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Bright Ideas: Chef Isaac Becker

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Isaac Becker
Twin Cities chef Isaac Becker was a guest on MPR's Bright Ideas program on June 21, 2011.
MPR Photo/Chris Schodt

Stephen Smith welcomes Isaac Becker, co-owner and chef of two Minneapolis restaurants, as part of MPR's Bright Ideas series. 

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Stephen Smith:  This is Bright Ideas, fresh thoughts on big issues, from Minnesota Public Radio News. I'm Stephen Smith. Each month, we invite a guest to the forum here at NPR Headquarters to talk about important issues and ideas, and to take questions from the studio audience. 

Our guest this time is Isaac Becker, chef and co-owner of the popular Minneapolis restaurants Bar La Grassa, and 112 Eatery. He is also the winner of this year's Best Chef in the Midwest Award from the James Beard Foundation, which is like winning the food world's Academy Award.

Becker grew up in south Minneapolis, where he lives with his wife and business partner Nancy St. Pierre, and their two children. We'll be talking with Isaac today about great food, the restaurant business, and working with your spouse. Isaac Becker, welcome to Bright Ideas. [applause]

Smith: So, when did you get into cooking? Was it something that your family did a lot growing up?

Isaac Becker:  Not really. I cooked for myself a lot growing up. I think that helped my work, to get my first cooking job.

Smith:  Because of necessity, or because you were interested?

Becker:  Yes, because of necessity. Both my parents worked, so I fended for myself, which is fine.

Smith: So, you were loose in the kitchen as a young fellow.

Becker:  Yes. I wasn't doing anything...

Smith: You weren't doing flambeau. You weren't setting anything on fire.

Becker: Any cuisine. I was making my own sandwiches and heating up my own soup. [laughter]

Smith: Well, that's how a lot of people get into the business.

Becker: Yes.

Smith:  So, how did you get into the fancier part of cooking, other than heating up your soup?

Becker: Well, I had three restaurant jobs before I started at Lowry's, which was a restaurant on Franklin and Hennepin. And all three of those jobs after I left, I swore I would never work in a kitchen again. But after working in a kitchen for that long, that was kind of the only thing I knew how to do. And I got a job at Lowry's after eating dinner and thinking, "Well, it might be nice to work in a restaurant where the food's good and I could learn something."

Smith: That is an upside.

Becker: I got a job there, and I was hired. He showed some charity and hired me. I didn't have really any good experience.

Smith:  What kind of job? Were you in the kitchen? Were you bussing? What were you doing?

Becker: No, I applied for a line cooking job.

Smith: A line cooking job.

Becker: Yes, I got it. Very low pay, just over a little over minimum wage. But I didn't know how to do anything.

Smith: This was about when? What year would you say this is?

Becker: 1989.

Smith: And when you get hired for a line cooking job, do they put you through a test? Do they throw you in there and make a puree?

Becker:  No, back then they didn't. In Minneapolis back then, there wasn't a ton going on in restaurants. Basil, parmesan and fresh ingredients in general weren't that common. Restaurants like Lucia's, the first Giorgio's, and Lowry's, that were all in the same area were starting to do things with fresh ingredients, and basil. [laughter]

Smith: A revelation.

Becker: Yes. But I started working there, and it took me a long time to get my stride to where I was accepted by the other guys. But that was part of what motivated me, is that I wanted the acceptance. I didn't want to be the slowest, lamest cook in the kitchen, so I worked hard at doing a good job there.

Smith: And from there, you went? At some point, you had a big experience at D'Amico.

Becker: Well, I worked at Lowry's for five years, and I decided that I wasn't really growing there anymore. I went and applied at D'Amico Cucina, which at the time was the premier fine dining restaurant in Minneapolis or Minnesota. My interview with Jay Sparks didn't go very well. He asked me if I liked tomatoes. I said, "Sure." He said, "Do you like anchovies?" I said, "Not really." And he said, "Well, we're not really hiring." [laughter]

Smith: I've heard of a litmus test, but an anchovy test?

