Isaac Becker returns to the James Beard Foundation Awards next month in New York City as a three-time nominee for Best Chef: Midwest.
Becker, a Minneapolis native and Southwest High School graduate, and his spouse (and front-of-the-house expert) Nancy St. Pierre have the enviable track record of opening instantly popular restaurants: 112 Eatery in 2005, and Bar La Grassa in 2009; both were the Star Tribune’s Restaurant of the Year.
I spoke with Becker last week on what happened to be his 41st birthday. He and St. Pierre had celebrated the night before with dinner at Restaurant Alma, owned by fellow JBA nominee -- and former colleague -- Alex Roberts.
Star Tribune: How did you find out that you’d been nominated?
Isaac Becker: That first year I was at the Mall of America with Nancy, and Tim McKee [chef/co-owner of La Belle Vie] called. I was barely aware of the day that the news was coming out. The second year was different. I was very aware, so we were having lunch at Origami and I was looking at my phone. This year, I was at my youngest son’s gymnastics class, and Danny, the sous chef at La Grassa, texted me. I’m not familiar with tweeting, but they were watching the Beard’s announcements on Twitter, and he let me know.
Wait, the Beard Foundation doesn’t call, or send an email?
No, I don’t think so. Or if they do call, they called the restaurant, and I missed the call. They didn't call on my personal phone.
How does it feel, your third nomination? That's pretty huge. It's not called the 'Oscars of the food world' for nothing.
It’s great, and the funny thing about the whole thing for me is, I never, ever would have considered even thinking about being nominated for a James Beard award, until I was. And now every year it’s stressful, because I’ll die if I don’t get nominated [laughs]. I really don’t care about winning, but if I don’t get nominated, then I’ll wonder, Why not this year? It has added a level of stress for me each spring, because I know it’s coming around.
So is it more of a relief to know that you’ve been nominated?
Totally, a relief. And last year I thought, if I get nominated a second time, That’s fine, that’s all I need, I’ll be good for life. But that’s not really true. If you don’t get nominated after being nominated, you can’t help but think, Why? You know, What did I do wrong?
What’s it like to go to the awards?
It’s fun, and I enjoy the show for the most part, although it gets kind of long [laughs]. But there are great moments, like when Grant Achatz [chef-owner of Alinea in Chicago, and the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef in 2008] came out and gave that speech about how working for Thomas Keller gave him a work ethic that helped him get through cancer. I thought that was incredible. It’s also a great excuse for Nancy and me to go to New York. I’m not one to be chasing after winning, I’m just happy to be there.
Then it’s true when they say that it’s a thrill to be nominated?
Absolutely. I’m delighted to be nominated, to be included in that whole thing.
What are you planning to wear to the awards?
A black suit, and a black tie. One of my two suits [laughs].
How do you feel about awards, in general? Pro? Con? Indifferent?
I don’t know. In a way, all awards distract a bit from the work, and from the business. Of course it’s really nice to be recognized, to receive recognition, but the flip side is, if you don’t get recognized, well, then it’s kind of terrible. I mean, this is not why I got into this business, not at all. Especially when we opened the 112, I thought, I just want to be my own boss, cook my own food, pay my mortgage. It has been wildly successful, and that has been great. So it’s great when you get things, and it’s a bummer when you don’t. If awards didn’t exist, then that pain wouldn’t exist, either.
The thing is, when you own a restaurant, you’re in a constant state of being criticized. No one goes to an accountant’s office and takes pictures of their inbox and then posts them on a blog. But I have people constantly coming into the restaurant and taking pictures of the food, writing about the experience and putting it all on the Internet, for all the world to see. You’re very exposed. That’s also very distracting for me. But yes, I love being nominated, and whenever we do get an accolade I love it. I like my parents to see it, it’s great.
Is owning two restaurants twice as hard as owning one, or are there some personal economies of scale?
You know, it’s about the same. What’s hard is worrying about one being neglected over the other. My goal was to stop cooking on the line when I was 40, and I did. These last 10 years I’ve worked really hard, and I wanted to get to the point where I wasn’t making the bacon-harissa sandwich over and over again.
You’ll never be able to take that thing off the menu, ever.
No, and we sell a million of them.
You’re going to be able to send your kids to college on that sandwich alone. Do your two children spend much time in the restaurants?
No, not really. I was just talking to Klaus about when he wanted to get a job, but he’s too young.
What was your first restaurant job?
It was at Annie’s Parlour, which was located in what’s now Chino Latino. I made malts for a couple of months one summer, and I hated it. I swore I would never work in a restaurant again. Then I got a job at a deli that Parasole owned, it was in the middle of Southdale. I lied to get the job. My friend was a server there, and they said, ‘Tell them you worked at this Applebee’s that closed,’ or something like that. And so I did, and I got the job. It was good training in terms of thinking about organizing and multitasking, and I worked there for a year. Then I worked at Reindeer Bar & Grill, it’s now Tosca. Then I worked at Lowry’s for five years.
Is that where you met Alex Roberts?
Yeah. It’s funny, I think I was 22, he was 19, and I thought he was such a kid, he seemed so much younger than me. Now we’re the same age.
What’s new and delicious at the 112 and La Grassa?
I’ve got these stuffed chicken wings at 112 that I just put on, I really like them. And then at La Grassa we have a Caprese salad that’s made with burrata and peeled cherry tomatoes.
What a happy chore that must be, depriving tiny tomatoes of their skins.
That’s a great luxury about having a big, busy restaurant: You can say to people, ‘Here’s a gallon of cherry tomatoes, get peeling’ [laughs]. When you have a busy restaurant you really have a lot of freedom to do things because you have the staff to do it.