Photographs by Caitlin Abrams
Three chefs in the Surly kitchen, Jorge Guzman (center)
Jorge Guzman is huddled with a couple of chefs just inside the front door of Surly’s Brewer’s Table hashing over menu details the day after Food & Wine named it one of the 10 Best New Restaurants in the country. It’s still a few hours before the havoc of the night’s service and his uniform, a thick brown apron over a crisp white cook’s shirt, is tidy in a way that belies the ragged beard of a man who works in a brewery. In fact, Brewer’s Table as a whole is pretty slick in a way that belies that it’s in a brewery. Over a pre-shift beer, the Mexican-born, St. Louis–raised chef who cut his teeth at Redstone before rising to prominence at now-closed Solera, talks about handling acclaim, if it’s possible for the North to be authentically good at Southern cooking, and if he’s ever going to open his own place.
Brewer’s Table was just named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Restaurants. That’s, uh, not nothing, is it? It was pretty cool. Totally out of the blue too. I mean, you’re never working for that but it’s always in the back of your mind. Any chef is lying to you if he tells you he doesn’t like the accolades, but we’re having fun, we’re cooking the way we want, and people seem to like it, so that’s pretty rad.
Kitchens aren’t always super fun places to work, and yet a lot of very talented young people are starting down that road. What draws people to your world? Right now there’s a lot of young kids who have this romantic idea of what being a chef is. You know, they aspire to where I’m at right now—Food & Wine, James Beard nominations—but it took me 20 years to get here. Literally, 20 years I’ve been doing this. I think if you have a good base and you’re grounded as an individual and you understand that it’s going to take some time and you have to put your effort in and your work in, then I don’t think it matters where you start. One of the questions I ask when I interview is what are your one-year, five-year, and 10-year goals, and inevitably somewhere in there it’s always, “Open my own restaurant.” It’s an aspiration, and that’s a good thing to have. I never tell them don’t do it. If that’s your aspiration, work toward that but don’t think that it’s just going to happen [just] because you work in this place or you think you’re good enough. The good ones understand that it’s going to take longer. And you have to be talented. I hire chefs that are better at something than I am so that I can get better and learn. It makes me more successful.
You played college football at Drake University (middle linebacker no less). How does that not make you the most competitive chef in town? Yeah, man. I used to be 250 pounds. I played sports my entire life. Since I was a kid. Soccer, football, baseball, track and field—all of it. Having that in my background has helped me create great teams because I’ve had a lot of great coaches. . . . When chef Paul Berglund won the [James] Beard earlier this year, I was so excited for him that I literally ran over to Bachelor Farmer the day he got back to town, dropped a case of beer off, gave him a huge hug, and was like, “Way to go, man!” I mean that’s huge. What a great thing for him. But, you can’t cook for a Beard Award, you’ve gotta cook for other reasons. You’ve got to find your purpose.
Minnesotans seem to get barbecue confused with barbecue sauce. What’s barbecue, really, and who says just because we’re in the North, we can’t be good at it? Barbecue is just a term for cooking with fire and wood and coal. Everyone’s got some method for cooking something with wood and coals. It’s still a niche here but we get some of the best pork in the country, we get some of the best beef in the country, and our wood is just as good as anybody else’s. It just comes down to the individual to know how to barbecue. There are a few people in town who know how to do it really well, but that doesn’t mean we’re a barbecue state. That’s the hiccup. But there’s an authenticity when someone’s cooking something they grew up with. Like Thomas Boemer from Revival and his barbecue and fried chicken. He comes from [Lexington, North Carolina] and has a different understanding of that food. It’s like, I have a deeper connection with it than you do because I grew up with it. It’s in my blood.
You’ve had so much success, all of it working for other people. When is it time for your own thing? I don’t know, man. If somebody wants to give me the money to open a restaurant, let’s talk. But seriously, I’m having fun here.