When she purchased Commonplace Cooperative Restaurant in 1978 and christened it Cafe Kardamena, little did Brenda Langton know that she was about to change the course of the Twin Cities dining scene. Well, perhaps she did.
"I was 21," she said. "I was fearless."
Cafe Kardamena led to Cafe Brenda and then to Spoonriver, her stylish and nationally recognized paean to healthy eating that's a favorite with audiences streaming into the neighboring Guthrie Theater.
On the occasion of 40 years of restaurant ownership, this dean of the local dining scene — and tireless ambassador for the whole-foods revolution — looks back on her one-of-a-kind career.
Q: Let's start with the Commonplace. What was it like?
A: It was the first cooperative restaurant in the Twin Cities. The food was delicious and very non-mainstream. Everything was from scratch. It was on W. 7th Street in St. Paul — sort of where Cossetta is now — and then it moved up the hill to where W.A. Frost is now. It was started by a bunch of hippies, guys who wore skirts that they made out of vintage curtains.
Q: Did you think of yourself as a hippie? What did that mean for you?
A: Back then, yeah, I was a hippie. I grew up on W. 7th Street, next door to the Harley-Davidson shop. I was going to the hippie alternative open school.
We were fighting the mainstream establishment. We wanted to be stewards of the land, and go back to nature in terms of food, because we were in the throes of the modernization of food. We were engaged in great community work, and making a difference in people's lives. That's what I love about eating well, because of how good it makes you feel. At 15 I basically became a vegetarian — with a little fish — and it wasn't hard to do because I'd always loved vegetables. I was really learning how to put food together in a balanced way.
Q: You were a restaurateur at age 21. Don't you think that that's amazing?
A: I was 15 when I started there. It wasn't my first job, but I stayed with it until I was 20, when I left and traveled for a year. By that point, the founders had moved to Ladysmith, Wis., to a hippie farm — which I visited many times — so that's when I bought it and changed it to Cafe Kardemena. I hung up the cooperative apron and became the capitalist.
Looking back now, I think that 21 is very young. But I've never minded working hard, and I've always surrounded myself with people who cared as much as I do about the mission of eating well and staying healthy. I'm not challenging myself every day to be the best chef possible. I don't care about that. I don't care about fussy food. I care about really beautiful food, and I love flavors from all over the world. And we dial back the sugar, and the fat. My goal is to have a happy kitchen that cooks food that's delicious and makes you feel good.
Q: It was a seismic moment — for me, anyway — when Brenda Langton not only started serving red meat, but started eating it. How did that come about?
A: Several years ago, I had an operation. I'd read a book by a woman I admire, Annemarie Colbin; she ran the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York. She had similar philosophies on eating, and she said that after she had surgery, she needed protein-rich red meat to heal, because she was wounded, not sick. That just rang so true.
So I called Nan [Bailly, owner of Alexis Bailly Vineyard in Hastings] and Sam [Haislet, Bailly's husband] and I said, "Sam, I need meat." And he said, "I've got venison." And dear, dear Nan and Sam, they got in their car, and they grilled venison for me.
Q: Wait, decades of no red meat, and then venison?
A: And I loved it. I loved it. And I had red wine with it, and I was blown away. I was like, "What have I been missing all these years?" I think red meat is fine for us. It's good for us, in moderation. Now my goal at the restaurant is to serve red meat that's good red meat. It's disappointing that a lot of people simply don't understand the difference between the makeup of grass-fed and corn-fed, and how that affects our bodies and the humanitarian ways that animals are raised.
Q: The salad that I had the other day at Spoonriver was a revelation, because it tasted like August, not February. What's your secret?
A: What people always say about Spoonriver is that the food tastes so fresh. That's because we take the extra steps, like not buying those prewashed bags of baby greens that all taste the same, except for when you get them at the Mill City Farmers Market. We get our lettuce in, and we cut it, and wash it, and spin it and mix it with arugula, spinach and radicchio. It's just fresher that way, and it has crunch and bite. Now that's a salad; that's blissful.
Q: You're a role model for a lot of people. Who are your role models?
A: Early on I went to Greens [the San Francisco vegetarian restaurant] and my mind was blown. Deborah Madison [the cookbook author and original Greens chef] is an unbelievable cook and a beautiful soul. When I saw what they were doing at Greens, my eyes were opened. I was like, this is what a vegetarian restaurant can look like. I came home refreshed, and with a new vision.
