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Marshall Paulsen of the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis.

Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

Birchwood Cafe's Marshall Paulsen puts food in spotlight

  • Article by: RICK NELSON
  • Star Tribune
  • February 21, 2013 - 9:14 AM

By all logic, the kitchen at the Birchwood Cafe should be a disaster zone.

The cramped space, barely larger than a food truck, was designed to support a coffeehouse menu of scones and soups, not a crushing volume of customers and three full-out daily meals. Yet physical limitations don’t seem to get in the way of chef Marshall Paulsen.

“Anyone who sees our kitchen is amazed that we can do the menu that we do,” said owner Tracy Singleton. “I never thought of us as chef-driven, chef-identified, whatever the term is. But that’s one thing that Marshall has brought to us. He has put the food in the spotlight.”

It’s true. Now approaching its 18th year, the Birchwood has never tasted better.

Diners can set their calendars after eating Paulsen’s hyper-seasonal menu. Sweet corn lover? Paulsen inundates his dishes with the stuff in August and September, and then it disappears until the next year. Same with rhubarb, tomatoes, watercress and countless other vegetables and fruits. Right now, his abiding affection for the orange means a blood-orange gastrique here, a tangelo-cranberry jam there and vividly colored Minneola garnishes everywhere — and all fully exploited at their peak.

“And then we spend the rest of the year looking forward to their return,” he said.

Paulsen’s vibrant, accessible cooking redefines what a neighborhood restaurant can be. Picture tender wheatberry waffles, lavishly topped with hazelnut-honey butter, smoky bacon and a meticulously poached egg. Or a delicately flaky savory pie, garnished with a sweet pear chutney and filled with puréed sunchokes and a harmonious medley of diced root vegetables.

Or a juicy and wildly flavorful turkey burger, topped with tangy pickled onions and a generous swipe of lemon- and rosemary-fortified mascarpone and served on a house-baked buttermilk bun. Or a golden-crusted pizza dotted with a colorful, sweet-savory assortment of beets, kale, oranges and punchy sheep’s milk blue cheese. Or a vegetarian’s crunchy-chewy dream sandwich, layering tamari-glazed tofu with pickled radishes, roasted fennel and a sweet potato purée inside a textbook-perfect focaccia. Family-friendly, vegetarian- and vegan-focused and pretense-free. That’s the Birchwood.

Go local or go home

Some chefs make a cursory attempt to source locally and then market the heck out of their minimal effort; you know, the microgreens garnish, the covers-the-basics cheese plate. But for Paulsen, maintaining an intricate supply chain of 40-plus Minnesota and Wisconsin producers is the only way he knows how to do business.

He’s not just an over-the-phone buyer, either. To gain firsthand experience and knowledge, he and his fellow Birchwooders routinely get out of the city. One popular outing is the monthly warm-weather visits to Riverbend Farm in Delano, planting tomatoes, weeding cucumbers and harvesting onions, hundreds of pounds at a time.

“A little bit of my philosophy is that if all my customers visited the farm and learned more about what we do, they would be better customers,” said Riverbend Farm owner Greg Reynolds. “It builds a level of involvement or buy-in that you just can’t get any other way. It’s good for their business, and it’s good for our business.”

Paulsen recently spent some quality time at Callister Farm in West Concord, Minn., the source of the restaurant’s chicken. He caught a chicken, cut its head off, drained its blood, feathered it, gutted it and butchered it.

“You get a sense of how valuable that life is that you just took, and that none of it should go to waste,” he said. “It goes back to knowing where your food comes from, that connection. You should know that it’s an animal, that it was alive, that at one point you took care of it and at another point you cut off its head. It’s life.”

Price points

Locally raised and organic foods can have a reputation — justifiably, in some cases — for being the province of the upper-tax bracket. But not at the Birchwood, where Paulsen works hard to keep most items in the $13-and-below range.

“I’m proud of the fact that I source from a lot of the same people that a lot of really great chefs source from, too, a lot of people that I have a lot of respect for,” said Paulsen. “I’m proud that I’m able to cook those ingredients in a respectful, well-received way, and I’m proud that we’re able to do that for people who want to come in every day instead of having to save up for a month for their big night out.”

Running a very casual, counter-service operation helps keep the budget in line. So does sticking to the more affordable end of the ingredients spectrum.

Eggs, for example. Paulsen is obsessed with them, particularly the pastel, speckled and dotted beauties from finicky heirloom breeds. Talk about fresh: They arrive at the restaurant’s coolers two days after they’re laid.

“It’s a rare thing for restaurants, serving the high volume we do, to put such an emphasis on the age and quality of eggs we serve,” he said. “After you’ve grown an affinity for two-day-old eggs, it’s very easy to recognize older ones, and very difficult to keep eating them.”

He’s not exaggerating when he says that the Birchwood goes through a cavalcade of eggs — a busy weekend brunch can mean 80 to 90 servings of eggs Benedict alone, and that doesn’t take into account the avalanche of scrambles (so creamy and herbaceous), omelets (airy and potently stuffed), quiches (firm and rich) and other egg-centric vehicles. Paulsen’s favorite current assignment is taking an eight-hour shift at the kitchen’s frenetic “Eggman” station, working side-by-side with his kitchen crew, mentoring them and relishing their growth as cooks.

