Great chefs of Minnesota: D'Amico's Jay Sparks

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 25, 2013 - 9:53 AM

Low-profile but high-impact D’Amico executive chef Jay Sparks has quietly improved the local dining landscape while mentoring a generation of chefs.

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Chef Jay Sparks is very particular about a kitchen’s background noise.

“I want to hear the sound of the [ventilation] hoods,” he said. “No music. I find the radio kind of irritating. I like it quiet, because then you can focus on what you’re doing. You can’t have absolute silence, because there has to be communication between cooks, of course. But I like things lined up, clean and fresh and orderly, with everyone on the line fully focused.”

That exacting environment certainly translates to the kind of polished front-of-house experience that Twin Cities diners have come to expect from the restaurants that fall under Sparks’ purview at his employer, the D’Amico empire. But to more fully illuminate the Sparks character, let’s turn to one of his high-profile protégés.

“Let me tell you a story,” said Tim McKee.

When McKee was cooking in the early 1990s at Azur, the company’s totally-ahead-of-its-time Mediterranean-focused restaurant on the top floor of Gaviidae Common in downtown Minneapolis, Sparks would gather his kitchen staff and brainstorm ideas for an ever-changing weekly menu feature.

“Not having ideas was not an option,” said McKee. “You had to come prepared. Of course, there was no Internet then, so research meant libraries. That’s what we would do, we would go and look through books. That process is something that has affected me ever since. Just the energy and drive and enthusiasm he has for the act of cooking and for the broadening of ideas, well, it’s amazing. It really taught me something so crucial and so invaluable about how I go about doing what I do.”

Another notable Sparks disciple, Isaac Becker, admires how his mentor taught by quiet example.

“He stayed with all the cooks to clean the line,” he said. “There isn’t a chef in town that stays with the line cooks to scrub, or to mop the floors — no one expects them to, either — but Jay did that, every night.

“It’s a small thing, but when you work in a kitchen for 10 hours and then you’ve got to clean, it’s the last thing you want to do. But he did it,” Becker said.

It speaks to Sparks’ mentoring powers that McKee and Becker went on to become two of the three Minneapolis chefs to win James Beard awards, considered the industry’s top honor. McKee, chef/co-owner of La Belle Vie, worked alongside Sparks through much of the 1990s, and Becker, chef/co-owner of 112 Eatery, Bar La Grassa and Burch Steak and Pizza Bar, reported to Sparks for nearly a decade, starting in 1994.

“I don’t consider chefs as artists, although there are probably a few in the world that are artists,” said Becker. “But if anyone in town is an artist, I’d say that it’s Jay. I think Jay Sparks is the best chef in the state.”

An evolving career

It has been a decade since Sparks last plugged into the high-pressure world of the cooking line of a busy restaurant (“It’s a young man’s game; it certainly requires a young man’s legs,” he said with a laugh), and unlike most chefs overseeing dinner-centric restaurants, his is pretty much a day job.

His mornings begin at his office in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District. Dressed in his crisp, well-tailored white chef’s coat, Sparks concentrates on menu development, scheduling, costs and other issues. His afternoons are far more hands-on, spent in the kitchens at one of the company’s four Twin Cities restaurants (he makes the trip to the company’s Florida properties seven or eight times a year), going over details with, say, Adam King at Cafe Lurcat on Loring Park, or Charlie Schwandt, who recently stepped into the chef position at Parma 8200 in Bloomington.

Right now, Sparks says the company doesn’t have anything new on the drawing board for the Twin Cities. “We’re working on something in Florida,” he said. Opening restaurants is “always exciting,” he said. “But we’re not growing as fast as we used to, thank God. Because it really takes a year, or a year and a half, before you really figure out what you’ve got.”

The hugely influential hospitality enterprise is divided into three divisions: catering, the D’Amico & Sons quick-service chain and the diverse seven full-service restaurants where Sparks presides as executive chef: Campiello and Parma 8200 (both Italian), Masa (Mexican) and Cafe Lurcat and Bar Lurcat (New American) in the Twin Cities, and Campiello, Masa and Cafe Lurcat and Bar Lurcat in Naples, Fla.

Each property has its own chef, but all seven report to Sparks. His name might not appear on the menus, but his mentality is all over them.

In mid-April, Sparks finds himself immersed in segueing the company’s Florida properties from their busy and lucrative high season to their slow and fiscally challenging low season. A recalibration of the menu at Masa in Minneapolis is also in the works.

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