Q: What kind of a relationship do you have with the Guthrie Theater?
A: We're great friends. When I saw the Guthrie being built there, hello, I immediately knew that we were going there. I'm a businesswoman, I know I need to have a good location to be successful. We get a lot of 6 o'clocks from the Guthrie. They're wonderful people, and they love our food.
Q: How are changes in the minimum wage affecting your business?
A: It's an interesting time, and we'll have to figure out how to get through it. Everybody wants to see everybody do well. I certainly want people to be paid well, and building in a safety net is important, as long as we have a slower time to get into the wage, so the public can absorb it.
It's worrisome in that the suburbs don't do it. We'll have to charge more here in Minneapolis, and our taxes are already high. We try to pay our staff very well, and my staff stays because we try really hard to make this a good place to work. We're here to work together, learn from each other, and check our egos at the door.
Q: Do you see progress for women in this industry?
A: Look at it in terms of press coverage. I just want women to be included. It's important that women don't get left out. We can't have that anymore. That's not acceptable behavior. Anytime you look at pictures, or listings, there are always fewer women than men. Certain people are paying attention to it, and I'm grateful, but there's a long way to go. That's not just with restaurants, that's across any field, any industry. I don't care if you're talking about doctors or actors. Or sports. Good God, try to find women in sports coverage.
Q: You must get a lot of people asking you for advice about going into the restaurant business. What do you say to them?
A: People have to have experience, and lots of it. And you'd better be young, because you're going to be working hard.
Q: Your work is so closely tied to the regional agricultural scene. What should people know about it?
A: We really need to support our young farmers. I see, firsthand, how hard they work, and we need them. I'm also thrilled that we have the Hmong population. If we didn't have the Hmong population here, we wouldn't have half the farms that we have.
Q: What was the impetus for the Mill City Farmers Market?
A: I saw the market as a great natural extension of who I am, and it meant a lot for me to see it come to fruition. Once again, I've felt very fortunate to be able to reach out to some very good people for help. I'm a founder, but so many people came together and helped me make it happen. And now we have 5,000 people who come on Saturdays, to learn, and see, and buy, and build community. I love being a part of it, and being engaged, and talking with people.
Q: How does it feel that the whole-foods movement — your life's work — has achieved a mainstream position?
A: I'm really pleased, because thankfully now the American Medical Association is really acknowledging that food is medicine. I'm glad that's caught up. I just want people to take action. People used to think, "If I eat this way, what am I giving up?" But I always say, "No, it's exciting, because there are so many foods that you don't even know about that are going to enrich your life, and make you feel good, and are delicious. I've never felt for one second that I've given anything up.
When I see a plate of fried chicken, I couldn't care less. I see all these pictures of burgers and fries — you know, fried this, and fried that — and I just want people to eat that food in very small amounts. Moderation, moderation, moderation. I encourage people to think more about what they eat.
Beet Orange Soup
Note: From the Oct. 23, 1985, restaurant recipe requests column of the Star Tribune. "I would like the recipe for the Beet Orange Soup served at Cafe Kardamena, 384 Selby Av., St. Paul," requested "J.C.B." of Minneapolis.
• 3 medium onions, peeled and chopped
• Sunflower oil
• 2- to 3-in. piece of ginger root, peeled and sliced
• 4 lb. beets, peeled and sliced
• 4 carrots, peeled and sliced
• Vegetable stock or water
• 1/2 c. white miso, optional
• 12 oz. frozen orange juice concentrate, undiluted
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 3 tbsp. Cointreau or Grand Marnier liqueur
• Freshly squeezed lemon juice, optional
• Sour cream and onions or orange slices, for garnish
In a Dutch oven over medium heat, sauté onions in sunflower oil until transparent. Add ginger, beets and carrots and continue to sauté over medium heat for 15 minutes.
Add enough vegetable stock (or water) to cover vegetables. Simmer until vegetables are very tender. Remove from heat. Add miso, orange juice, salt, pepper and liqueur. Taste, and if too sweet, add a drop of lemon juice. Served chilled or hot, garnishing with sour cream and onions, or orange slices.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories155Fat4 gSodium190 mg
Carbohydrates27 gSaturated fat0 gTotal sugars19 mg
Protein3 gCholesterol0 mgDietary fiber4 g
Exchanges per serving: ½ fruit, 1 starch, ½ carb, ½ fat.
