Photo by Caitlin Abrams
The local locavore, Lucia Watson.
Thirty years is a long time for anyone to do anything, but when Lucia Watson announced she had sold her Uptown restaurant, Lucia’s, a few weeks shy of the 30th anniversary of its opening, the Twin Cities food community reacted with a sort of numb disbelief: Lucia not at Lucia’s? Was that possible? Indeed it was, she confirmed. She had turned over the keys and the recipes to new owners, new owners led by Jason Jenny, the CEO of Stella’s, the fish house and drinks palace around the corner from her restaurant.
She was leaving because she was still young enough to have a next act, she said. She was leaving to write her cookbook, and to find out who she was after 30 years of Lucia’s, she said. She was leaving because her legacy was in good hands, and she wanted her restaurant to go on without her more than she wanted it to go on with her. She explained that while she herself was leaving, her staff was staying. That includes Ryan Lund, chef de cuisine of eight years, Heather Asbury, general manager of eight years, Victoria Norvell, sommelier and wine list designer of 20 years, and Annamarie Rigelman, pastry chef of 23 years.
“It’s not as easy as people think, to just sell a restaurant,” Lucia says. “Particularly a place like mine. Your wish is that your employees are taken care of, your customers are taken care of, and what you’ve built is taken care of—I didn’t want anyone coming in, calling it Lucia’s, and making junk.”
Of course, Lucia Watson’s name in this town is the opposite of junk; it’s something much like the foodie equivalent of virtue, written in the minds of most Twin Cities food folk in a few strokes: Lucia’s is the founding restaurant that articulated the local locavore movement, Lucia’s is a place where the food is clean and light and sensuous. Lucia’s is one of the best wine bars, and Lucia’s is one of the best bakeries. Lucia, the shorthand goes, is the local Alice Waters. Yet, behind the work, does anyone really know Lucia Watson herself? Who is this transformational figure in the center of this key kitchen the last 30 years? An exit interview might be a funny time to ask who someone is, but then it also might be the first time Lucia feels comfortable using her media time for anything other than her lifelong priorities of ecology and community. I met her for brunch at Steven Brown’s Tilia (Brown was once one of Lucia’s cooks) to ask who exactly she was, after all these years of cooking for us.
Turns out, Lucia is about as Minnesotan as you get. She is the rare third-generation Minneapolitan. Her parents were from Kenwood, as were her parents’ parents. They have photos in family albums of the transformation of Lake of the Isles, from swamps to mansions. She grew up there, on Oliver Avenue in Kenwood, baking cookies in her grandmother’s kitchen, which was off Franklin and Irving, and going with her to Becky’s Cafeteria (where Auriga and Rye Deli later lived) to eat turkey sandwiches among the Bibles and red velvet, and to have malteds at the soda counter at Burch Pharmacy (now home to Burch Steak). She attended Kenwood, the same public grammar school that still thrives near the northwest corner of Lake of the Isles, and spent her afternoons sledding in the park across the street.
Her parents both went to West High School, but met on Rainy Lake, up on the Minnesota-Canada border, where their families both had cabins. They fell in love up there among the pines and were married soon after her dad graduated from the University of Minnesota. From there, he fought in the Pacific during World War II. Then, in possibly the most Minnesotan biography I have ever heard, he started working as a meat cutter for the iconic local supermarket chain Red Owl, and eventually worked his way up to president of the company.
The family, as children of grocers tend to, ate well. Especially in the summertime. That’s when mom, grandma, the dog, and the kids—Lucia has two older brothers—packed into the big, old family station wagon and make the long drive north to Rainy Lake. Sometimes the kids had a few friends with them to stay for a month or the whole summer. Once they got to the Canadian border, cleared customs, and drove to the town of Fort Frances, they stocked up on flour, sugar, bacon, and other basics. Then they drove to a boat that took them 30 miles to the island where the family cabin was. That’s where they stayed for the rest of the season.
It was a rustic, old-fashioned setup. One cabin was for eating and cooking, with a big wood stove in it, with sleeping cabins nearby. The kids spent the summer swimming, fishing (Lucia is a sure and enthusiastic catcher of northerns, walleyes, and smallmouth bass), gathering blueberries, pumping water with a hand pump, filling the woodbox, making soup and bread, and cooking blueberry pancakes and biscuits on the wood stove.
