The chef and restaurant announcements for the almost open Hewing Hotel in the North Loop came out this week, and the plan is a “Woods and Lakes” themed restaurant helmed by Grae Nonas, one of the Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs from 2015, the same year that Minneapolis’ Jim Christiansen of Heyday was so nominated. Grae Nonas grew up in New Hampshire, and has worked in a great number of very high profile restaurants for very high profile chefs—Mario Batali at Eataly in New York and Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook at Los Angeles’ Animal and Son of a Gun. Nonas was nominated for a James Beard rising star chef award for his work at his Austin restaurant Olamaie, which he just left, and he graciously lent me some time when he was in Minneapolis this week, as he preps for a permanent move up here with his wife and 14 month old daughter in anticipation of a November opening.
DMG: Welcome to Minnesota! We're glad you're here. But of course it brings up the big question: Why Minnesota, for you?
Grae Nonas: I wanted to experience the seasons again. I’m a northeast guy, colder weather, richer food—as well as woods and lakes cuisine—is something I really grew up on. When I think of cooking, a lot of it fits into a terroir that is similar to here. I grew up fishing, hiking, I never understood as a kid that when we were picking chanterelles in the forest, we were kicking around hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of mushrooms. A lot is wanting to come back to that, wanting to start my family and my life with my family, and redefine who I am.
DMG: What is woods and lakes cuisine?
Nonas: It’s influenced by what’s available around us, local fish from lakes and rivers, ingredients which come from the woods, and farmed ingredients that come from here.
DMG: Do you have a favorite freshwater fish from around here? As you know there’s not much of a commercial freshwater fish catch locally, except for farmed rainbow trout and Lake Superior herring.
Nonas; No, no favorites, but I’ve cooked plenty of herring, I am familiar with all types of fish – there’s not much fish that I don’t like. Sturgeon, I’m excited to see some sturgeon. [Though, there is no local sturgeon currently available.] I could lightly smoke and cure some sturgeon, and lightly roast it over an open fire. I’m excited to get the Tullibee or Cisco [alternate names for lake herring], I got some local trout the other day, and I’m excited to work with that, and allowing myself to taste and develop other local products as well as experimenting with different forms of those fish, and fermenting them as well.
DMG: Anything you can share from an early menu? I’d love to give people a sense of what Tullibee will be like.
Nonas: Most of the cooking will be done with a wood-fired hearth and a wood burning oven, as well as a conventional kitchen. We might slowly cook a duck breast on the bone above the fire, and serve it with a rich and viscous broth, made from the carcasses, with some duck sausage, or duck meatball with garlic oil and black vinegar. Something showcasing the fire and the flavor of the duck, with a lot of depth of flavor. We’re going to have some small format and larger format meat, grass fed beef, and we’re trying to work on an aging program right now, for bison, venison, and moose—if I can get moose. [Probably not, moose is not farmed and is currently being considered for endangered species status.] In New Hampshire we had moose growing up. We will showcase seasonal game, though I’m not sure how we’re going to go about doing that, sometimes it might be a sausage or terrine, or serving just a piece of back-strap butter-roasted and simply done, or smoked. I have a thousand and one ideas and a thousand and one options, as the menu progresses the menu will change not necessarily every day, but certain things will come and go based off availability. We’ll try to make all breads in house, naturally leavened and baked in the wood burning ovens, like classic Scandinavian rye bread, roti-style breads, flatbreads, and crackers.
DMG: Are there any particular appetizers or entrees you could talk about?
Nonas: I would say that, as far as the menu is concerned, I don’t have any dishes yet. The idea is maybe to come in and look at it as a different experience, look at it as a little adventure to experience something conventionally and unconventionally. There will be things that people can gravitate towards, and things that are more eye-opening, as far as the way that I cook, which can be very, very aggressive in seasoning or acidity or flavor. An example could be something like a pickled fish, if you’re familiar with brined herring or pickled herring. Maybe instead of simple pickling you’re kissing the skin with coal and caramelizing a bit in the coals, serving with a pumpkin seed oil and toasted pumpkin seeds, raw onion—that would be an iteration of pickled herring.
If you looked at the spectrum of American restaurants or Nordic restaurants, every one is specific to themselves. I think of a good restaurant as being true to themselves and the way that they cook. In many ways I’m kind of out there in my approach and my delivery, utilizing flavor profiles, and showcasing profiles in a very interesting way, one dish can be highly composed, another dish can be very, very minimal, and still hit you and punch you with flavor. As to what it’s going to be, I’m going to develop our version of this type of cuisine, mirroring what’s available and showcasing it in our interpretation. We want to be part of this community and excel at everything we do, over time we’re going to define what our food is and what our cuisine is. This is a base standpoint of where we stand, as a fundamental and responsible approach to cooking.
DMG: So sometime between now and late fall we’ll start heading towards what we’re talking about?
Nonas: Correct! It’s so early on, and I don’t want to say anything if it’s not going to happen, so I’m in many ways completely ecstatic and super-stoked, and feel really really creative and inspired to be here – and as a chef that is everything it needs to be to do something special. That comes from the bottom of my heart. We’re going to cook, I’m going to be who I am, and I’m going to allow what’s available here help me and inspire me to create more and more, and to open my horizons. That’s all we can do as chefs, to be open minded and to be inviting and welcoming whether it’s in our home, our restaurants, or culinarily onto a plate. I’m going to allow myself to immerse into everything, and come at it with nothing but an open mind.
DMG: Great, safe travels, and congrats on the new spot! We all look forward to trying it out.