Low-profile but high-impact D’Amico executive chef Jay Sparks has quietly improved the local dining landscape while mentoring a generation of chefs.
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.
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.”
Asking Sparks what he loves most about his job elicits an easy response.
“The freedom,” he says. “I have a lot of freedom. I think I have a great job. It’s being able to go to any of the restaurants and look at food anytime, work on food anytime. And every day is a different day. Some days, it’s ‘Lucky me,’ and some days, it’s a mine field. But for the most part, it’s good.”
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib