For me, the golden age of American cooking was the 90s. Clinton was in charge. The national debt was falling. The famous American chef was just becoming a thing. Before that, French guys basically dominated the scene. We were now seeing a movement of seasonal regional chefs like Jeremiah Tower, whose New American Classics was my favorite cookbook.
In downtown Minneapolis, the Dayton family launched a massive development project and opened a new restaurant called Goodfellow’s. Something you realize as you travel the world of fine dining is that for many of these affluent people, investing in restaurants is a vain 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.
John Dayton’s thoroughbred was Stephan Pyles of Dallas, who opened Goodfellow’s as executive chef. Stephan was at the forefront of a new wave of Southwestern cuisine influenced by Mexican cuisine and the indigenous regional cuisines of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. He brought in Tim Anderson from the Routh Street Café to be head chef, and they poached Kevin Cullen from the Mansion on Turtle Creek to be assistant manager, because Kevin was from the Twin Cities.
I had left the Radisson to follow Mike Ferraro to the Nicollet Island Inn. Ferraro bounced off a cushy gig at a country club, but he had also accepted an offer as sous chef at Goodfellow. He basically took on two jobs simultaneously, and he felt bad about letting Goodfellow down.
“You should take the job,” he said.
“Second chef at Goodfellow’s?” ” I said. “Dude, I was only a chain cook in a hotel!”
It was intimidating. I spoke to my mother about it. “Go buy yourself a new outfit,” she told me. “To arrive.”
So, I bought some new clothes and got all fancy, trying not to look like a kid from the hood. I remember walking into the kitchen and feeling overwhelmed by the design. It was a million dollar kitchen, which today is a ten million dollar kitchen. Everything was made of custom stainless steel, refrigerated drawers and rails, a sink and a built-in trash can for each station. I don’t think I’ve seen a kitchen like this today outside of Eleven Madison Park.
I go to the office and this is Tim Anderson. He’s wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots, a chef’s jacket, and a Goodfellow baseball cap: the antithesis of the French people I’d worked for. He sits down, puts his feet on the desk and throws me a menu. “We’re doing everything from scratch here,” he drawled. “Do you know how to cook this thing?
“Of course,” I said, totally bullshit.
“Great. We’re going to hire you as a chef.
I started the next day way over my head. Kevin Cullen was the Goodfellows’ sub, but he also ran the stir-fry station, and I never saw him miss a shift, six days a week for five years. The guy was a monstrous cook. He was the best chef I’ve ever seen, but the first day I walked in, Kevin just looked at me and said, “Are you the new one?
He wouldn’t even say my name. He handed me a pan with 30 pounds of brook trout which I had to butterfly, pin and fillet. It took me five hours. He was furious. “You’re too fucking slow,” he said. “Clean that shit up and go home.”
Every time I burned the croutons, Kevin put them on a string and had me wear it around my neck. That’s how I was treated for the first three months I worked there, every day scrutinized and yelled at because I wasn’t good enough, fast enough, clean enough.
Before going to Goodfellow, I had never seen ancho or chipotle peppers. I had never smoked a poblano pepper. Today, I can’t imagine developing flavors without wood-fired cooking and smoking techniques. Everything was made to order. And the evolution of those things for me was also happening in American cuisine.
At that time, all I wanted to do was work in restaurants. I was captivated by this huge restaurant renaissance in America, and I put it all in the kitchen because it was an escape. I could create anything I wanted. I could use food as an instrument to nurture myself and regain a healthy state of mind. At the very beginning of my career, I was smoking weed and working and thinking I could fully function, but I stopped all that when I got the job at Goodfellow. I thought of it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I knew I had to pull myself together and really function.
At one point, Wayne Kostroski became director of operations for Goodfellow’s. Tim Anderson was like the abandoned lover. I do not know what happened. They fired him, and a week later they promoted Kevin Cullen to chief, and Kevin promoted me under. I had to start writing the menu, which was very important to me. I remember the first lunch dish I made and everyone loved it. 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 chili peppers, Thai basil and orange segments. I cured the salmon and made a scallion relish on top. This has been on the lunch menu for years.
I was heavily influenced by Vietnamese and Thai cuisine at that time. My brother Andrew, my buddy Cleve and I were playing basketball and practicing mid-day at the Jimmy Lee Rec Center. One of our favorite Vietnamese places – Hoa Bien, which means “beautiful flower” – was across the street. Before I started going there, I had never eaten a bún salad bowl; I had never had all those flavors of fish sauce, lime juice and grilled rice. The woman running it was super cute, like 25. She took all the orders and cooked all the food with her mother. We are going there again today, and the granddaughter is waiting for us. It turned into a giant restaurant in a fancy corner building they own.
My brother Andrew got a waiter job at King and I Thai. He worked there for 10 years, ending as general manager. Pu Haanpaa was the chef and she was an excellent sauce maker. Because Andrew worked there, I had to go back to the kitchen and meet everyone, but Pu didn’t want to teach me anything. I had to learn by eating his food.
I always brought my cooks there to light them up with the food, and they were always blown away. So I brought them into the kitchen and I was like, “Pu, this is my team. They all love your cooking.
“Of course they do,” she said. “Because your food is lousy.”
She prepared different dishes in the kitchen than those served on the menu. They made real raw beef or papaya salad, and they made it so spicy, because these ladies ate it hot. I always asked him to put these dishes on the menu. “No,” she said. “You Americans like it sweet, you like it sour.”
She also used to eat at Goodfellow’s. “Your food is too small,” she would say. “I have to go eat Chinese afterwards.” All my favorite Asian haunts are places Pu taught me.
John Dayton once told me that Goodfellow’s was the kind of place celebrities go to because they’re treated 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 bakery so she could have some private space, but she got up after dessert and said to all executives: “Now is my time to go to the kitchen and be with the cooks.
She walked in on her own – she was probably 70 – walked through the kitchen, dipped her fingers in the sauce, talked about the quality of the meal. I remember she made fun of one of the cooks and pinched his ass!
She told Kevin, “It 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 do you mean?”
“Well,” she said. “I think it’s a wonderful cake. I don’t know why you call it flourless. If you put flour in it, do you call it a flour cake? »
The next day. Kevin changed the menu. It was just called “chocolate cake”. We also switched to Land O’Lakes butter after that.
This excerpt from a work in progress entitled Jack’s bookby Sarah Deming, sarahdeming.nyc, has been edited for length and clarity.