At age 17, Jorge Guzman entered the restaurant world — as a busboy — and he immediately felt at home. “I just loved everything about it,” he said. “The people, the energy, all of it was really cool.”
He’s been in the kitchen ever since. Well, almost.
After leaving his native Mexico at age 5, Guzman grew up in St. Louis, then spent his college years in Des Moines at Drake University — where he majored in advertising and was a middle linebacker for the football team — followed by training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Marriage brought him to Minneapolis — his wife Denise is a native — and Guzman’s cooking career includes stints at Redstone American Grill, Corner Table and Solera. Now, 18 years after busing that first table — and 45 pounds lighter than his gridiron days — this accomplished chef finds himself at the helm of the Surly Brewing Co.’s new $30 million, crowd-luring complex.
Q: What is the overall theme of your menu at Surly?
A: It’s about food that tastes good with beer, which means we have a really wide spectrum to fill, and we can really play around with all kinds of stuff. We tend to gravitate toward Southern and Hispanic flavors because we like those bolder flavors, and they go better with beer. We’re proud that the menu can accommodate people of all experiences, whether you don’t go out to eat a lot, or if you’re out all the time and want to try something adventurous.
Q: Did other brewpubs influence your approach?
A: We did a little traveling. We went to Stone [in Escondido, Calif.] and Euclid Hall [in Denver]. Euclid Hall had really good food, but a lot of the other brewpubs, they don’t. And there’s no excuse, because you can do it. Take the time. It’s going to be hard. But this is work, it’s not supposed to be easy. We want to challenge ourselves. I get really bored if I’m not challenged, and this is a huge challenge. You just have to really fine tune it and engineer it properly. A lot of it is on the back end, and so our prep is very intensive, whereas our pickups on the line are not.
Q: Starting out, what did you absolutely have to feature on the menu?
A: Barbecue, that’s the one thing. Before I took this job, I was looking to opening my own barbecue restaurant. I just don’t feel that there is a lot of good barbecue in Minnesota. There’s a few spots here and there, but there could be better.
Q: Did growing up in St. Louis influence your approach to barbecue?
A: A little bit. I have a mixed background in food. I really remember the food from my hometown in Mexico. That’s what has inspired me to be a chef, those flavors, and the communal aspect. I never forget the food there. Even when I go back, I say, “We have to go and eat this, and then eat this, and then eat this.”
I grew up with a single mom. She had two boys to raise, and you know how that goes, food was whatever she could get on the table. She didn’t have any other support. So eating her food inspired me to want to cook better, to put it nicely. I started cooking at a young age, and I ended up liking it.
So yes, the barbecue in St. Louis is really good, but I don’t think that it inspired me. I just know that I like it. Besides, there’s barbecue in every country, it’s just called something different.
I just know that it’s a niche that needed to be filled. As a chef, you can’t reinvent the wheel. It’s barbecue. There’s no secret to it. You just get a good product, and you smoke it properly. That’s all we really did. And I just felt that, with a place this big, barbecue helps speed up the process of getting food to the table. You can pick it right out of the smoker, and chop it, and it’s out the door.
Q: Your next project is a smaller and obviously beer-focused restaurant on the building’s second floor. Can you share a few details?
A: That’s the one that I’m really anticipating. Right now Brian [Hauke, Guzman’s chef de cuisine] and I are trying to figure out how people are going to want to dine up there. We don’t want it to be pretentious, but at the same time we want to differentiate what we’re doing downstairs with what we’re doing upstairs. We want to bring those pessimists in, and be like, you can do this, it’s OK, it doesn’t have to be wine. Because you can change the flavor of beer to taste like wine.
Our Misanthrope [beer] — which is our Cynic aged in white wine barrels with Brettanomyces — tastes like wine, it’s unbelievable. It’s so good. There’s going to be a lot of opportunity for us to show people that their fear of beer and food shouldn’t really be a fear. We want to show what the possibilities are.
We don’t have a name for the restaurant, not yet. The kitchen is pretty much built out. We’re waiting for one stove, and when that arrives, Brian and I will start playing around. The plan is to open in April.
Q: It sounds like you’re having a blast. True?
A: I just love working. I feel really at ease at work. My wife would probably hate that and say, “Why don’t you feel that at home?” But I just love being around all of the people, getting to know everyone and what they do, and who they are.
And I love learning about beer. I walk into the brewery every day, and think, “This is so cool.” I never in my life would have thought that I would work in a brewery, and at Surly no less. I love being here. It’s a place that I think I can call home for a long time. I’ve been looking for that since the start of my career. I have been at four restaurants that have closed or changed hands, and it wears on you. You start to think, “Why is this happening? Is it me?” But it’s the nature of the business.
Q: Did your previous job at Solera help you prepare for the challenges that come with feeding a thousand-plus diners a day?
A: To tell you the truth, all of my experiences have really helped me get to where I am today. Even the bad ones.
When I was at Solera, my management style really came to fruition. The food is the easy part, it’s the people that are the hard part. You have to learn how to manage individuals, to motivate them, so that they want to stay with you.
I got lucky at Redstone. It wasn’t very challenging from a culinary perspective, but I learned a lot about systems and logistics. That was, hands down, one of the best choices that I made, because it helped me learn how to run a business. And a kitchen is a business.
I cooked all through college at a place called Jimmy’s American Cafe. It was really just turn-and-burn, but it was fun. That’s where I learned how to line cook. It’s not good cooking, it’s just pressure. You don’t have technique, you’re just putting burgers and pasta out. But it was a great learning experience.
Q: After being one of the mentored, you’re now a mentor. What does that feel like?
A: That’s my favorite part of the job. If someone becomes successful because they worked here, that’s better than any accolade that anybody can bestow on me. As chefs we have egos, we all want to be recognized, but at the same time you should want to just do as much for others as people are doing for you. It’s difficult, because sometimes you really have to put a lot of time into somebody, but you have to step back and say, “That’s worth it.” I don’t hire cocky cooks. I don’t care how much experience you have. You have to be a kind person to work here. You have to bring a heart and soul to work.
Q: Don’t you think that strategy translates into the diners’ experience? I had dinner at Restaurant Alma the other night, and to me, the welcoming vibe in that dining room has always felt as if it starts with the atmosphere that chef Alex Roberts nurtures in his kitchen.
A: He’s one of the chefs that I really look up to. I really admire the way he has formed that culture. His staff have all been there forever, and when you leave his kitchen, you leave successful. If you come to Surly, I hope that same feeling resonates, that you can feel that our staff is putting love into the food because they’re happy to be here and they want to work here.
Q: You’ve been open nearly two months now. What’s the biggest surprise you’ve faced?
A: I don’t have one, at least not yet. I’m sure I will. Probably when the beer garden opens, and 800 people show up on a Saturday. The building’s total capacity is 1,900, and if we ever fill up, that’ll be like, “Holy cripe.” But right now, no surprises. We’ve planned really well, we deliberately took a step back and thought through everything.
Q: What’s your take on smartphone-wielding diners and their constant picture-taking?
A: People are sharing what we’re doing, and that’s great, it’s humbling. And I think Twitter is fun. It took a long time for me to make friends in Minnesota, but it only took me two weeks on Twitter to make a friend. I’ve now met more people through Twitter than I have after living here for 10 years. That’s cool.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib