but it wouldn't be to the all-steak table. She chose one by the windows. "They ordered oysters," she said. "That's always a good indicator of how adventurous people are."

Despite the arrival of 100 people simultaneously, the kitchen seemed calm. "This is kind of my thing," said Malone. "You can't make good food if you are being weird. Seeing cooks scramble makes me nervous."

A large number of scallop orders came in. It's a simple looking dish that takes an amazing amount of advanced preparation. The staff has already ground some chicken into a kind of crumble, fried chicken skin into crisps, cooked carrot confit in chicken fat, blackened carrots, concocted a carrot foam and purée and made a gastrique.

"Looks simple on the plate, but it's very labor-intensive. I just like chicken with scallops," Malone explained.

Rectangular plates were laid end-to-end, then Malone and Murphy followed each other, painting the plates with chile gastrique and finishing the dish with seared scallops. It looked like an assembly line for a Ferrari, and the end product was every bit as beautiful.

For the next three hours and more than 130 dinners, Malone had only one conversation that appeared unrelated to getting a perfect meal to a patron. Turning to a line chef, she asked: "What's your dog's name?"

"Sally," said Matt Hendrickson. "Like Mustang Sally."

Later, however, Malone explained that she names cooking teams after people's pets so they can better remember them. She was working, after all.

When she's not working, Malone reads and walks her greyhounds, Ellie and, predictably, Pork Chop.

She doesn't think being one of the few females at the top in local restaurants is a big deal. "It's the lifestyle. You don't have a life. You sacrifice so much."

Malone hopes the sacrifice is evident in every plate that comes out of the kitchen.

"I hope they love the flavors. I hope they are delighted by what they find on the plate. I hope they are surprised," she said.

Few 50-year-olds still work in the kitchen. Does Malone have an exit plan?

"I love being in the kitchen," she said. "You can learn about anything through cooking. You can learn about science, you can learn about culture, history, art.

"I'll be the 50-year-old in the kitchen." • 612-673-1702