The best chef in the Midwest
Minneapolis is home to another James Beard Award-winning chef.
Paul Berglund of the Bachelor Farmer in the North Loop was named Best Chef Midwest by the James Beard Foundation in May. Known as the Oscars of the food world, the prestigious award hasn’t been given to a Minnesota chef in five years.
Berglund, who’s been at the helm of Eric and Andrew Dayton’s restaurant for the past five years, was one of two finalists from Minnesota, joining Lenny Russo of St. Paul’s Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market. Previous Best Chef Midwest winners include Tim McKee of the former La Belle Vie in Loring Park (2009), Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma in Marcy-Holmes (2010) and Isaac Becker of downtown’s 112 Eatery (2011).
We caught up with the chef and Bryn Mawr resident during a recent interview at the Bachelor Farmer.
You’ve been nominated for this award twice, in 2014 and 2015. How does it feel winning?
BERGLUND: Two years ago I was not as appreciative. I still felt like I had a little more something to prove. We were just three years old. I didn’t just appreciate it for what it was. And last year was a lot of fun. It’s been fun every year, but this year I’m just grateful to get in the semi-finalist category, grateful to be a nominee and really grateful to be awarded. Tuesday [after winning] was the same as Sunday [before winning] was in the kitchen. We’re always trying to be as good as we can as a restaurant and as a team. And that hasn’t changed at all. I think what this represents more than anything is not a mandate to do whatever we want here, but just a recognition from our peers that we’ve done something that’s worthy of acknowledgement.
Does it feel like there’s a Minneapolis presence on the national food scene?
I think so. I think we have good, solid representation. Andrew Zimmern was there, and he’s always a great supporter of what we do and the Minnesota food scene as a whole. Diane Yang [of Spoon & Stable] was there representing Minneapolis. Jamie [Malone] and Erik [Anderson of Brut] too. I think the more time goes by there is a greater focus on Minnesota as a food hub. That was, I think, pretty clear when Food & Wine [Magazine] named Minneapolis the next big food town [in 2012]. That really, I think, put a point on what we’re doing here as a community.
The Dayton brothers’ businesses, Bachelor Farmer included, have been promoting the North as a new identity for our region and culture. How does that fit into your work and promoting food locally?
That’s a critically important part of what we do as a business. We partner with local growers and farmers, and in doing so we help bring awareness to the importance of eating locally. So the food, by and large, that we use comes from a close proximity to our restaurant. It’s identifiably from our region, from Minnesota, from the North, and you can taste that in our food. That’s a large part in how we fit in as a restaurant into this idea of a northern regional identity.
How has that evolved at the Bachelor Farmer?
There are Nordic touchpoints on our menu and we certainly started out with a Nordic affiliation, but as time passed, we were finding in the kitchen more and more inspiration from our region. And at a certain point we felt like the Nordic connection wasn’t as strong as when we started. So we’ve since, sort of naturally and organically, started thinking of ourselves in other terms, kind of like how we fit into the northern regional identity. In our region there isn’t as deep culinary roots as there are in other regions of the country. So I think that’s one exciting element to what’s happening here in Minnesota and our region. There are people rolling the dice a little bit and seeing what shakes out.
Before coming to Minnesota you were in the kitchen at Oliveto Restaurant & Café in Oakland, Calif. What was your approach to learning to use local food?
That’s the only way I know how to cook professionally. It really is. At Oliveto we had similar principles. I grew up in the kitchen essentially only knowing how to do it this way. And frankly it’s the only way that I ever will do it. On kind of a more global note, I feel like we’re at a crossroads as a society and we can either take care of our environment or choose to look away, and I think creating sustainability through agriculture is one of the ways that we can care for our environment. That’s what working with these responsible, smart, hardworking farmers is about for me. It’s about enabling the people that are taking care of our earth to do what they do, and then hopefully we can spread the word about them.
Are there places that you want to take the restaurant?
One thing I’m really enjoying right now is rekindling my love of pasta because that’s what I learned how to cook and that’s what I was around in my entire career in California. That’s not Nordic, so we’re doing that here and I’m finding that incredibly rewarding. It fits in our menu really well. We’ll keep connecting and exploring how vegetables play into our cuisine. I think serving great local vegetables and highlighting them is a responsible thing to do. And so I get really excited when asparagus comes in. Right now I’m sticking pretty close to what I know in the world of pasta, but to the point, we’re serving fettuccine with ramps (wild leeks) and ramps don’t grow in California, so that’s something that I’m adapting to our region.
Photo: Chef Paul Berglund. Photo Melissa Hesse