Still, if history is any indication, there’s plenty more at work besides formulating dishes. Namely, Sparks’ employees are also receiving a postgraduate-level education in the culinary arts, although the modest Sparks finds his reputation as mega-mentor “way overrated,” he said.
“To me, the guys who come ready, who have already drank the Kool-Aid, they’re already in, they’re the easiest to coach,” he said. “I couldn’t possibly develop seven different menus. I really rely upon the guys in charge of each of those kitchens for generating ideas. They need that room to create, or why else are you in the business? You bust your ass all day, so that’s the payoff, to be able to come up with your own dishes. I need those guys.”
A kitchen duo
With or without his chef’s coat, Sparks has cooking on his mind, even — or perhaps especially — when he’s making dinner for longtime girlfriend Joan Ferris, using their downtown Minneapolis condo kitchen as a testing laboratory. Sparks religiously catalogs the results in his cellphone, which currently archives nearly 3,000 food images. The two have been a couple for nearly 21 years, after meeting at Azur.
“I trust her opinion,” he said. “If she likes it, then it has a good chance.”
Theirs is a work/home partnership writ large; while he runs the back of the house at the company’s full-service restaurants, she runs the front.
“Our paths cross at work all the time,” he said. “We do our best to leave the drama of work at work. We manage to do that about 75 percent of the time.”
Tall and lanky — his 58-year-old body wasn’t always so trim — Sparks’ voice still bears the gentle curves of his Tampa upbringing. When he’s not working, he’s playing golf. Or thinking about playing golf.
That, and picking up a guitar. He owns four — three are reserved for a studio where “I can really crank it up,” he said with a laugh — and the fourth is his everyday instrument, a six-string acoustic.
His passion for guitar blossomed when he was in eighth grade. After high school, avocation became vocation when he landed a gig in a touring disco band, the Montereys. In 1981, his then-girlfriend — later, wife; much later, ex-wife — a Minnesota native, talked him into moving north with her, encouraging him to switch careers and channel his passion for food into becoming a chef.
Then in his mid-20s, Sparks trained at what is now Hennepin Technical College in Eden Prairie, and after gigs at Byerly’s catering division and the former Alfredo’s in St. Paul, he ended up at the helm of the 510 Restaurant, which pretty much occupied the Twin Cities’ fine-dining pinnacle at the time.
Five years later he was recruited by brothers Richard and Larry D’Amico to join their up-and-coming catering/restaurant outfit. He has been at the heart of the company for the past 24 years.
His first major responsibility was running Azur. That’s a name that recalls other late, great D’Amico properties in downtown Minneapolis that all bore Sparks’ singular vision, including D’Amico Cucina, the company’s lap-of-luxury flagship for more than two decades until it closed in 2009, the underrated Linguini & Bob, Toulouse (the D’Amico & Sons prototype) and the recently shuttered D’Amico Kitchen.
The role of a chef
Perhaps one reason for the company’s remarkable longevity is that Sparks, ever the quiet perfectionist, is forever pushing for improvement. “You never arrive and say, ‘I’ve reached it, I’m there,’ ” he said.
That’s his practical side coming through, too. Restaurants, he says, are not art projects. “At the end of the day, you have to pay the bills,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it on your own terms.”
One definite change that he’s witnessed in his 30-plus years in the kitchen: perception. And attention.
“Back in the 1980s, before chefs were elevated to rock-star status, I really felt that this was a noble occupation,” said Sparks. “It’s not one where you’re going to make millions of dollars, but if you work hard, it’s a great way to make a living. It’s funny. Now, the motivation can still be about food, about the craft. But it’s no longer about having a noble occupation, it’s about being a full-on celebrity.”