Becker: So, I left. And a friend of mine's mom used to own the Five Ten Restaurant, which was a fine dining restaurant back in those days that Jay used to work at. And he said, well, I'll have my mom give Jay a call. And two days later, he hired me. And then I stayed there, I worked for him. Well, I stayed at D'Amico Cucina for three years, but I worked for that company for 10 years.

Smith:  And it's also where you met someone significant.

Becker: At D'Amico Cucina's is where I met my wife, Nancy St. Pierre.

Smith: Who is the co owner of the restaurants with you?

Becker: Yes, my partner.

Smith: She runs the front of the house.

Becker: Correct.

Smith:  OK. We'll have her join the conversation in a little bit. Did you go to culinary school?

Becker: No, I did not.

Smith: Has that been either a blessing, or a curse in any way? Is it significant?

Becker: It's a blessing, because I don't have to pay off a loan. [laughter] A lot of guys I know have these huge school loans they have to pay off. But obviously, I think there's some things that I've missed not going to school. But I didn't realize I was going to stick with this field until it was, didn't really feel like going to school anymore.

Smith: Until it was too late.

Becker: Yes.

Smith: Did you think about doing anything else along the way? I think you were in a band?

Becker:  I was in a band, and actually, for a long time cooking was just to supplement my income until I became a rock star. [laughter]

Smith: That's what I was doing. Radio is until I become a rock star. [laughter]

Becker: Yeah. But I also liked having money, and being able to pay rent. So, I stuck with the job. And I also started, especially when I started working at Cucina under Jay Sparks, I realized that cooking was a creative outlet also.

Smith: Let's talk about the menus at 112 Eatery, and Bar La Grassa. For people who have not been lucky enough to go to either place, can you characterize what it is that you're serving and doing that is distinct, what you're trying to aim for?

Becker: The 112, when we opened it, I just was so happy about having the freedom to do whatever I wanted. And that's what I did. I put whatever I felt would be good on the menu. And I thought it was important to have a wide variety. I don't know if that answers your question.

Smith: But like, what's...?

Becker: What's on the menu? Well, there's salads. There's appetizers. There's pasta. There's chicken.

Smith: OK. So, you and Applebee's are doing the same thing. [laughter]

Becker: A little bit, yes. I put a bacon sandwich on our menu with harissa that for a long time got tons of press. And it was a $7 sandwich that I thought was just a good bacon sandwich.

Smith: It's the bacon sandwich that took off.

Becker: Yes. It's hard for me to describe now what's different about the 112 from anywhere else. I think what's different is our execution. We really focus on being consistent and making it good every time. I think since we've opened, there's a lot of restaurants that are doing unique things or different style of food and maybe executing just as well, also. But I think that that's one of the things that we really focus on, is just making sure it's good.

Smith: And Bar La Grassa?

Becker: Bar La Grassa's easier to describe. I think of it as an Italian pasta bar. It's a huge menu. And one of the things I love about it is, there's three categories. 

There's six categories, but three of the categories, one's a bruschetta category. There's a dozen varieties and they're all very different. Nothing crosses over. And then there's a dry pasta and a fresh pasta. And dry pasta means pasta that comes out of a box. And fresh pasta's the stuff that we roll out there. But I think that each kind of pasta, dry or fresh, have their own merits. And that restaurant could be a way to showcase what goes good with this kind of noodle, what goes good with that kind of noodle. And I think it's different.

Smith: And then the third category is?

Becker:  The third category is catornis, which are side dishes. And there's secondis, which are giant steaks and chicken, which is the main meal.

Smith: The main meal.

Becker: Yes.

Smith: What struck me about the menu there was just that it was an enormous amount of variety, and it seemed like the side dishes were really the main players on the stage, almost.

Becker: At La Grassa?!

