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Continued: Birchwood Cafe's Marshall Paulsen puts food in spotlight

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: February 21, 2013 - 9:14 AM

Eggs, for example. Paulsen is obsessed with them, particularly the pastel, speckled and dotted beauties from finicky heirloom breeds. Talk about fresh: They arrive at the restaurant’s coolers two days after they’re laid.

“It’s a rare thing for restaurants, serving the high volume we do, to put such an emphasis on the age and quality of eggs we serve,” he said. “After you’ve grown an affinity for two-day-old eggs, it’s very easy to recognize older ones, and very difficult to keep eating them.”

He’s not exaggerating when he says that the Birchwood goes through a cavalcade of eggs — a busy weekend brunch can mean 80 to 90 servings of eggs Benedict alone, and that doesn’t take into account the avalanche of scrambles (so creamy and herbaceous), omelets (airy and potently stuffed), quiches (firm and rich) and other egg-centric vehicles. Paulsen’s favorite current assignment is taking an eight-hour shift at the kitchen’s frenetic “Eggman” station, working side-by-side with his kitchen crew, mentoring them and relishing their growth as cooks.

“I’m proud to send cooks from here to other places, knowing I was able to coach them into having cooking skills they can’t get elsewhere,” he said.

Another cost-containment strategy is squeezing the most out of every ingredient. Nothing goes to waste: Scraps from diced turnips make their way into a soup rather than landing in the compost pile, and leftover fresh leeks from one menu will become a pickled leek garnish on the next. Peak-season produce, purchased when prices are at their most economical, is preserved through freezing, canning and pickling, an enormous effort.

“I’m not going to lie, we do run some pretty high food costs sometimes,” said Paulsen. “But that also adds to the challenge, and to the fun, to figure out how to keep things at a lower food cost.”

Further complicating Paulsen’s life is the 15-block commute he constantly makes between the restaurant and a new commissary kitchen. Not that he’s complaining. Leased a year ago, the calm and spacious facility is where the vast majority of the Birchwood’s food preparation takes place, a world apart from the restaurant’s frenetic, every-square-inch-counts kitchen.

Drop in on any given moment and you might witness cooks hand-forming turkey burger patties by the dozens, browning beef bones for broth, baking the dessert case’s tempting array of sweets and assembling the hundreds of pounds of vegan, gluten-free granola sold each week at most Twin Cities natural food co-ops. The additional breathing room has also allowed Paulsen to say yes to more catering gigs. 

Unfortunately, movement is a problem. At least for now. After living with increasingly steady pain for more than a year, Paulsen underwent orthopedic surgery last week to correct a bum hip.

“Instead of ‘Iron Chef,’ we’re now calling him the ‘Titanium Chef,’ ” said Singleton.

Restaurants from the start

Paulsen, age 33, has been working in restaurants for more than half of his life. The St. Paul native’s first job was at age 15 — a busboy at a country club — and he’s never left the business, studying hospitality management at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie.  

After transitioning from server to cook, Paulsen eventually landed at the Creamery, a destination restaurant and hotel outside of Menomonie. It was a fortuitous opportunity. 

“That’s where my real education began,” he said. “It’s where I learned that food could be creative, and that there are limitless boundaries to what you can do with it. It’s where I learned that food is available from your neighbors, because we bought trout and chickens from just down the road. It’s where I got excited about food.”

Fast forward a few years to Paulsen’s right-place/right-time arrival at the Birchwood. It was April 2007, and he responded to an ad for a sous chef. Although less than impressed after an interview with the restaurant’s then-chef, Paulsen agreed to return the following Monday morning to check out the kitchen and, as a kind of audition, prepare a soup.

When he walked through the restaurant’s back door at 6 a.m., he was greeted by a frazzled Singleton. “It was the first time I’d met her, and the first thing she said to me was, ‘Who the hell are you?’ ” he recalls. 

“I wasn’t being very nice,” said Singleton with a laugh. 

He mentioned the job interview and she replied that she had fired the chef the night before. “The first thing he said was, ‘Does that mean the chef’s job is open?’ ” said Singleton. “He ended up staying that day for something like 15 hours, and then he came back the next day for another 15 hours. That was his introduction to the Birchwood.”

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