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Chef documentary includes Steve Vranian of Gianni's in Wayzata

Planning on seeing “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent," the critically acclaimed biopic about the influential California chef Jeremiah Tower? 

You should. It was produced by Zero Point Zero, the production company behind “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” and “The Mind of a Chef," and, if nothing else, it's worth seeing to catch the appearance of Gianni’s Steakhouse chef Steve Vranian.

Tower (pictured, above, from the film) is Vranian's mentor and friend. They met through mutual pals and Tower -- who by then had made a name for himself at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. -- hired Vranian as a cook (“We didn’t have titles then,” he said) when Tower launched the Santa Fe Bar and Grill in Berkeley in the fall of 1981. 

Tower (and Vranian) opened Stars in San Francisco in 1984 (on July 4, naturally), and it revolutionized the dining scene, quickly becoming the country's most talked-about dining establishment. 

“Back then, to have a great meal, you had to sit through course after course after course,” said Vranian. “At Stars and Santa Fe Bar and Grill, one could have a burger or hot dog, or oysters, or a thousand-dollar bottle of wine.” 

It was Tower’s approach to ingredients that changed American cooking, said Vranian.

“He committed to the best possible ingredients, and it didn’t matter where they came from,” he said. “It just happened that the best ingredients were found in the Bay Area, due to the climate, the culture, or the leftover hippy [expletive deleted]. The best was local, and directly from farms and ranchers, who would show up at the door and trade for dinner."

With those ingredients, Vranian said that Tower's cooking philosophy was KISS, or "Keep it Simple, Stupid." 

“Three to four preps on a plate, and everything was prepped for that day," he said. "The menus at Stars changed daily.”

The menu wasn't the Tower's only revolutionary act.

“He integrated the dining room into the kitchen,” said Vranian. “Stars was an open kitchen, and not just physically. The chef was in the dining room with the guests, entertaining the guests, approachable. He taught us research and reference. Old recipes and cookbooks. It was like a history lesson but with food, drink, culture and even above the food part: the proper napkin – 100 percent cotton -- the weight of the silverware, the feel of the wine glass, the artwork on the wall, the chairs, the sound of the dining room to judge how the night was going.” 

With the exception of a two-year break to cook in Chicago, Vranian remained with Tower until 1996 (Stars closed in 1999). Vranian's three interviews for the movie were done over a two-year period, first at San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe, and then in Chicago.

“ZPZ also used many of my photos of the period – I fancied myself as a photographer then -- along with other memorabilia that I’d collected and kept,” he said.

Discussing the movie was bringing back a flood of memories for Vranian, and for those who can't make a screening of "Magnificent," he recommended reading Tower’s autobiography, “California Dish” (where Vranian is described as “thin, wiry, and pale-skinned to the point you could see the blue veins pumping with energy”), or “Inside the California Food Revolution” by Joyce Goldstein.

He and his wife, Jule Vranian -- they met when Tower hired her at the Santa Fe Bar and Grill; today, she and Hope Klocker now run Sweet Jules Gifts in Minnetonka -- attended the documentary's premiere at last year's Tribeca Film Festival.

"We got to play movie star and meet all the behind-the-scenes people," he said. "Jule supplied Zero Point Zero with caramels during the production/editing."

Star Tribune movie critic Colin Covert gave the movie three (out of four) stars. This was his analysis: 

If this celebratory documentary is correct, Jeremiah Tower was the love child of Thomas Edison and Julia Child, the gourmet inventor who revolutionized American dining, saving us from wedge salads and overcooked T-bones. The acclaimed chef and restaurateur is on hand to remember it all, with big-time food writers joining in to back him up. As the neglected child of socialite parents, he fell in love with cruise ship menus, designing feasts the way that a kid interested in architecture would design imaginary towns. Tower made his dreams come true after stumbling into a kitchen job at a little hideaway in Berkeley, Calif., called Chez Panisse, creating gustatory galas, festivals and special-occasion meals with magical skill. His creativity caught on with copycats across the nation, but Tower always stayed several steps ahead of the crowd, pushing American cuisine to new heights.

