Great Chefs: Patrick Atanalian adds a personal touch

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 5, 2014 - 11:08 AM

Patrick Atanalian's place is in the kitchen, and that's exactly where he wants to be.

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One of the many pleasures that come with taking a table in the long, narrow Sanctuary dining room is feeling secure in the knowledge that chef Patrick Atanalian is at the stove, personally preparing the meal. It’s the way he has always worked.

“The chef should be there,” he said. “Everything should be touched by my hands. I need to see it. I look at everything.”

Not that anyone else could lay claim to his idiosyncratic food. Pork gently infused with vanilla bean? Risotto peppered with hazelnuts and chocolate?

For the past several weeks, diners have been treated to scallops — plump, outrageously juicy scallops, seared to a deep caramel in plenty of butter — served in a broth of reduced rosé champagne tapped with a bit of agave, with a side of crème fraîche and squid ink-dyed tobiko caviar. “This French guy brought in some rosé champagne,” he said. “No one cooks with rosé champagne, so I thought, ‘I want to.’ And you know, champagne, caviar, crème fraîche, it’s a good combination.” He’s right, of course. It was flagrantly delicious.

That’s how his mind works, and it rarely stops. Once he implements a new menu — which happens about every six to eight weeks — Atanalian immediately starts in on plans for the next one, using his five-course tasting menu (available Monday through Thursday, a major bargain at $35) as his laboratory.

Repetition is not in his culinary vocabulary. “I just keep moving forward,” he said. With one exception: the tiny artichoke tartlets he has been serving for years.

True to form, Atanalian suggests that diners consume the dish in a particular order: a tiny lavender bud, a tart bite of cornichon, a nibble of small, aromatic black olives. The tartlet, rich and creamy, comes next, then a crisp slug of a white verjus. “Every flavor is different, and they remind me of Provence,” he said.

But with a uniquely American twist, at least one that’s meandered through Atanalian’s fevered imagination. “Every time you go into bars here, there’s always an artichoke dip on the menu,” he said. “This is mine.”

When he was a teenager in his native Marseille, Atanalian entered the challenging world of apprenticeship in the French culinary industrial complex: backbreaking work, endless hours, little pay.

A cousin was living in New York City and encouraged him to give the United States a shot. At his first job interview, Atanalian was flummoxed when asked if he preferred to work during the day or at night. “You mean, you get a choice?” was his response.

For more than a decade he moved around, working in Manhattan, Montreal and Boston, picking up English by listening to conversations and watching television.

Atanalian landed in Minneapolis in the late 1990s, coming here in pursuit of love (“It wasn’t the weather,” he said with a laugh), his now-spouse Catherine. He probably could have made a career delivering la cuisine Marseillaise to his Midwestern clientele, pounding out bouillabaisse to the masses, but the prospect was very that-was-then.

“I was more focused on forgetting over there, and learning what’s over here,” he said.

Instead, he enchanted and occasionally perplexed locals with his whimsical explorations of what was then the outer limits of gastronomy, specializing in revealing the hidden harmony between offbeat ingredients: duck in a tamarind-kumquat glaze and a sunflower-cilantro pesto, beef tenderloin dressed with a mango-rum sauce and a Coca-Cola crème fraîche, wasabi-infused potato cakes topped with an apple salsa, caviar and chocolate chips, all gleefully presented in a less-is-so-not-more style. Looking back through 15 years of hindsight, it’s clear that Atanalian was well ahead of the curve.

“I was trying to push, and push, and push, and make people understand,” he said. “A lot of people were like, ‘What the hell?’ And now all of these young chefs are doing this crazy [expletive], they can do whatever the [expletive] they want.”

Yes, Atanalian swears like a Scor­sese film script, although his heavy French accent has it come out sounding like Flaubert.

The names of top-rated Twin Cities restaurants from the 1990s and early 2000s jump off his résumé, including the New French Cafe and Loring Cafe. His first local job? At Kapoochi’s, hired by Michael Kut­scheid. There was an unhappy stint at a local culinary academy followed by a run at catering. He was working a wedding gig when a co-worker mentioned that Kutscheid was opening a restaurant, a place he was calling Sanctuary.

Two months after the doors opened, Atanalian replaced the original chef.

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