Braised Kale With Balsamic Vinegar
Note: "Braising tenderizes greens while retaining all of their valuable vitamins," write Brenda Langton and Margaret Stuart in "The Spoonriver Cookbook" (University of Minnesota Press).
• 1 bunch kale (3/4 lb., about 5 to 6 large leaves)
• 1 tbsp. olive oil
• 1 small onion, halved and sliced thin
• 1 tsp. soy sauce
• 1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
Clean the kale leaves under running water. Remove and discard the stems and any tough ribs. Stack the leaves and cut them into 1-inch strips.
Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until soft. Add the kale and stir, mixing the leaves with the onions and lightly coating the leaves with oil.
Add 1/4 cup of water and cover the pan. Reduce heat and simmer greens for 5 minutes, checking to see if you need to add more water. If the pan is dry, add 2 more tablespoons water. Continue cooking for an additional 5 minutes. Cooking time will depend on how tender the greens were to start with and how soft you prefer them. Taste a piece to determine whether you want the kale to cook longer. If there is still liquid in the pan when the kale is done, remove the cover and cook it off. Add soy sauce and balsamic vinegar, stirring to combine, and serve.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories55Fat4 gSodium90 mg
Carbohydrates5 gSaturated fat1 gTotal sugars2 mg
Protein1 gCholesterol0 mgDietary fiber1 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 vegetable, 1 fat.
Butternut Squash, Cheese and Walnut Croquettes
Note: From "The Cafe Brenda Cookbook" by Brenda Langton and Margaret Stuart.
• 3/4 c. finely chopped walnuts
• 1 medium butternut squash
• 1 bunch green onions, minced
• 1 apple, grated (any cooking apple will do)
• 3/4 c. grated Gouda, baby Swiss or soy mozzarella cheese
• 2 eggs, beaten
• 1 tbsp. freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• Vegetable or olive oil
• Tomato-Basil Sauce (see recipe)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and cool.
Peel squash and cut into large chunks. Steam lightly for 7 minutes, or until squash still has some crispness, but is beginning to soften. Set aside to cool, and then grate 3 cups of the squash.
In a large bowl, mix together walnuts, squash, green onions, apple, cheese, beaten eggs, parsley and salt and pepper. Form mixture into 2-inch patties.
In a large frying pan over medium heat, heat oil. Sauté croquettes until crispy and golden brown. Serve with Tomato-Basil Sauce.
Nutrition information per serving (without sauce):
Calories440Fat32 gSodium510 mg
Carbohydrates30 gSaturated fat7 gTotal sugars10 mg
Protein14 gCholesterol120 mgDietary fiber9 g
Exchanges per serving: ½ fruit, 1 ½ starch, 1 ½ high-fat protein, 3 ½ fat.
Note: From "The Cafe Brenda Cookbook" by Brenda Langton and Margaret Stuart.
• 12 large Roma tomatoes
• 2 tbsp. olive oil
• 6 garlic cloves, minced
• 2 tbsp. freshly chopped basil
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Blanch tomatoes by immersing them in boiling water for 10 seconds. Remove from water, peel, seed and finely chop.
In a large pan over medium heat, warm olive oil. Sauté garlic until fragrant. Add chopped tomatoes, basil and salt and pepper. Simmer for 5 minutes, and serve over croquettes.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories95Fat7 gSodium10 mg
Carbohydrates8 gSaturated fat1 gTotal sugars4 g
Protein2 gCholesterol0 mgDietary fiber1 g
Exchanges per serving: 1 vegetable, 1 ½ fat.
Commonplace Rice and Veggies
Note: From the Restaurant Requests column of the Taste section on May 11, 1977: "While in the city last summer we ate at the Commonplace in St. Paul," wrote Mrs. Donald Coleman. "We tried the rice and veggies. I'm wondering if they would share a family-size version of the recipe."
• Uncooked brown rice
• Vegetables in season: carrots, onions, celery, peppers, cauliflower, peppers, scallions, parsley, red cabbage
• Vegetable oil
Wash rice 3 times. Boil rice in 2 parts water until water is gone. Don't stir rice — this prevents sticking.
Slice vegetables fine. Sauté vegetables in hot oil. Sauté vegetables that grow underground such as carrots and onions first, then add aboveground and leaf vegetables. Any seasonings desired should be sautéed with the vegetables — except salt, which should be added last, if at all.
Serve 1 cup cooked rice to 1 cup sautéed vegetables.