The Walker Art Center has replaced California-based Wolfgang Puck, which has operated the Walker's food service program since 2005, with D’Amico & Partners. The handover will occur by mid-April after a facelift to the physical space. What was one of the most underappreciated eateries in the Twin Cities (20.21, a Cal-Asian fine dining experience) will become Gather, a restaurant offering globally inspired American food. Once again the WAC will return to a lunch-only food service model, excepting Thursday evenings because the WAC stays open late that night. Evenings at Gather will be reserved for private parties and events. Longtime D’Amico chefs Josh Brown and Mike Sneen will run things at the Walker, and there will be a monthly guest chef program that will have local chefs develop small plates for service in the restaurant for a month at a time. D'Amico will also run the grab-and-go Garden Cafe and the summer-only Garden Grill across from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
I am happy and sad—and in full disclosure, I was part of the search team that first brought Puck here six years ago and was also in on the process this go-round. I am sad because I think a Puck presence in the Twin Cities was a great addition to our cities dining life, and I think Scott Irestone and Asher Miller after him created superb food for our community. Ultimately, the WAC wanted to make a change, 20.21 never really found a regular audience, the restaurant’s location seemed to be a mystery to most Twin Citians, and on many weeknights it was a depressing walk from the garage to the eatery, with lots of closed doors and empty spaces—beautiful, but empty. As WAC honcho Olga Viso told me a few months ago and rang loud and clear in the press materials this week, it was necessary to mimic the food service with the restaurant’s hours. Selfishly I will miss the tuna cones, the green beans, the roast duck, and about a dozen other awesome dishes I regularly dined on over the years. On the flip side I am thrilled for the Fratelli D’Amico. They are the league leaders on the food service front in this town and are the perfect hometown choice for WAC. I can’t wait to see what they do with Gather. I hope they aim big, and I am praying for a local version of a cross between Blue Hill in NYC and Lucques in LA. The biggest head scratcher for me is what will happen to the long abandoned space that was the Gallery 8 Café. I would have thought that would have made a great alternative lunch environment for the D’Amicos to do a second concept in, perhaps a lunch-only version of Masa? Or an experimental food space of some type? Who knows, but my fingers are crossed.
The James Beard Foundation semifinalists for 2011 in the chef/restaurant categories have been announced. Check out the list, and tell me who you would vote for. Is your favorite chef off the list? More on the overall national vibe next week, but locally here is how it breaks down:
There are 10 regions in the USA for Best Chef and in the Midwest region the semifinalists are Isaac Becker (4-time), Lenny Russo (2-time), Doug Flicker, Russ Klein, and Erik Anderson. There is a lot of water to cross to get to the podium, but remember that a local chef has won this award for the last two years (Tim Mckee in ’09 and Alex Roberts last year). Speaking of McKee, La Belle Vie is up for the national awards for Best Restaurant and Outstanding Service (very deserving on both counts). Michelle Gayer is again in the running for Pastry Chef of the Year, Sameh Wadi is up for Rising Star Chef award, and the D’Amico brothers are up for Outstanding Restaurateur. Flicker’s Piccolo is also up for Best New Restaurant . . . congrats to all.
Now, just to be clear, being a semifinalist means you go through the torturous process of waiting to see if you survive the next round of whittling and are at last designated a “nominee.” If you are, then you get to sit in the audience on May 9 in NYC and wait for your name to be called . . . or not. It’s a stressful deal. I think it is one of the best nights of the year for anyone who loves the food biz and the JBF does an amazing job producing this insanely fun weekend. Winning an award was one of the greatest nights of my professional life, and I wish the same for all the current semifinalists. I feel really strongly about our local crop of all stars . . . see you in NYC!
Kitchen in the Market @ Midtown Global Market opens this week. According to its peeps, “It’s a shared kitchen concept for pros, but also private cooking classes (team building, girls night), private events, tasty and smart chef-prepared dinners to take home, and chef-inspired supplies.” Friday, February 25, at 6 p.m. is your opportunity to check it out at the opening event. Click and "like" if you want to get on the guest list.
And lastly, my buddy Ben Ford’s restaurant in Culver City is five years old. He’s one of the good guys. Check it out here. Go eat some pig and celebrate.