Great Chefs: Patrick Atanalian adds a personal touch

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 30, 2014 - 11:34 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.

Seven years later, Sanctuary remains Atanalian’s cooking refuge. His culinary imagination continues to be no less fevered but seems far more refined, his fascination with — and enthusiasm for — the what-happens-next aspect of seasonal cooking still burning bright.

He’s still standing

Seeing Atanalian standing at his stove in his spotless white German chef shoes is something of a miracle these days. (“I’ve got a shoe fetish,” he said with a laugh, making the international symbol for shhhh, don’t tell.)

He remembers the date as if it were a grim version of his birthday: Nov. 6, 2012, when he “was smacked by a big wave” while surfing in Mexico. He didn’t give the incident another thought, despite developing an increasing number of headaches. Shortly after returning to Minnesota, he headed to a nightclub on his night off. The next thing he remembered, he was waking up in a hospital, two days later.

That freak surfing accident had jolted his brain into a different position. Emergency surgery relieved pressure on his brain caused by blood buildup. He regained consciousness and realized that his left side was paralyzed.

“All I could think was, ‘I’m never going to walk again; I’m never going to cook again,’ ” he said. “It was very scary. But I didn’t work this hard all my life to be like this, so I challenged myself.”

He started over, literally. “My body felt like it was 100 years old, but my brain was brand-new,” he said. “It was like being a baby again.”

Months of grueling physical and mental therapy followed. He relearned how to walk, to write, to hold a knife, often working into exhaustion after a frustrating 10 or 20 minutes. “Like everyone else, I wanted it now,” he said, snapping his fingers. “I’d be butchering a fish and oops,” he said. “What else could I do, but practice more?”

While adapting to newfound sensitivities to light and sound, he returned to work, gradually regaining his stamina in increments (first 15 minutes, then 30, then 60, and so on), measured by a kitchen timer: ting, and it was time to go home. Within a year — and embraced by support in every direction — Atanalian eventually restored his pre-accident presence at the restaurant.

“Everyone has been so incredible,” he said. “My wife, the doctors, the therapists, the guys in the kitchen, everyone.”

Adapting has become his new mantra. He sold his cherished Yamaha motorcycle (“Such a fast little beast,” he said) and turned to Courage Center to relearn how to drive a car. His nightlife days have evaporated (“I used to go out, a lot,” he said), but he’s happy to be traveling again.

Fearful of the effects of pressurized air on his brain, it took more than a year before Atanalian could stomach the idea of getting on an airplane. His first outing was a trip to Corsica to visit his brother, and to his great relief, he arrived unscathed. “Now I’m like, ‘Where are we going next?’ ” he said.

Small quarters, big thinking

At the moment, his most satisfying journeys take him from his northeast Minneapolis residence to his near-the-Guthrie restaurant, a six-days-a-week gig in a kitchen so diminutive that food truck operators might consider it cramped.

There’s barely room for Atanalian and his staff of four, who make do with a half-size grill, two ovens (one doesn’t get much hotter than “warm”) under a 10-burner stove, a pair of side-by-side refrigerators — he dreams of a walk-in cooler — a small fryer and a dishwasher. “You name it, we don’t have it,” he said. Still, Atanalian is nothing if not pragmatic.

“We just do,” he said, tossing off a quintessentially Gallic shrug. “It’s not like we have a choice. You have to work with what you have. You figure it out.”

His age? “Twenty-seven,” he said, with a straight face. Despite the accident — or perhaps because of it — Atanalian radiates a youthful energy, but late 20s is still a stretch. “Nobody knows,” he said. “Not even my wife. I’m going to be like my grandma. When she died, no one knew her age. It runs in the family.”

Not that he’s unaware of the cruel if inevitable effect the passage of time has on kitchen professionals. “There comes a time when your knees give out, or you get carpal tunnel, or you hurt your back or your neck and you have to step off the line,” he said. “You have to teach the guys, then let it go.

“But for now, knock on wood, this is my place. This is where I am, every night.”

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757

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  • A Marseille native in Minneapolis, chef Patrick Atanalian took a moment in the Sanctuary dining room.

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