Director Lydia Tenaglia has a challenging task, balancing the rise-and-fall business saga of Tower’s career with a warts-and-all portrait of a singular, sometimes difficult man. A child actor portraying his Lord Fauntleroy years sends the film tumbling at the starter’s block, but as he moves into adulthood and commentaries from awe-struck observers, balance is restored. The film shows him as a largely lonely man today but one with memories that money couldn’t buy. You don’t need to love chefs, or even fine food, to be impressed.

“Magnificent” is playing at the Landmark Edina 4 Cinema through Thursday. 

New chef, new menus, new focus at the North Loop's Hewing Hotel

Tullibee, the restaurant inside the recently opened Hewing Hotel in the North Loop, made an abrupt switch at the top of its food chain last month, when opening chef Grae Nonas was replaced by Bradley Day, a veteran of a dozen high-end New York City restaurants.

Day is no stranger to hotel operations, having cooked in them in Florida, Miami and New York City. “Even when I was working with Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] in London, the restaurant was in a hotel,” he said. “I’ve kind of grown up in hotels.”

After many years in Manhattan, why did this native Australian decided to relocate to Minneapolis? One reason is the proximity to Des Moines, his wife’s hometown. And the couple wanted to raise their young son and daughter in the Midwest. There were also professional considerations.

“I also wanted the opportunity to be a part of a community,” he said. “And not just part of the New York City machine.”

Over the past few weeks, Day has been slowly but surely implementing changes at the Hewing, which opened last November. His first dinner menu appeared about a week ago, and breakfast revisions debuted last Friday. One notable alteration is that Day’s menus offer diners more options than their predecessors.

“Moving forward, we want to increase the restaurant’s approachability,” he said. “We want to have people from the area dining with us two or three times a week.”

As for the restaurant’s Nordic focus, it has been de-emphasized, while its seasonal, farm-to-table mindset is being accentuated.

“We’ll be using the same techniques and methods – a wood-fired grill, hearty vegetable dishes, shareable fish and meat dishes, with the main focus being on local ingredients,” he said. “But I wouldn’t call it ‘Nordic’ any more.”

Still, he’s retaining a few Nordic benchmarks. Lefse, for instance, which he's pairing with chicken livers and pearl onions.

“It’s very Minnesota, isn’t it?” he said.

He’s also retained the hotel’s on-the-premises program of butchering whole animals and operating a dry-aging process.

“That’s worked out really well,” said Day (pictured, above, in a provided photo). “We’re able to use lots of cuts that most restaurants don’t use, and our banquets program can use the remnants.”

New dishes include lamb tartare with pickled radishes ($14), a smoked smelt Caesar salad ($10) and a platter of Minnesota cheeses and house-cured and smoked ham ($16). Entrees include pan-roasted halibut with peas and a ramp pesto ($29), pork with smoked apples and watercress ($26), a 65-day dry-aged beef steak ($42) and the top-seller, a deceptively simple roast salmon that’s served with a cauliflower puree and baby carrots. Another attention-getter: a whole trout, seasoned with a lemon-dill oil and baked in the kitchen’s wood-burning oven.

“We get the trout in twice a week, from Lake Superior,” he said. “It’s great for larger tables, it’s a very shareable.”  

The $14-and-under breakfast menu includes brisket hash, cured salmon with scrambled eggs and a Benedict prepared with smoked turkey and a bread that calls upon two sides of Day’s background: it’s made with an Australian lager, and baked in a made-in-Minnesota Bundt pan.

A revised lunch menu – one, that Day says, will also emphasize approachability -- should appear in a few weeks.

Yes, it has been a busy first month. So far, Day said that a favorite part of his new job has been getting to know his suppliers, including Maurice Smith of DragSmith Farms in Barron, Wis., and Pat Ebnet of Wild Acres in Pequot Lakes, Minn.

“Pat has been a great resource for me,” said Day. “He’s been coming in every other day, talking about what he has, and how he raises his birds. I’ve never used his products before, and they’re really good.

“For me, it’s going back to why you get into this business in the first place, which is working with fresh ingredients from local farmers, and creating a platform to sell their products, and having the community get to know who they are.”

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