When Tim McKee was named the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef for the Midwest last week in New York City, it marked the first time a Minnesotan had won the accolade that is widely referred to as the Oscars of the food world. McKee's win is, in a way, a salute to the human side of the locavore movement, in that he's a total product of the region: He grew up here, trained here and has spent his career here, producing memorable food and creating standard-setting restaurants.
Armed with a degree in anthropology, McKee started cooking for the D'Amico empire in the early 1990s, thinking it was a temporary job. Wrong. By 1997, he was the top toque at D'Amico Cucina and gracing the cover of Food & Wine as one of the magazine's best new chefs. A year later, McKee and fellow D'Amican Josh Thoma struck out on their own, launching their Mediterranean-inspired La Belle Vie in a downtown Stillwater storefront.
They've been food-scene leaders ever since. Tapas-focused Solera lit up downtown Minneapolis in 2004. La Belle Vie relocated to Lowry Hill's swank 510 Groveland building a year later, where it blossomed into the region's pinnacle of contemporary elegance. Last year, the pair took on Jamaican-style barbecue with Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque and Pirate Bar in Stillwater and then launched Barrio, a tequila bar/small plates phenom in downtown Minneapolis; a second Barrio is set to open in St. Paul's Lowertown on June 12.
There's more: Earlier this year, McKee was tapped to remake Cue, the Guthrie Theater's high-profile restaurant and bar, and his changes will come online in July.
Oh, yeah, there's also the small matter of winning the highest accolade in his industry, after three consecutive nominations (sharing all three with Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma and the last two with Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery). In a recent phone conversation, McKee discussed nervousness, speechmaking and the wider meaning of his win.
Q How did you celebrate?
A I had a hard time relaxing, because the phone was ringing off the hook. Alex and Isaac and I and our wives went to Bar Boulud [across the street from Lincoln Center] for the industry after-party. It was a madhouse. It was crazy. All of these people that I've always been inspired by and have worked to emulate, and there they were, shaking my hand, saying "Congratulations." It was insane.
I've always loved Daniel Boulud. He's my absolute favorite, and he shook my hand and we clinked medals [Daniel, one of Boulud's New York City restaurants, won the evening's Outstanding Service award]. José Andrés was really nice, so was David Burke, Paul Kahan, you name it. I had to succumb to a little celebrity geekiness. I had my picture taken with Alain Ducasse. My wife got a picture with Tom Colicchio, for the kids. That's how much that show ["Top Chef"] is a phenomenon, that my kids know who he is. I've not watched it much; it's kind of contrived. I never realized just how interesting my profession must be [laughs].
Q In your acceptance speech you said that "this is great for Minneapolis." What did you mean?
A Having one of us from Minneapolis win, it brings to light that this is an important center of culinary activity. It's not recognized nationally as such. I'm always getting questions like, "Are there good restaurants in Minneapolis?," which are usually followed by, "Can you get good seafood there?" That's when I have to explain the advent of the airplane.
Q Were you nervous?
A I was absolutely sick to my stomach for most of that day, and it got worse once I got into the building. It didn't settle down until about a half-hour after the awards, when I got a couple of cocktails in me.
Q What was your reaction when you heard your name?
A It's just craziness. You feel like, "Yeah, maybe I'm the guy," but to hear it is unbelievable. It's exciting, and then I realized that I had to make the walk.
Q You're not really one to make speeches, are you?
A That speech was the worst, because I'm pretty sure that that's the most terrified that I have ever been in my life. I don't think I said half of what I wanted to say because I was so paralyzed. I just hope they never post it [online]. Then it will remain in people's memories and disappear [laughs]. I'm sure if the Internet was like a newspaper, I'd be trying to buy up every last copy.
Q I was a little surprised that presenter Todd English mangled your name. How hard is it to pronounce "McKee"?
A Ultimately, it doesn't bother me at all. But I mean, you're sitting there, and I can't imagine that that moment isn't everyone's single most important event in their career, and to mispronounce that person's name is in really poor taste.
Q English took one look at nominee Arun Sampanthavivat's name and said he wasn't even going to try. Time for a new presenter?
A If you don't know how to pronounce the name, you might care enough to give him a call. That would go a long way. Isn't that what you're up onstage for? They don't have you up there just because you're good-looking [laughs].
Q What does it mean, winning the James Beard Foundation award?
A I'm still trying to figure that out. There's been a lot of common wisdom that says that it really helps your restaurants, and that would be great. It's recognition. Honestly, I think it's more important for the city and for dining here than it is necessarily for me personally. Sure, it's really important. But is my career going to benefit? My career is going the right way anyway, so it certainly won't hurt it. But the real benefit is the acknowledgment of what we've been doing in the Twin Cities throughout our careers -- what the D'Amicos have been doing, what the Schuttes were doing -- and that's raising the bar in the Twin Cities. It's really great that Alex and Isaac and I were all there at the same time, and it's really great that we brought one home.
Q Someone told me there was a full house at La Belle Vie that night, waiting to hear the results. True?
A I guess there were a lot of shrieks waking up the neighbors.
Q Any chance we'll see a James Beard-inspired cocktail or menu item anytime soon?
A I was talking to Isaac and Alex about doing a dinner. It would be nice to have the guys from Missouri [fellow nominees Colby Garrelts of Bluestem in Kansas City and Gerard Craft in St. Louis] come in and cook, as well. I'd love to pull something like that together, although I'm still just trying to take it all in.
Q What are you going to do with the medallion?
A We're going to keep it at La Belle Vie. I'll wear it cooking on the line, mowing the lawn, that kind of thing [laughs].
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757