Here’s why it’s such a riot to talk with Mike Brown, one of the three chefs/co-owners of the one-of-a-kind Robbinsdale restaurant that is Travail Kitchen and Amusements: the guy is an invigorating fountain of enthusiasm and energy, the conversational equivalent of sneaking a B.T. McElrath Salty Dog chocolate bar to boost an otherwise dreary afternoon.
Brown was full of news on Friday afternoon, as always. Just as we reported in December, Travail is in a period of flux. Its original expansion plan – a new home in the same neighborhood – is proceeding as scheduled.
But now Brown and collaborators James Winberg and Bob Gerken have decided to launch another project, converting the current Travail real estate into a casual pizza- and charcuterie-focused enterprise they’re calling, yes, Pig Ate My Pizza.
Salient details first: Thanks to this new wrinkle, Travail is set to go on hiatus on April 6, although that date is in flux; it could be as early as March 31 (the decision rests on a cabinetmaker’s schedule). The decision won’t be announced for several days.
That shutdown will be followed by approximately four busy weeks of construction, which will culminate in an early May opening of Pig Ate My Pizza, which will serve lunch and dinner daily.
Meanwhile, construction is scheduled to begin in May on Travail’s successor. Brown estimates the new building, located three doors to the south of the restaurant’s current location, will debut in September. Travail 2.0’s square footage will include a 50-seat restaurant, along with a tapas-style restaurant and bar that’s to be called the Rookery.
The downside to all of these positive developments is that Twin Cities diners are going to look back on spring and summer 2013 as the depressing period when they had to cold-turkey on Travail. No envelope-pushing, zillion-course tasting menus between early April and September? Bummer. Make that, total bummer.
Well, maybe not entirely. “We’ve been seriously talking about doing a little pop-up here and there,” said Brown. Right now the idea is to offer small, sporadic events, at venues to be determined, where Brown, Winberg, Gerken & Co. could test-drive some of the ideas they have planned for their new-and-improved setup. “I think it would be totally awesome to single out 30 or so people on Facebook and tell them we want to blow their minds with some of the things that we have going through our heads,” said Brown. “You know, sell tickets to a select group of people and ask them what they think of what we’ve got in mind.”
So, why pizza? “Because we’re fat, and we love pizza,” said Brown with a laugh. “But think about it. Everyone loves pizza, and I know that that makes me sound silly, but come on, everyone loves pizza.”
A return to Travail’s original roots – as a casual neighborhood hangout – was also a motivating factor. “I want my dad and my mom, the mechanic and the Spanish teacher, to think, ‘I’ll go to that nice place in downtown Robbinsdale, the one with the pub atmosphere,’” said Brown (pictured, above, front-row center, with co-chefs Bob Gerken, left, and James Winberg, right). “That’s really how we started out, even though the fine-dining aspect is really where our hearts are at. We were probably 60 percent pub food – you know, the butter burgers, the fish and chips – and 40 percent fine-dining. Then it went to 60/40 in the other direction, and now we’re probably something like 90/10. I think we only sell five hamburgers on a Saturday night. That’s fine, that’s great. But we would also like to try to get back to that approachable kind of vibe.”
Plenty of details are already falling into place. A four-deck, made-in-Sweden pizza oven has recently arrived, stored alongside a stack of rough-hewn planks destined to be turned into tables (as they did with Travail, Brown and his buddies are tackling much of the construction tasks themselves).
As for the menu, “it’s going to be very heavy charcuterie-driven,” said Brown. That means roughly 60 percent will be reserved for an ever-changing (this is improvisation-loving Travail, after all) array of pork-driven items. “Who knows?” said Brown. “One week we’ll have a pork shoulder-kidney terrine wrapped with pickled pork tongue, the next it could be head cheese, or pork liverwurst. I do know that we’ll be doing all kinds of smoking, and lots of quick-ferment sausages, so we’ll be making our own bacon, and our own ham, you name it.”
In other words, the sky, apparently, is going to be the limit. “You can put in things that I haven’t even said, and I’ll agree to it,” said Brown with a laugh. On the pizza side, expect eight or 10 constantly evolving varieties (pan skillet brioche deep-dish, anyone?), most based on the Neapolitan model.
“We’ll have simple pizzas, sure, but we also want to step outside the boundaries in some ways. We’re going to try and keep it fresh, otherwise you start to lose your mind, making the same pizzas all day, every day.”
That means moving beyond merely juggling toppings and into the realm of experimenting with pizza-making processes. “We’ve been writing recipes for the past three months, and believe me, everyone here is sick of pizza for the staff meal,” Brown said with a laugh.
