It’s been about two years since I signed on with the Salt Cellar on Cathedral Hill in Saint Paul — my first gig as executive chef. It feels like a lot longer; I guess time has a way of slipping past you.
This restaurant was my firstborn (the first place I ever opened as head chef), and yet it was never really entirely my own. I punished myself getting it off the ground. My life, health, and relationships all suffered. Mentally and physically, I put everything I had into it.
The original concept of the restaurant (retro steakhouse) was a little awkward, a little stilted — particularly the table-side service, which many restaurant critics immediately decried as old-hat.
Honestly, the concept wasn’t my cup of tea, either. I tried to tweak it. Little by little, I dialed back some of the older-fashioned things and tried to replace or revise them with my more progressive style of cooking.
Still, in the end, it always kind of felt like a strange bastard child, and it attracted an odd blend of clientele — some of whom got what I was doing, and some of whom didn’t. But like a parent, I was attached, and all I could do was love it for what it was.
On the one hand, we would have people come in expecting a traditional, old-style steakhouse, asking if they could get their tenderloin “more well done.”
On the other side of the spectrum were enthusiastic, adventuresome patrons who would make journeys from far and wide just to come and see me, expecting a menu filled with interesting local oddities. Trying to make both types of people happy was a fool’s errand.
Still, I tried to make the place my own. I tried to new breathe life into it and make it interesting. I’ve learned there’s only so much you can do with a dream and vision that are someone else’s, though, and the old adage about trying to be everything to everyone is really true.
Over the last few months, I’d been trying to transform the restaurant from the inside out, striving to subtly re-brand it, doing away with the limiting steak-and-seafood concept, and gradually evolving toward a casual, neighborhood bistro more in line with my own culinary values.
Week by week, a lot of the typical, big-ticket items — including conventional à la carte steaks (like tenderloin) — were to be phased out, replaced by composed dishes featuring interesting cuts, like bavette or shoulder steaks. We started offering a weekly, prix fixe tasting menu designed around local ingredients of the moment. Table-side service was soon to be mercifully retired, too.
It could have worked. Time was my enemy, though, and before I knew it, the distressing news came: We were told the restaurant was shutting down to be remodeled and re-concepted into something along the lines of a gastro-pub or sports bar-a concept that holds no interest for me.
There isn’t a much worse feeling than telling your staff they’ll all be laid off in two days. Closing a restaurant is now something I’ve done twice (the previous one being Il Vesco Vino back in 2009), and for a chef, the days before a closing are, for lack of any better words, fucking horrible.
Morale is low, to say the least, and yet, you have to pull everyone together to perform for a little while longer — even though you all know you’re looking into the eyes of the beast.
It’s a bit like having a sick animal that you know is on its last legs, but that you care for deeply. In the end, love can be taking it out back, pulling back the hammer and putting it down.
Despite the tears and painful goodbyes, a part of me feels that the universe was probably being merciful. As hard as it was to see perfectly good inventory being hemorrhaged out into the trash, or to see regular customers walk up to locked doors, I find I’m now breathing a sigh of relief.
How long might I have stayed there otherwise, trying to bring this bastard child up as my own? How much energy would I have spent? How much of my creative instinct might have gone dormant?
If nothing else, I’m both stubborn and dedicated, and I know I would n0t have given up easily. Two more years under the banner of “steak and seafood” might have hurt my career more than it helped, even if things had turned around.
In the end, I’m glad it’s over, and I’m even more glad I saw it through. Mostly, I’m proud of the team I taught, and of the food we made.
Even when we were under pressure to keep costs down, I went to the farmers market myself every Saturday morning so that we could still serve our clients great local produce. Even when times were tough, we served some of the best food in the Twin Cities, and we refused to compromise our ethics. No one can ever take that away from us.
To my team who sacrificed, and who put up with so much friction, sacrifice and difficulty to keep working with me: Thank you. You mean the world to me, and I won’t forget it.