Smith: Yes. Boy, did I get that wrong! [laughter]

Becker: It's a giant menu. And I think that's what keeps people coming back, is it's really hard to eat everything that's on that menu and try everything. And everything is very different, and I think we really focus on not having... We don't have a sauce that goes on a chicken that also goes on the noodles. To me that's cheating and there's no point...

Smith: Everything's individual.

Becker:  Yes.

Smith: So how do you come up with ideas for dishes? I think everybody is curious how a chef... Are you fooling around at home? Is it, what is this?

Becker: I read a lot of cookbooks. That's what I spend a lot of my leisure time doing, is just sitting in front of cookbooks, flipping through them. Sometimes, something will go out of season. It's just that we have to get out the menu and come up with something. You've got to cover the chicken, the shrimp. 

There are certain categories you have to have on your menu for people that are less adventurous and just want something that they understand. And they can eat. You take that into account when you're developing a dish.

As far as how I develop a dish, is if I see something in a cookbook or I see an ingredient, I'll just bring it in the restaurant and start working with it.

Smith: What do you mean by, "I'll start working with it"? I think I'd like to understand a little bit about the process.

Becker: Well, I've been really working on this carrot thing for months. And all I'm trying to do is figure out a way to make these shredded carrots taste good. [laughter] And I think I got pretty close last week. I'm going to try it again this week, but I really want to make it work.

Smith: So what are you putting on those carrots?

Becker:  Right now, some salt and some sugar. And then I let them sit so they get soft and cure on that. But then I've got to find all that other stuff that goes with it.

Smith: What other stuff have you been trying? Can you tell us?

Becker: Last week I put clams with it, some chilies, some cilantro, and lemon juice, olive oil. And then I made this romesco sauce to kind of go with it.

Smith: A who?

Becker:  It's a romesco sauce. It's like a chilied bread, nut, almond sauce puree.

Smith:  But it's not there yet.

Becker:  No, it's close, though. I think tomorrow I'm actually working on it again. But the guys at work have been watching me monkey with these carrots for weeks. [laughter]

Smith:  It's like, "Enough with the carrots, already, boss!" And then, do you have other people taste it? Or is it up to you?

Becker: I do, but I feel pretty confident about my palate. I know if I put something in my mouth and it's good, I know it right away. And with the guys that work for me at La Grassa and the 112, when they develop a dish and present it to me, I know immediately if it's good.

Smith:  So, why this carrot thing? Were you just thinking, "What vegetable have I not conquered?" Or was there somebody else's carrot thing that inspired you?

Becker: We have an asparagus dish, a salad, at La Grassa where we take raw asparagus and shave it very thin. And do the same process with salt. And it tenderizes it and mellows the flavor. And it's a great salad. I thought, "Well, I should try it with carrots." So, that's what I'm doing. [laughter]

Smith: It's as simple as that. Where does one get a good palate, a great palate? Is it acquired? Is it learned? Is it innate?

Becker: I think a good palate is based on honesty, especially when it's your own stuff. You're eating something. You spend a lot of time working on it. You spend some money working on it. You put it together. You get it on a plate and it's not really that good. But it's really easy to say, "Oh, it's pretty good," and then sell it anyway. 

And it's really hard to tell yourself to throw it in the garbage, especially if you spent a lot of time on it. Or you just get it wrapped up in your mind. Because sometimes I'll tell myself, "This is going to be so good, I can't believe it!" And then I make it, and it's terrible. And I throw it in the garbage.

But I think that takes a lot to throw your plate of food in the garbage, after you've spent a lot of time and effort on it. And I think it's being honest with yourself and the guys that work for you, because it's not really easy telling one of your chefs, "Oh, thanks, but no thanks." It's hard.

Smith: The other people in your kitchen, the chefs and the cooks, how often are they coming up with stuff and trying to get you to pay attention to it?

Becker: Both the chef, Denny, at 112, and the chef, Eric, at La Grassa, they'll present maybe two or three things to me a month. And it's a great feeling for me when I can tell them, "That's fantastic! Put it on the menu tomorrow." I love being able to tell them that. Because I remember when I was in their spot working for Jay, he told me if I made something and he told me it was good, that was the best recognition I could get.