At the moment, they’re tinkering with timing, all in the service of a crunchy crust. For example, when is the optimal time to apply the sauce? Instead of following the traditional formula of spooning sauce on the top of dough and baking it, why not wait to do so when it comes out of the oven?
“Think about it like this,” said Brown. “We’d start with other ingredients, things like truffle oil, porcini powder, salt or Parmesan. We would bake it and add the sauce halfway through, or after we pull it out of the oven. We’re thinking of calling it ‘post-saucing.’ The idea is trying to figure out what makes a pizza taste best.”
Travail vets Travis Stanfield (pictured, above) and Matt Brown (another Brown sibling; this hyper-talented talent breeding ground is something of a family affair) will be running the show at Pig.
Brown is promising that April’s month-long makeover should deliver an entirely different look to the current Travail storefront. The restaurant’s popular up-close-and-personal kitchen counter will vaporize, but the restaurant’s interactive vibe isn’t going anywhere. The goal is to give more diners the ability to remain within close visual contact with the cooking staff.
“You’ll be able to see us cooking, and plating, right there,” Brown said.
Most tables will be of the communal variety, and if there’s a dining-out crew that can make standoffish Minnesotans embrace the shared dining experience, it is surely Team Travail. “It’s going to be community dining, but hey, it’s pizza, you’re supposed to be sitting next to people when you’re eating pizza,” said Brown.
Down the street, the new Travail promises a similarly front-and-center kitchen, placing the restaurant’s highly collaborative cooking crew squarely in the spotlight. “What we’re doing is taking what Travail is now and moving into a much better space,” said Brown.
One sore spot that Brown admits that he and his partners can’t do much about is the near-omnipresent wait for a table – in fact, the new quarters are going to accentuate that issue, since the Travail reboot will have slightly fewer seats than its predecessor. But one goal is to make the wait far more pleasant.
That’s where the Rookery comes in. In Travail’s promote-from-within environment, two other kitchen talents – Kale Thome and Adrian De los Rios – will be in charge.
“And I’m super-envious of them, because this is something that I would love to do,” said Brown.
Picture a $2 to $6 small-plates menu, brimming with only-at-Travail ideas. Two that Brown mentioned: A couple of bent forks coming out of a gnarled cedar wood block, each speared with chorizo, duck bacon, salsa verde and micro cilantro, served with a scrupulously garnished duck egg that’s still cooking, sunny side up, when it arrives tableside. Or crispy chicken skin, the plate embellished with a gravy or two, “because isn’t the skin the best part of KFC?” asked Brown.
The Rookery will also feature a Travail first: Cocktails. “Right now we’re torn as to whether or not we want to hire a bartender, or whether we want to start as chefs, from ground zero, and build our own cocktail program,” said Brown.
Time will tell. “I honestly think we’ll end up pulling in a bartender for the first six months, to help us get this up and off the ground,” he said. “What I’d really want is one of those Marvel Bar guys. They are just so top-notch, so focused. We want to hire someone we can really learn from.”
As for that memorable Pig Ate My Pizza name, it originated with longtime Travail-er David Brown (“One of the hearts and souls of this place,” is how Mike Brown, David’s older brother, describes him) during a brainstorming session.
“We basically took two ideas and slammed them together – a charcuterie-driven place, and a pizza place, but then the problem became, what are we going to call it?” said Brown.
Certain words were placed on immediate ban: No pizzeria, no pie and absolutely, positively no and, “Because after ‘Butcher & the Boar’ and ‘Girl & the Goat’ [“Top Chef” winner Stephanie Izard’s wildly popular Chicago restaurant], we just couldn’t,” said Brown. “But then my little brother goes, ‘It sounds like this pig idea ate the pizza idea, so what about something like, ‘Pig Ate My Pizza’? and we’re all like, ‘That’s it!”
(One final naming note: While Pig Ate My Pizza may be a slightly unorthodox title, it’s got more of a lilt than A Pig in a Fur Coat, the opened-last-year, otherwise worth-the-drive restaurant in Madison, Wis., the work of Minneapolis-trained chef Daniel Bonanno).
Just to reiterate: Your last chance to immerse yourself in the culinary funhouse that is Travail – at least until this fall – will be on April 6 (or, cruelly, March 31, if those cabinetmakers come through). And remember, be prepared to wait. My advice: Arrive early – expect to encounter a line well before the doors open at 5 p.m. – or well past the usual Minnesota dinner hour.