It started with a flurry of text messages, voice mails and e-mails, all with the same theme.
“It was, ‘I have a special friend in from out of town and they need a private chef who can prepare a raw/vegan diet,’ ” said Tracy Singleton, co-owner of the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis.
Turns out, the “friend” was actor Woody Harrelson, here earlier this summer to film “Wilson.” Harrelson’s original private chef didn’t work out, and when scrambling for a last-minute replacement, it seems that everyone in his local circle immediately thought of the Birchwood.
Singleton wasn’t sure. Raw foods are not the Birchwood’s area of expertise, but the genre isn’t a huge stretch, either, given the restaurant’s long-standing commitment to local, seasonal ingredients and its frequent focus on vegetarian and vegan fare.
She brought the proposal to chef Marshall Paulsen. He flipped.
“To me, Woody is that guy from ‘Cheers,’ ” said Singleton. “But to Marshall? He had this look on his face; you should have seen it. I had no idea he was such a Woody fan. He said, ‘I’m not kidding, you have to let me do this.’ ”
And so he did. Paulsen spent more than a month — under the social-media radar — cooking for Harrelson, also catering the actor’s birthday party, feeding the movie’s crew on several occasions and even preparing edible props.
In a recent conversation at the Birchwood’s kitchen garden, Paulsen recalled his touch with fame, and how the experience has affected his work as a chef.
Q: What exactly is a raw foods diet? The Woody Harrelson version, anyway.
A: The way he worded it is “living” foods. He wants to eat things that are alive, not killed by heat. Nothing is cooked above 118 degrees.
Q: So, vegan — vegetarian, nondairy — is just a jumping-off point. What was the first meal you prepared for him?
A: We did a demo first, on a Friday. We brought over four or five dishes, and he loved everything.
Raw foods take a lot of planning. So, Monday rolls around, and I’ve got some stuff planned, but I also have to feed him that morning. My wife makes a really nice zucchini noodles dish. We love it, so I was thinking that he probably would love it, too.
I had just received zucchini from Greg [Reynolds, co-owner of Riverbend Farm in Delano], and we had our first heirloom tomatoes of the season, so I made a really garlicky fresh marinara. I added some fresh vegetables, some herbs from the garden, some flowers. I was super-excited.
Q: Why am I sensing disaster?
A: Well, he just wasn’t that impressed. So I made him a salad instead. Then I talked to my friend Alissa Barthel. She’s really big into raw foods; she makes those amazing Punk Rawk Labs vegan cheeses. And I told her what I’d fed him and that he wasn’t really into it. And she’s like, “Oh my god, that’s the first thing every single non-raw foods chef feeds everyone with a raw foods diet.”
Q: Cliché! So how did you learn? Trial and error?
A: There wasn’t a lot of time for that. Woody’s wife was super-helpful; she sent recipes. His assistant was incredibly helpful, of course. I borrowed a lot of cookbooks from friends.
The very first thing I did was order Charlie Trotter’s raw foods cookbook [“Raw,” cowritten with Roxanne Klein]. I tried to go with the angle that I wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, just do it well and make sure that it tastes good, using high-quality, well-sourced ingredients. Nothing is simple, especially in cooking. There’s always something you can do to put your stamp on it. It turns out that the Birchwood and Woody share a lot of the same core values. Not so much the raw aspect, but about where your food comes from and how it’s prepared.
Q: Did you venture outside your ingredients comfort zone?
A: That was one of the most cool things about doing this, because it forced me to look up how to do things like sprout lentils. And the final product is awesome. It has awesome flavor, and sweet crunch, and it’s really good for you. They’re going on our menu on Thursday, on our turkey sandwich. There’s lots of cool stuff you can do with juices and smoothies, figuring out the combinations of ingredients — like spirulina and carob — and using them in ways that I wasn’t used to using them. Chard stems, for example, they make an awesome juice, especially when they’re mixed with apple.
Q: What kind of feedback did you receive?
A: He was really happy with the staples we made for him, our hot sauces and pestos and nut milks. He really loved the types of greens that we’re able to get from DragSmith Farms and Heartbeet Farm. I was making taco shells out of flax and sunflower seeds and onions. You make a mix, smooth it out on Silpat really thin and then you put it in the dehydrator. You end up with a crunchy taco shell, and they taste great; they’re really awesome.
Q: How did you fill them?
A: Marinated jicama, guacamole, a sunflower seed pâté, greens, veggies, pickled radishes.
Q: Let’s go back to that raw marinara for a second. Can you share a few pointers?
A: It starts with using a good tomato. It’s tomato season, and if you’re not using tomatoes from Minnesota during tomato season, you’re doing something wrong. I’ll be judgey about that one. I just put a lot of raw garlic into it, and a little bit of honey and just started adding herbs. We’ve got lemon balm, lemon verbena, parsley and basil. I just puréed it and let it sit for a while, then put it through a half-cone strainer to get rid of a little of the water, to make it a sauce instead of a watery mess. It was really good.
Q: Will Birchwood Cafe diners taste a difference in the post-Woody Harrelson era?
A: This experience forced me to do things that I’m not used to doing, and whenever you do that, you learn something. I realized how ridiculously easy it is to make a good nut milk if you’re using good nuts and you have the right blender. We’re going to be doing a pine nut-macadamia ricotta for our bean burger.
We’re going to be making a marinated veggie salad using all raw ingredients. Using chia seeds as a thickener is a new thing for me, and we’ll be trying them out in a few vinaigrettes, instead of the usual mustard. I realized that I don’t need to blanch things or roast things; they’re really good without doing that. So we’re able to cut back some prep steps on some of our pestos, and they’re just as good.
Fermenting is actually a pretty fun way to do things. A cook’s brain generally goes to, “How can I heat this up correctly?” And now I’m able to think about other ways to prepare foods. Especially now that we’re coming into scorch season, when it’s super-hot outside and you don’t need to cook the hell out of something in order to enjoy it.
Q: Did you do any cooking for the movie?
A: Woody had a scene in a hospital where he had to eat this really awful fried chicken and these institutional mashed potatoes. He had to do multiple takes, and he had to actually eat it, and the props director asked me if I could make a raw version of it. He showed me a picture of what he wanted — it looked like a frozen TV dinner — and I said, “It’s short notice, but I’ll try.” They wanted it the next day.
I called Alissa. She was so great. She was up all night making the chicken. It was really good. It was a cucumber-red pepper-zucchini patty with a dehydrated macadamia nut crust. I made the mashed potatoes, they were a combination of cauliflower and those really bright white Hakurei turnips. The gravy was raw white miso and a little bit of water.
Q: Were you cooking for others connected with the film?
A: I made some smoothies for Laura Dern. There were a few times when the crew came in to the Birchwood. We’d get a call and they’d say, “We’ve got 35 people coming in for lunch in an hour.” That was cool, and really fun. I don’t think people realize the benefits of having a movie filmed here. All the people on the crew, they’re from here, and everywhere they went, they spent a lot of money. The movie pumped a lot of money into our area, and I think that’s pretty neat.
Q: Is Woody Harrelson’s healthy diet reflected in his looks?
A: He looks great. He’s super-healthy. He’s fit. He runs, he plays tennis, he bikes and, of course, he eats really well. One of the first questions my dad asked was, “How old is Woody?” and I said, “I think he’s 54, or something like that, but to be honest, I really don’t know.” So yeah, he looks awesome. And on top of that, he’s chill; he’s a really good guy. He’s happy.
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