Smith: So, give me an example of something that's on one of the menus that one of those guys came up with.

Becker: Denny just came up with this roasted tuna that's wrapped in prosciutto, and it's really simple. And the only guidance I gave him, I said, "Just think of summer." I said, put tuna on the menu, and think of summer. And that's all I said. And he came up with this tomato veloute sauce that's cold underneath it, with a bit of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. It's fantastic, and it goes really great with the salty prosciutto on the fish.

And he's got these micro cilantro leaves on top that brighten it up, too. "It's delicious," I thought. And I knew the minute that I took the first bite. I didn't have to try it again, because it was great. You know you're having problems when you keep eating it... [laughter]

Smith: Do you remember there being a breakthrough dish for you in the early days, where you were like...? I don't know, maybe when you were working at D'Amico?

Becker: Yes. I remember when I was working at D'Amico Cucina, we were required to do specials on your station. If you worked pasta, you had to have a risotto special and a pasta special. And I put gnocchi with taleggio and roasted chicken breast on top, which sounds pretty not that interesting now. But it got on the menu, and that was one of my biggest achievements at that time. I was so proud of the fact that I got a dish on the menu of D'Amico Cucina as a line cook. It was a great feeling. And I think that's part of what kept me in this line of work, is those little achievements.

Smith: It's a creative business.

Becker:  Yes.

Smith: Let's talk a bit about the restaurant business. And one of the things I'm curious about is, when you go into a place with your both chef and co owner's eye, what are you looking for that tells you that you're in a place that's being run well, first of all? Or can you tell?

Becker: I really like it when the first person that you see smiles and looks you in the eye and acknowledges that you're there. I think service is very important. I might not notice if they don't, but I notice when they do. I notice service right away. Friendly, welcoming service, I think is the first thing that I look for.

Smith: And when you're looking at a menu, what are you looking for?

Becker: I'm not really looking for anything until I get the food. I don't feel like I could judge a restaurant by the print of the menu. Obvious ones I could, but not any regular restaurant. I would wait 'til I saw what came up.

Smith: I read somewhere that you sometimes feel that places get too wrapped up in a chef's ego, and I wonder what you mean by that?

Becker:  Well, I think that sometimes the chefs are experimenting on the customers. I feel like that they're not cooking for the customers, they're more like cooking for themselves. It's hard to describe. I don't think they really have the joy of the customers in mind. I think they want to prove something. Or show how creative they are, regardless of what the actually experience is going to be in the end.

Smith: How is that demonstrated? How can you tell that that's going on?

Becker:  If it just doesn't taste good. If it has a lot of hip, current ingredients or techniques, or there's a lot of ingredients on the plate and it's stacked up really high and pretty. And then you eat it, and it doesn't taste good. I just think, what's the point? And maybe it's not ego. Maybe it's just not being a good cook, I don't know. [laughter]

Smith: Could be that. Given the success that you're enjoying at the moment, do you have to worry about your own ego?

Becker: No. [laughter]  I've got enough demons, I don't ever get worried about my own ego.

Smith: OK. Well, tell us about what it was like to win the James Beard Award as Best Chef in the Midwest? You have been in the running before, haven't you?

Becker:  Yes, this was our fourth year going out there. It was fantastic. It was...

Smith: You go to New York.

Becker:  Yes, you go out to New York and you dress up. Snd you go to Lincoln Center, and every superstar chef in the country's there. The first two years, it was fun. It was just great to be a nominee. The third year, I wanted to win. But I was happy for Alex, because we're friends....

Smith: Alex?

Becker: Roberts, from Alma and Brassa. I love that guy. And he's been an operator longer than I am. But I still wanted to win. [laughter] And then this year, I really wanted to win it. Part of the reason I wanted to win is, there's no guarantee you're going to get nominated again. You might get nominated four times, and then that could've been it. And just the nomination process is stressful. First you have to get pre nominated. Then you get nominated...

