For the past 15 years or so, Erick Harcey’s livelihood has hinged on his ability to make food people want to eat.

He has taken his career to new levels in recent years, and Harcey is now owner and acclaimed chef of three popular spots in Minneapolis — the Dirty Bird, Upton 43 and Victory 44. Operating the successful businesses (Upton 43, which pays homage to his Swedish heritage, was last year’s Star Tribune “Restaurant of the Year”) requires of Harcey something he readily admits doesn’t come naturally: being an extrovert.

For some people, that could be a problem. But for Harcey, 35, it isn’t. The reason? The time he spends in a tree with a bow and arrow, sitting quietly and watching nature unfold. Or the time he spends on a lake, fishing rod in hand, experiencing the beauty of the sun lighting up the eastern sky.

“The restaurants are always high-energy places,” Harcey said. “I’m actually a fairly introverted person, but you have to be extroverted in the restaurants. When you’re doing that and it’s not in your true nature ... when you’re out on the lake and it’s quiet and it’s just you and the fish, that pulls you back to your center pretty quickly.”

Harcey grew up in Cambridge, Minn., and still lives there with his wife and four children (all boys, ages 11, 10, 8 and 7), dealing with a long commute to work in exchange for living on a few acres of land where “every morning, I’ve got pheasants and wild turkeys out there,” Harcey said. “I’d rather make the commute to work because when I’m off, it feels like I’m on vacation. It keeps me closer to hunting and fishing, and that’s just the way I like to live.”

During a recent conversation, Harcey talked about the influence of the outdoors on his life and career and offered his thoughts on the connection between cooking, hunting and fishing. Here are edited excerpts:

On why fishing is his thing

I don’t fish every morning, but I get out every week, for sure, and usually two or three times a week. It’s always relaxing just being out there. There’s nothing stressful about it. It’s quiet and calm, and then it’s just a rush when you have a big bass or walleye on the line. I also love sturgeon fishing. When your arms are burning up from reeling them in, there’s nothing more exciting. It’s also fun to think about what lures you’re going to throw to try to catch them. Will the bass hit one jig, or should I switch it out? There’s always fish in the lake, but it’s how you find them and what makes them hit that keeps things interesting. Crappies are my favorite fish to eat. I always make sure I have crappies in the freezer.

On spending time outside with his children

They’re avid fishermen, and I’ll probably start hunting with the oldest one this year. They shoot bows pretty consistently, but fishing really is their jam. They love getting out on the lake. It’s been more exciting as they’ve gotten older and they can rig their own poles and they have their own tackle. It’s kind of like being out with four buddies at that point catching fish.

On being an outdoorsman, but having little in the way of wild game on his menus

True wild game tastes much different from what we are able to get to serve legally in a restaurant. I couldn’t just go out and kill a deer and serve it. Essentially what we would get is farm-raised venison. To me, that’s not as delicious and I don’t get as excited about it. Even with fish like walleyes, it’s just not the same as when you get them fresh. At the same time, a lot of the techniques we use as outdoorsmen, like pickling and smoking, I use in the restaurants. Just being out in nature can influence a lot of ideas. If you’re out hunting and you see a deer eating wild berries or junipers, then it makes sense to me that meat would taste good cooked with them.

On the virtues of eating animals or fish he’s taken

It’s great because you know where your food is coming from. It’s really no different from having a garden in your backyard. You’re going to have to put your work in, but you know the meat has been out there (in the wild) and that it hasn’t been processed. I think there’s something pretty ethical about that. Hunting just to hunt isn’t that exciting to me. But hunting to fill the freezer with good quality meat is pretty awesome. I don’t think it gets healthier than knowing the roots of your food source.

 

Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. Reach him at writerjoealbert@gmail.com.