Landon Schoenefeld at Haute Dish.
Landon Schoenefeld of Haute Dish | Photo by Eliesa Johnson
The worst thing that ever happened in Twin Cities food, at least on my watch, was not La Belle Vie closing or any of the personal bankruptcies, divorces, and literal fires that have afflicted so many of us. The worst thing that ever happened was when chef John Radle killed himself.
I think most of the people who were working in town then agreed—not on our watch, never again. Whenever anyone in Twin Cities food says 'I can't do this, I can't take it, I'm not going to make it,' it is up to the rest of us to say: We've got your back, we will carry you through this rough spot, you can always fight again and have a second act tomorrow—as long as there is a tomorrow. Tomorrow is the most valuable thing you can give yourself.
So when I sat across from Landon Schoenefeld this morning at Nighthawks and he said he's been suicidal and doesn't feel like he can go on, that he's taking an indefinite, possibly permanent break from Nighthawks/Birdie and HauteDish to take care of himself, I told him this was not how I wanted this story to go, but of course the most important thing is that he take care of himself. Then we cried for a while, because it feels like defeat when life gets to be too much, and no Minnesotan or South Dakotan ever wants to admit defeat. Even when we know it's a normal part of life.
Of course, I think Schoenefeld is one of the biggest talents the Twin Cities have ever produced. Both HauteDish and Nighthawks/Birdie were an intellectual revolution in their way, taking the vernacular home cooking of the Northern Plains and elevating it with the finest of fine cooking techniques. Birdie was Schoenefeld's newest and it felt important and like it was turning into something even more important, something personal and more deeply realized. The restaurants will go on, Nighthawks is profitable and will be continued by current sous chef Chris Dorsey. Birdie will continue with it's remarkable crew—Brittany St. Clair, Jessi Peine, and pastry chef Tlanezi Guzman-Teipel—and will likely be led by Erik Anderson until Brut MN gets off the ground next spring. HauteDish is currently in limbo, and is a bit of a mess and contributed to much of the stress here. It's currently in legal negotiations between Schoenefeld and David Walters, the two remaining of the original four owners, and longtime sous chef Remle Colestock has given notice that he's leaving. Schoenefeld told me he had hoped to re-concept HauteDish as a more casual restaurant, (it could sell nothing but Moscow Mules and Flavor Country burgers and be a hit) but whether that will happen remains to be seen. Schoenefeld will retain his ownership in Nighthawks, and so possibly could come back, though right now he's thinking he might restart his life in Portland, Seattle, or somewhere in Colorado. His last night at Nighthawks and Birdie will be New Year's Eve; watch for tickets for Birdie. Then, a break.
This is not defeat. This is what bravery looks like. I maintain that the bravest, most courageous thing you can do when depression rears its head is seek help, take care of yourself, change the system. Depression is endemic, rife, routine in restaurants. Chefs around the country are just starting to talk about it. It's nothing to be ashamed of. Daniel Patterson at Coi, one of the best restaurants in the country, recently published an essay detailing his own battle with suicidal depression—he guesses 95% of restaurant people are depressed. Kat Kinsman, who runs the terrific Chefs With Issues blog focusing on mental health issues in food, says mental health is the number one problem facing our industry. I thought the recent GQ story about how Sean Brock is working himself to death was problematic, to say the least. We don't need more stories of chefs falling on their swords, when the end is literally death. I don't want more Bernard Loiseaus, committing suicide over a Michelin star, we need more Eric Riperts. I can't link to the story I want to show you because it's coming out in a future issue of Delta Sky, and it's about how Ripert, one of the world's greatest chefs, took Le Bernardin to new heights by finding space for spiritual practice and time off.
When I talked to Schoenefeld he was trembling, and worn out. He blamed himself for not paying himself, for always putting himself last, for not building space in his restaurants for himself to recharge. I told him this putting yourself last is a tendency that affects most, if not all of us, around here. That he's 35, and he's still young to learn that lesson. I told him we've got his back, and we're grateful for all the soup and the burgers, the pancakes and the crazy-ambitious tater tots, and that we'll always be here for him, and he's too valuable to lose.
As I write this, it's two days before Thanksgiving. It's raining and snowing at the same time in Minneapolis, and the sun sets at 4 o'clock in the afternoon and spends all day pretty low and cold. I have a wish for all of us in Minnesota food this Thanksgiving, that we talk about how the bravest thing any of us can do is admit it when we need help, and give our love to those who need it. Take care of yourself, chef. We have your back.