Smith: And do people come, and you know that they're there. And you're cooking for them?

Becker: I never have. No, I don't know.

Smith: So, you didn't know when they were out there...

Becker:  In the dining room?

Smith:  Yes.

Becker:  No, never. You can guess which season it is, but you don't know if they're there or not.

Smith: You're sitting in Lincoln Center, you're all dressed up...

Becker: I thought I might really have a heart attack. I was so sweaty. [laughter] And my heart was pumping so hard, I thought, "I could just die right here." And then they said my name, and it was great. We went up on stage, and it was really fantastic.

I thought I would worry about what my speech would be. I didn't have a prepared speech, because I thought I'd be jinxing myself if I prepared anything. I was worried, "Well, if I do, then, what am I going to say?" But you don't care, because you're so happy. I didn't care that I didn't have much to say.

Smith: Did you give a Sally Field speech, like, "You like me! You really like me"?

Becker:  No, I thanked some people. I thanked my wife, and my parents, and some people that I worked for. Well, Jay, who I worked for and the guys that work with me. It was pretty quick, though. We were on and off pretty fast. But it was really great.

Smith: Let's bring your wife, Nancy St. Pierre, into the conversation. So, what's your role? You run the front of the house. What does that mean, for those of us who don't work in restaurants, or run restaurants?

Nancy St. Pierre:  My job is to make everyone feel comfortable that walks in our door, everyone. We get a wide variety of people. And they all have expectations, especially the more publicity that we get the more people expect certain things of us.

Smith: Like what?

St. Pierre:  They think we'll be fancy. [laughter] And we're not. 112 especially, is more down to earth. I always call it a bistro. He never knows what to call it. I feel like it's a bistro, where you can come in as you are. Who cares if you've been golfing all day, or rode your bike over there, or come from the orchestra. Everybody comes, whatever they have on, and we want them welcome, and know that we really are glad that they're there. That's, to me, the most important things that happens, that we strive for every day.

Smith:  As you've gotten more familiar, popular, famous, has that made your job more difficult in some ways? Are people coming to you with unreasonable expectations? Are you getting celebrities showing up and demanding the best table?

St. Pierre: We had more. I think we found our groove a bit, maybe more. At first, it was like people would walk in. Because we came from fine dining, so people expected us to open a fine dining restaurant. They walked in, and we didn't have tablecloths and we didn't have fancy everything. You could see them at the door go, "Are we in the right place?" Now, people have an idea what we're like, and there's more places like us now. I think that that's easier.

Smith:  Because I'm not precisely familiar with this terminology, you make fine food, but it's not fine dining?

St. Pierre: Right.

Smith: So, define fine dining. Fine dining means, what? Tablecloths, and...?

St. Pierre: Fancy silverware. You describe it well. When you always say, "We do fresh ingredients. We do fine dining food without the fine dining prices."

Becker: Yes. I think fine dining has changed since we opened the 112. When we first opened the 112, in my mind that was fine dining food.

Smith:  And that was what year?

Becker:  '05. And now, fine dining has gotten to another level. It's more complicated and there's a lot more going on there. So, I don't really consider us fine dining food anymore.

Smith:  What are they doing that you're not doing, for example?

St. Pierre: Molecular.

Becker: A lot of the modernist cuisine. Working with chemicals, not chemicals, but...

Smith:  Like freon? [laughter]

Becker:  No, like...I'm trying to think. I don't use any of that stuff, so it's hard for me. Agar agar, gelatins, foams. These things, I don't...

Smith: Molecular gastronomy.

Becker:  Yes. I think that's what a lot of the fine dining chefs are doing, which is fine. Some of it's great, and it's interesting.

Smith:  But you feel like you're keeping it real.

Becker:  Well, I'm doing what I know how to do. I'm not making a point not to do molecular gastronomy. I just don't have any experience with it, and I just don't do it.