“I’m proud to send cooks from here to other places, knowing I was able to coach them into having cooking skills they can’t get elsewhere,” he said.

Another cost-containment strategy is squeezing the most out of every ingredient. Nothing goes to waste: Scraps from diced turnips make their way into a soup rather than landing in the compost pile, and leftover fresh leeks from one menu will become a pickled leek garnish on the next. Peak-season produce, purchased when prices are at their most economical, is preserved through freezing, canning and pickling, an enormous effort.

“I’m not going to lie, we do run some pretty high food costs sometimes,” said Paulsen. “But that also adds to the challenge, and to the fun, to figure out how to keep things at a lower food cost.”

Further complicating Paulsen’s life is the 15-block commute he constantly makes between the restaurant and a new commissary kitchen. Not that he’s complaining. Leased a year ago, the calm and spacious facility is where the vast majority of the Birchwood’s food preparation takes place, a world apart from the restaurant’s frenetic, every-square-inch-counts kitchen.

Drop in on any given moment and you might witness cooks hand-forming turkey burger patties by the dozens, browning beef bones for broth, baking the dessert case’s tempting array of sweets and assembling the hundreds of pounds of vegan, gluten-free granola sold each week at most Twin Cities natural food co-ops. The additional breathing room has also allowed Paulsen to say yes to more catering gigs. 

Unfortunately, movement is a problem. At least for now. After living with increasingly steady pain for more than a year, Paulsen underwent orthopedic surgery last week to correct a bum hip.

“Instead of ‘Iron Chef,’ we’re now calling him the ‘Titanium Chef,’ ” said Singleton.

Restaurants from the start

Paulsen, age 33, has been working in restaurants for more than half of his life. The St. Paul native’s first job was at age 15 — a busboy at a country club — and he’s never left the business, studying hospitality management at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie.  

After transitioning from server to cook, Paulsen eventually landed at the Creamery, a destination restaurant and hotel outside of Menomonie. It was a fortuitous opportunity. 

“That’s where my real education began,” he said. “It’s where I learned that food could be creative, and that there are limitless boundaries to what you can do with it. It’s where I learned that food is available from your neighbors, because we bought trout and chickens from just down the road. It’s where I got excited about food.”

Fast forward a few years to Paulsen’s right-place/right-time arrival at the Birchwood. It was April 2007, and he responded to an ad for a sous chef. Although less than impressed after an interview with the restaurant’s then-chef, Paulsen agreed to return the following Monday morning to check out the kitchen and, as a kind of audition, prepare a soup.

When he walked through the restaurant’s back door at 6 a.m., he was greeted by a frazzled Singleton. “It was the first time I’d met her, and the first thing she said to me was, ‘Who the hell are you?’ ” he recalls. 

“I wasn’t being very nice,” said Singleton with a laugh. 

He mentioned the job interview and she replied that she had fired the chef the night before. “The first thing he said was, ‘Does that mean the chef’s job is open?’ ” said Singleton. “He ended up staying that day for something like 15 hours, and then he came back the next day for another 15 hours. That was his introduction to the Birchwood.”

The next few months were a grueling blur of back-to-back 12- to 16-hour days. “We finally got to the point where I asked to be the chef,” said Paulsen. “Tracy said yes, and here we are.”

A loving relationship

The stereotypical chef disposition — foul-mouthed, quick-tempered — was Paulsen’s only role model. “That’s all I knew,” he said.

That behavior hit a brick wall at the Birchwood, a holistic enterprise that greets its customers with a Zen meal prayer over the counter. The place exudes happiness and a firm sense of well-being, a lesson not lost on the observant Paulsen.

Learning by example, he altered his eating habits, took up yoga and discovered a more meaningful way to interact with his colleagues and gain their respect. He’s grateful.

“This is a place that not only encourages being a good cook and making good food, but also being a good person, a healthy person, a fully present person,” he said. “Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. I’ve learned how to be in relationships at the Birchwood Cafe.”

Including, naturally, his fiancée, former B’wood server Amanda Layer; where else was Paulsen going to find love but at the Birchwood? Their daughter, Liesl Clementine (remember, he’s nuts about oranges), arrived six months ago.

“She’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever held in my hands,” said Paulsen. “I can’t wait to take her to kill her first chicken, to teach her how to grow a carrot. It’s exciting to have all that stuff on the horizon.”

Paulsen is a tireless traveler — the number of stamps in his passport could rival Hillary Clinton’s — and he subtly channels those experiences into his menu. He and Layer are tentatively planning to marry next February in Vietnam.

Until then, Paulsen and his fellow Birchwood-ers have a busy 2013, with two major projects on the horizon. Singleton is working her way through the intricate process of rehabilitating the restaurant’s cramped quarters — a former neighborhood dairy and grocery — into a facility “that will actually be set up to do the kind of food that we want to do,” she said. If all goes as planned, construction will begin in the fall.

A cookbook of favorite Birchwood recipes is also in the works, a collaboration with writer Beth Dooley and photographer Mette Nielsen, and a new challenge for this hardworking chef.

“Just like any job, there are ups and downs,” Paulsen said. “But I’m excited to come to work. This is my dream job.”

 

Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib

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