“It taught me about food,” she remembers now. “To be up there where every cup of flour was precious, where you’re on an island with whatever you can catch or whatever you brought in, and you can cook it all so well. We’d have 20 kids sometimes all seated at the big table, with all the cousins and friends. You’d be so hungry because you were out playing all day, and they were just the best meals.”
Lucia Watson has pretty hazel, gold-green eyes and blonde hair, and you can still see in her the brave, proud little girl she once was, hauling in a big northern to feed the crowd. “We hated going home,” she recalls. “The only entertainment was the radio. Whenever you’d hear the ads for the back to school sales, you’d groan, ‘Oh no.’”
But the Cities did have something the cabin didn’t—her mother’s first edition of the book that made Julia Child’s career, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Lucia remembers getting her hands on it when she was in eighth grade. She spent the entire school year trying to master the baguette, trundling back and forth to the Red Owl on Hennepin with bags of flour. More or less, that was that. From that hinge in time, the restaurant that would change Minneapolis was outlined by the joy and purity of big meals at Rainy Lake and the skills of French cooking brought in to make it happen.
After grade school, Lucia, like her father, went to the University of Minnesota; she majored in French. Her first cooking job in Minneapolis was at the 510, the restaurant that stood where La Belle Vie is now. There she cooked for chef Klaus Mitterhauser, an Austrian steeped in the brigade kitchen traditions of Europe. Several years later, Lucia and a friend founded a catering company based in the kitchens of the Minnesota Center for the Arts. After a few years of that, Lucia tired of catering, and decided she would rather people came to her, so she signed a lease on an old hardware store in Uptown. (That’s the center of the three spaces Lucia’s now inhabits.)
She soon took off for France to eat and dream, then returned and threw a party for her catering clients in the restaurant to show them what she’d learned. She opened the doors to her new restaurant with 36 seats and 12 menu cards that she wrote by hand every day.
The rest is, quite literally, history. She was nominated three times for the James Beard Award for best chef in the Midwest (those were the days when the Beard Awards combined Minneapolis and Chicago in the same market and Chicago always won). More recognition followed: repeated recommendations in Gourmet magazine, the cover of Fine Cooking, profiled in More magazine, too many local awards—including from this magazine—to count, and a published cookbook with Judith Jones, Julia Child’s cookbook editor. Lucia Watson is Minneapolis’s living connection to Julia Child.
Of course, harder to pinpoint in history is the way that Lucia is credited with founding the local locavore movement, and all but single-handedly saving local gem Hope Creamery (“I really just found them because I was greedy for the best butter,” she says now). Her locavore credentials didn’t come about until after she had been running her own restaurant for a while, she says.
She recalls that it began one summer day when the cook who was doing her purchasing reported that they could buy organic lettuce from California for a good deal less than it would cost to buy organic lettuce from a nearby farm. She called up her farmer, from Red Cardinal Farm, who explained that California growers were selling below their cost of production. “That’s what they do in the summer, to try to drive us out of business,” the farmer told her.
That conversation prompted Lucia to begin her own research, which led to her role in articulating locavore principles for our region. “At first, when I was getting local ingredients, it was really just because I was greedy as a chef for the best, the freshest, the best,” she says. “But it was that conversation [about lettuce] that put me on the path to realize how many deeper meanings food has—about ecology, accessibility, community, and the economy. I soon made a commitment to local, even if it was more expensive.” Because what she served on her plates was proof that local is indeed better, a lot of other chefs and writers followed. That’s the very definition of a leader. People noticed—around the world.
In 2009, the nation of France knighted her for her contribution to agriculture, naming her a chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole, the food and farming version of their famous military award, the Légion d’Honneur. Not many American cooks have received that award, but one does spring to mind: Julia Child. They shared an editor, a love of French cooking, and they were both made French knights. But only Lucia Watson can be found routinely walking her black lab mix rescue around the very chain of lakes she has been living on, and cooking on, for all of her 60 years before she handed off Lucia’s, the restaurant.
Needless to say, the orderly handoff of a beloved and important restaurant is the best thing that could have happened for the city and everyone involved. However, if the sale hadn’t gone through, Lucia did have a plan B. It was radical. She dreamed of—for her last act—taking the restaurant to its Rainy Lake cabin roots. She’d throw everything electric in a dumpster—all of it: the lights, the point-of-sale systems, the credit card machines, the works. She’d take it all back to nothing but food and fire. Just Lucia herself, making the most of every cup of flour, with Rainy Lake in her blood, and fire beneath her long-cooking hands.