Smith: OK. And when you're looking, Nancy, for people to work in the restaurant, servers, and et cetera, what do you look for to make your place the comforting place you're talking about?

Becker: A friendly person. They don't have to have a lot of knowledge on the food. I mean, coming into our place, we train them for everything. I'm looking for someone that's hospitable and really enjoys having. They enjoy the experience for the people. They want them to come out of our restaurant saying, "That was really a great place to be." And that's what I'm looking for. All our servers give us our next servers. They all find their friends to work at our place. We know that who's coming into our restaurant have the same work ethic, and friendliness. And that's what we strive for.

Smith: You started with 112 Eatery. Why did you folks open a second restaurant? Because you just had too much time on your hands?

Becker:  I needed some action.

Smith: You were getting restless.

Becker:  Yes, I think I was. And it was an opportunity. And the pasta bar was something that we had actually talked about before with the 112. But the kitchen's so small, we really couldn't pull it off there. And so, I had this concept in my head for a long time. It was an opportunity to do it.

St. Pierre:  I had no interest. [laughter] It's true.

Smith: But you went along anyway.

St. Pierre:  Yes. It's a great ride. We're having fun. [laughter] But the unknown is always a little more scary for me. He's always ready more to jump into it. But I always am like, "We have two kids." But we have good people. And so, it makes it easier.

Smith: What would surprise people about the life of running a restaurant, Nancy?

St. Pierre:  I don't know if it's a surprise, but you do run it 24 hours a day. Even on your day off, you do get a phone call. I mean, that's not a surprise, but you do think of it all the time. My kids will assess that we do talk about it all the time, in some way or form.

Smith: Like a dairy farm in that way.

St. Pierre:  Probably so.

Smith:  You're always at it. Is it likely, or is it even happening that Isaac is getting restless again? You've got these two restaurants. Are you restless?

Becker:  I don't know. [laughter]

St. Pierre: He's always thinking of the next anything. You're always looking for the next thing.

Smith:  Are there any current trends in the front of house, and in the way people are serving? Getting beyond the point where the server comes out and tells you in a Tony way about how this is finished with this, and some French term for that? Are people still doing that? Do you do it at your place?

St. Pierre:  No. Minimal is ours. We don't really try to direct them or educate anybody while they're there. I'm not sure if there's any trends...

Becker:  I think a trend is restaurateurs are finally learning how important friendly and hospitable service is. I feel like service is getting better, especially in New York. Some of those restaurants, the service is great. I feel like that's new, to me. I think it's connected to that Danny Meyer book and...

Smith: I'm sorry, what book is that?

Becker: There's a Danny Meyer book, "Setting the Table." And I think it influenced a lot of operators as far as how you treat your customers and what's important.

Smith: Some of us can remember back to the day when you could be treated as poorly as possible, that seemed to be the objective.

Becker:  Right. And I think that's shifting. I think service is becoming important.

Smith:  Danny Meyer is a big chef, by the way, right?

Becker: He's a restaurateur. He's never been a chef, but he owns a bunch of great restaurants in New York.

Smith:  Nancy, how did you guys meet? You met in the business, right?

St. Pierre:  We are both at D'Amico Cucina. He was behind the line and I was waiting tables. We probably talked for nine months before we even went out.

Smith:  What's the story of you two getting into your own restaurant?

Becker:  Well, I'd worked for D'Amico's for 10 years and it was time to move on. My mom said, "Let me know when you're ready to move on. We'll look for a restaurant." So, I called her. I said, "We're ready to move on," and I think she found a place the next day. [laughter] We signed a lease not long after that and moved. I left D'Amico in October and we opened January 15th, which is pretty fast.

Smith: Wow.

St. Pierre:  Ten weeks, we opened.

Smith:  Part of the reason you could do that was, the restaurant space was turnkey. At the 112 you didn't have to decorate it, furnish it.

St. Pierre:  We just needed to get a liquor license. Everything else we had.

Becker: Yeah. Wallpaper and a liquor license.

