Vote: Fish Fry Face Off
At the end of 2021, we lost an icon in the food world to cancer. His impact reaches as far backward as it does forward. This is an excerpt of his forthcoming autobiography.
by Sarah Deming
March 6, 2022
Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Chef Jack Riebel at his restuarant The Lexington, circa 2018
To me, the golden era of American dining was the ’90s. Clinton was in charge. The national debt was down. The American celebrity chef was just becoming a thing. Prior to that, French guys basically dominated the scene. Now we were seeing a movement of seasonal, regional chefs like Jeremiah Tower, whose New American Classics was my favorite cookbook.
In downtown Minneapolis, the Dayton family spearheaded a huge development project and opened a new restaurant called Goodfellow’s. Something you realize as you travel through the world of fine dining is that for many of these affluent people, investing in restaurants is a vanity proposition. To them, chefs are like thoroughbred racehorses. People who own racehorses don’t really own them to make money. They own them for prestige.
The thoroughbred for John Dayton was Stephan Pyles of Dallas, who opened Goodfellow’s as executive chef. Stephan was on the cutting edge of a new wave of southwestern cooking influenced by Mexican cuisine and the Indigenous regional cuisines of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. He brought along Tim Anderson from Routh Street Café to be chef de cuisine, and they poached Kevin Cullen from the Mansion on Turtle Creek to be executive sous, because Kevin was originally from the Twin Cities.
I had left the Radisson to follow Mike Ferraro to Nicollet Island Inn. Ferraro bounced to a cushy gig at a country club, but he’d also taken an offer as sous-chef at Goodfellow’s. He basically accepted two jobs simultaneously, and he felt bad leaving Goodfellow’s in the lurch.
“You should take the job,” he said.
“Sous-chef at Goodfellow’s?” I said. “Dude, I’ve only been line cook at a hotel!”
It was daunting. I talked to my mom about it. “Go buy yourself a new outfit,” she told me. “Show up.”
So, I bought new clothes and got all fancied up, trying not to look like such a hood kid. I remember walking into the kitchen and feeling overwhelmed just by the design. It was a million-dollar kitchen, which is a ten-million-dollar kitchen today. Everything was custom stainless, refrigerated drawers and rails, a sink and recessed trash can for each station. I don’t think I’ve seen a kitchen like it today outside of Eleven Madison Park.
I go in the office and here comes Tim Anderson. He’s got on blue jeans, cowboy boots, a chef coat, and a Goodfellow’s baseball cap: the antithesis of the French guys I had been working for. He sits down, puts his feet on the desk, and throws a menu at me. “We do everything from scratch here,” he drawled. “You know how to cook this stuff?
“Sure,” I said, totally bullshitting.
“Great. We’re going to hire you as the lead line cook.”
I started the next day, in way over my head. Kevin Cullen was the Goodfellow’s sous, but he also ran the sauté station, and I never saw him miss a service, six days a week for five years. The guy was a monster line cook. He was the best kitchen leader I have ever seen, but the first day I walked in, Kevin just looked at me and said, “You’re the new guy?”
He wouldn’t even say my name. He handed me a pan with 30 pounds of brook trout that I had to butterfly, pin bone, and filet. It took me five hours. He was pissed. “You’re too fucking slow,” he said. “Clean up that shit and go home.”
Whenever I would burn the croutons, Kevin put them on a string and made me wear it around my neck. That’s how I was treated for the first three months I worked there, every day being scrutinized and yelled at for not being good enough, fast enough, clean enough.
Before I went to Goodfellow’s, I had never seen an ancho or chipotle pepper. I’d never smoked a poblano chili. Today I cannot imagine developing flavors without the techniques of wood grilling and smoking. Everything was made to order. And the evolution of those things for me was also taking place in American cuisine.
At that point, all I wanted to do was work in restaurants. I was captivated by this huge renaissance of dining in America, and I just poured everything into cooking because it was an escape. I could create anything I wanted to. I could use food as an instrument to nurture myself back to a healthy mindset. Back in the very beginning of my career, I would smoke weed and work and think that I could fully function, but I stopped all that when I got the job at Goodfellow’s. I thought of it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I knew I had to get my shit together and really function.
At some point, Wayne Kostroski became operations director of Goodfellow’s. Tim Anderson was like the jilted lover. I don’t know what happened. They fired him, and a week later, they promoted Kevin Cullen to chef, and Kevin promoted me to am sous. I had to start writing the menu, which was a big deal for me. I remember the first lunch dish I did that everybody loved. It was a riff on a classic bistro dish of salmon with lentils, but I used red lentils and made a salad with nuoc cham, Thai chilies, Thai basil, and orange segments. I cured the salmon and did a scallion relish on top. That stayed on the lunch menu for years.
I was heavily influenced by Vietnamese and Thai food at that time. My brother Andrew, my buddy Cleve, and I would play pickup basketball and work out in the middle of the day at the Jimmy Lee Rec Center. One of our favorite Vietnamese places—Hoa Bien, which means “beautiful flower”—was across the street. Before we started going there, I’d never had a bún salad bowl; I’d never had all these flavors of fish sauce and lime juice and toasted rice. The woman who ran it was super cute, like 25 years old. She took all the orders and cooked all the food with her mom. We still go there today, and the granddaughter waits on us. It’s morphed into a giant restaurant in a fancy corner building that they own.
My brother Andrew got a job waiting tables at the King and I Thai. He worked there 10 years, finishing up as general manager. Pu Haanpaa was the chef, and she was a consummate sauce maker. Because Andrew worked there, I got to go back in the kitchen and meet everyone, but Pu didn’t want to teach me anything. I had to learn from eating her food.
I would always bring my cooks down there to turn them on to the food, and they were always blown away by it. So I brought them into the kitchen, and I was like, “Pu, this is my crew. They all love your cooking.”
“Of course they do,” she said. “Because your food’s lousy.”
She made different food in the kitchen than they served on the menu. They would make the real raw beef or papaya salad, and they would make it so spicy, because those ladies ate it hot. I would always ask her to put those dishes on the menu. “No,” she would say. “You Americans like it sweet, you like it sour.”
She used to come eat at Goodfellow’s, too.“Your food is too small,” she would say. “I have to go eat Chinese after.” All my favorite Asian haunts are places that Pu taught me about.
John Dayton once said to me that Goodfellow’s was the kind of place celebrities came because we treated them more like regular people. We were never allowed to ask for an autograph or a photo. When we cooked for Julia Child, who was working for Land O’Lakes at the time, we set up a table in the bake shop so she could have private space, but she got up after dessert and told all the executives, “It’s now my time to go to the kitchen and be with the cooks.”
She came in by herself—she was probably in her 70s—literally walked through the kitchen, stuck her fingers in the sauce, talked about how great the meal was. I remember she took a shine to one of the cooks and pinched his ass!
She said to Kevin, “This was a glorious meal, chef. I want to thank you. My only complaint would be: Why do you have flourless chocolate cake on the menu?”
He said, “What you mean?”
“Well,” she said. “I think it’s a wonderful cake. I just don’t know why you call it flourless. If you put flour in it, do you call it flour cake?”
The next day. Kevin changed the menu. It was just called ‘chocolate cake.’ We switched to Land O’Lakes butter after that, too.
This excerpt from a work in progress called The Book of Jack, by Sarah Deming, sarahdeming.nyc, has been edited for length and clarity.
by Sarah Deming
March 6, 2022
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