If anyone wanted to know why Jack Riebel was one of the most celebrated chefs in the Twin Cities, all you had to do was ask him. A legendary storyteller, he captivated listeners with tales of every notable chef and kitchen in the Twin Cities — and his involvement with all of them.
Riebel, 55, died early Monday, Dec. 6, after a 2 1/2-year struggle with a rare form of neuroendocrine cancer. The acclaimed chef of the Dakota, Butcher & the Boar and the Lexington, among others, mentored many of today's chefs along the way.
"We never had kids, but he had hundreds of kids at his restaurants," his wife, Kathryne Cramer, said in a statement. "He was an innate teacher. He was always teaching. He made everybody feel special. That was his gift."
"He taught a lot of people a lot of things, and to me, that's the definition of legacy," said Mike Brown, chef/owner of Travail Kitchen & Amusements in Robbinsdale. "I feel like he taught us another lesson towards the end, which was that even if you get dealt a ... hand like this, you can handle it with pride and strength and fortitude, the same way he handled pretty much everything he tackled in his life."
Raised in St. Paul, Riebel left high school at 15, took his first kitchen job as a breakfast cook at 16 and eventually graduated from what is now St. Paul College with a culinary arts degree in 1986. Drawn to the hard work of the kitchen, but also the braggadocious glamour of holding down a busy line on a hectic Saturday night, Riebel's resume reads like a guide to Twin Cities fine dining.
His first major kitchen was at Goodfellow's, the downtown Minneapolis Art Deco dining room that's now Fhima's. During his tenure, he cooked for a cadre of dignitaries and celebrities, including Julia Child, Mikhail Gorbachev and Billy Joel. He was the executive sous chef there until 2002, when he headed to Stillwater to take over the kitchen at La Belle Vie while its owners, Tim McKee and Josh Thoma, opened Solera in downtown Minneapolis.
Three years later he moved to the Dakota, elevating its cuisine and making the jazz club a critical darling. A huge jazz fan, the confluence of music and food suited him; he often kept late-night hours, mingling with the artists and personalities who performed.
Next came the smoke-fueled and bourbon-spiked Butcher & the Boar, which Riebel opened in downtown Minneapolis in 2012. As the head chef and co-owner, he oversaw a kitchen filled with a new generation of culinary talents, many of whom went on to open their own restaurants. Just a year after opening, Riebel earned a James Beard Award nomination — considered the Oscars of the food world — for Best Chef Midwest.
"Jack was a true culinarian," said Sarah Botcher, Riebel's first pastry chef at Butcher & the Boar who now owns Black Walnut Bakery. "He was so passionate about cooking, but he was even more passionate about feeding people. It was something I think he was born to do.
"He was very complex," Botcher continued. "There's one side of a person in the workplace and another side outside. And I think to really understand who Jack was, was to know both."
In 2014, he sold his ownership stake back to his partners and left Butcher & the Boar behind. The move stunned many restaurant insiders at the time, leaving rumors of bad blood between the partners. Riebel was known as much for his temper as he was for his fierce drive.
"It was fun to work there, and it was crazy," Botcher said. "And at the same time, with all that fun and excitement, there was intensity and a lot of pressure to produce. Jack had extremely high standards and to work with him was not easy. Jack and I butted heads all the time."
When he landed at the Lexington on St. Paul's Grand Avenue, a revitalization project that took several years to finalize, Riebel had come home to what he called "my city." The historic restaurant had seen better days, and Riebel and business partners Josh Thoma and Kevin Fitzgerald had their work cut out for them. The doors finally opened in 2017.
Riebel shared his 2019 cancer diagnosis on social media — the rare form of neuroendocrine cancer has no known cure — and almost immediately local food fans, chefs and restaurateurs started cooking and planning fundraisers, allowing Riebel to step out of the kitchen more often and spend time traveling with friends and Cramer, who he married in 2010. After several rounds of cancer treatment, Riebel shared via social media in July that he had entered hospice.
"He was just a role model. Everything he did, he did to the nth degree," said Sue Zelickson, a longtime local food writer.
That included a longstanding commitment to sharing his knowledge and skills. Riebel recently donated his massive cookbook collection, more than 500 volumes, to his alma mater. Zelickson worked with him on the donation.
"He lived on a second floor of a duplex, and the whole thing was lined up with cookbooks that were signed to him," she said. "And they would all bring back memories that we talked about, how he met these guys and how he worked with these guys. It was national. It was even international. He trained a lot of guys and a had a lot of guys that trained him. He made his mark here and everywhere."
Just weeks ago, St. Paul College's culinary arts instructor Nathan Sartain presented Riebel with the school's first honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree.
"We have a reputation for producing cooks that have love for and desire to do the work. Jack embodies that," Sartain said. "He worked 25 hours a day for 40 years and still had capacity and curiosity to read over 500 books. He means a lot to this program, the institution and its foundation."
It wasn't until late November that Riebel officially stepped away from the kitchen at the Lexington, handing the reins to chef Nick O'Leary. "They're not easy shoes to fill. He's a legend here," said O'Leary. "The industry is not what it was when he was the legend he came to be. I want to let young cooks know what he was like. I want to put up a 10 commandments of Riebelisms." "Riebelisms" are what those who know him call the colloquial sayings the chef was famous for, many of them peppered with colorful language.
Riebel celebrated his birthday Nov. 26, and received hundreds of Facebook messages of good cheer. His final message: "Thank you all for the birthday wishes and blessings. It was a grand day indeed."
His death has left the local culinary community reeling.
"He was so connected to the community of cooks out here that it's a big hit. You feel it," said Travail's Brown.
Said Botcher, "At his core, he was hospitality."
In addition to his wife, Kathryne Cramer, Riebel is survived by his mother, Joan Riebel, brother, Andrew Riebel, and more family members and friends. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Jack Riebel Memorial Scholarship to the Culinary Arts Program at St. Paul College. Services are pending.
Reporters Sharyn Jackson and Rick Nelson contributed to this report.