St. Pierre:  Yeah.

Smith:  Which took longer?

Becker: The liquor license, I think. [laughter]

St. Pierre:  They told us it'd take four months. I say, "I have 10 weeks." And they said, "Oh, OK." [laughter]  And we opened in 10 weeks.

Smith:  What are some of the most common mistakes that people make going into creating restaurants and trying to cook good food?

Becker:  I don't know. I sometimes think that they maybe go in with not enough money to operate without making any money. They start cutting back on things that then makes them less attractive to customers. They end up closing.

Smith:  How much money does it take and how long do you have to wait before you actually can?

Becker: The 112, we were slow for three months, two months? Two or three months, but I worked constantly. There are often nights where I would send all the cooks home and it would be myself and a dishwasher or no dishwasher. I would do all the dishes, to save on labor costs. There were nights where Nancy was out front by herself and I was in the kitchen by myself watching cars drive by. But we never compromised on the quality of food or the ingredients we were using. I think that was good.

Smith:  Are there foods that you just hate to deal with, that you hate to prepare and cook? Or that you won't?

Becker: No. I think I like everything. [laughter]

Smith: That's very easygoing, very Minnesotan. [laughter]

Becker: OK, I don't really like sardines, fresh sardines. But I think it's because I've never had good ones.

Smith: We've established the anchovy thing.

Becker: Actually I love anchovies.

Smith:  Oh!

Becker: That was in 1994. I love anchovies. But sardines, I haven't had a good sardine. I haven't had a sardine I've liked. So, I don't use them.

Smith: Would you say that you're presenting mainly sort of European, Asian influenced things, or how would you describe it?

Becker: Well, yeah. The 112, it's almost anything goes there. Asian, European, even a little South American sometimes. Whatever we see that someone comes up with, it doesn't really matter at the 112. At La Grassa, it's pretty Italian.

Smith:  As the name would suggest.

Becker:  Yeah.

Smith: I don't know if this question makes sense, but there's a lifespan to restaurant, isn't there?

Becker: Well I've heard that before, but if you look at Lucia's, I think she's been here over 25 years and it's still busy and good. I think Nancy and I have almost said to ourselves, "That's what we hope to accomplish in our careers." We might not win awards anymore and might not get in the magazines, but as long as we're busy enough to operate and keep doing a good job, that's fine.

Smith: Roughly, how old are you folks? 

Becker: I'm 42.

Smith: You're 42. Is this a young person's game? Is this something that's sustainable over the course? Can you still be doing this when you're in your sixties and seventies?

Becker: It depends on what capacity you are in. I think if I was cooking behind the line, still, I might not have that much. Well no, I probably still have a good 10 years to do that. It depends on how long you take care of yourself. Cooking is labor intensive, though. But I don't cook on the line anymore. I could do what I'm doing now forever, I feel like.

Smith: But it sounds like it's a 24/7 job, or an 18/7 job.

Becker: Yeah, but I can fret about work sitting down. [laughter]

Smith:  So, is it the knees that go first? [laughter]

Becker: Yeah, maybe. I don't know, but I don't see myself retiring unless I absolutely have to.

Smith:  What do you find the hardest about the work you do? What's the toughest thing for you?

Becker:  I think managing people. You have to be sensitive to how they're feeling and what's going on with them. You have to let them know if they're not doing something right. It's hard to critique people and correct them and manage people. Yet you want to keep them as your employees, so you don't want to really offend them. I feel like I balance. I spend a lot of time balancing getting them to do what I want and keeping them happy.

Smith:  Restaurants are famous for having sort of a tension between the kitchen and the front?

Becker: We don't have that at all.

Smith:  So how do you manage to avoid that?

Becker: Well, my wife being the boss at the front. We don't fight. I've with GMs in the past, but I won't fight with her. [laughter]

Smith:  Because she'll win, because you don't want to fight?

Becker: No, because we don't...

Smith:  Or you just don't fight?

Becker: That's not how our marriage works. We don't fight and we're not going to fight at work. I actually think it's been great for business, because we deal with each other at work like we do at home.

St. Pierre: Can I say one thing?

Smith:  Sure.

Becker: Yeah. [laughter]

St. Pierre:  We decided at a restaurant, before we opened, that we were going to realize if both of us were going to do the best we can at our job every day, and if we're both going to make mistakes, we have to that Isaac's doing the best he can at that moment. And we'll figure out what the mistake was later if we have to. Or I'll make a mistake, but he knows I'm doing the best for the restaurant at the time. That's how we dealt with any conflicts we have at the restaurant. Just knowing that you're doing your best and I'm doing my best and we'll do it differently tomorrow if that's what has to happen.

Becker: Yeah. We both have the same goal.

St. Pierre:  Yeah.

Becker:  And knowing that about each other I think makes it easier for us to work with each other.

Smith:  What did you fight about with managers in the past?

Becker:  Oh! I always thought they were trying to screw me somehow. [laughter]

Smith:  That's their job title. It's the job description, isn't it?

Becker:  I would make things as difficult as I could sometimes, just because I was mad at them.

Smith:  How'd that work out for you?

Becker:  It never works out when I get mad, so not that good.

Smith:  OK. I want to talk a little bit about where the food comes from. Some restaurants and some chefs have very particular philosophies and policies about where they're sourcing their food. Do you have something like that?

Becker: We don't have as specific as some restaurants do. I mean, all of our meat is natural, no hormone. There's two meat companies from Minnesota, we get everything from...

Smith: That's OK, you don't need to know.

Becker:  OK. I actually had told Eric to give me a list of the other farmers we have, because I can't remember. But yeah, we use what we can, what's available to us. Our meat is the best quality. We use Berkshire pork, we use Grass Run Farms as one of our beef vendors. Produce is trickier. It's hard to get local lemons in the winter. Sometimes I like mangoes, too. I can't pigeonhole myself to only local produce.

Smith:  Do you worry about the veracity? Seafood is growing increasingly infamous about knowing where things actually come from. Something that's supposed to line caught. Who's line caught it?

Becker:  To a point, but you can only trust... I trust the guys that sell me the fish and they say where it comes from. Outside of going up to Alaska or going out to actually see it come out on and off the boat, I can't do much more than that. But I trust them, and we use... We don't serve monkfish, one of the things that's endangered. That's hard too, though. I mean it's hard to serve Vernonia tilapia. Right now, the big ones that are OK to serve at all times, well...

Smith:  Why is that hard?

Becker:Because it's not that exciting. It gets boring after a while.

Smith: It's like serving erasers.

Becker:  Well no, they're good. But if that's all you have available to you, there's other things available, too. But it's hard not serving endangered food sometimes. [laughter]

Smith:  Do you get criticized for that? Do people complain about the foie gras that you serve, or...?

Becker: Oh yeah. They do, actually. In fact, I was wondering if any of you out there are here to protest. [laughter]  We have a regular group of protesters every Friday at the 112 right now.

Smith:  Is that right?

Becker: I think. Unless they've stopped coming.

St. Pierre:  They do. Should I say what I say about that, though? [laughter]

Smith:  I think that you should say what you say about that, Nancy St. Pierre.

St. Pierre:  It makes our foie gras sales skyrocket. [laughter] I feel like if they wouldn't show up we'd sell less.

Smith:  But why do you choose to keep doing it if there are people who're saying that it's cruel to raise the animals this way?

Becker: Eating animals is cruel. I'm not sure that the production of foie is any more cruel than any other slaughter of chickens, pigs, cows. The thing with the geese or the ducks, those ducks go running for that tube of food. Until they get that tube of food, they wander around the farm free as a bird. I don't see what's more cruel in that than any other slaughter of meat. Mass produced chickens and pork, that's cruel. Putting them in boxes, I don't like that. But foie versus any other naturally raised food?

Smith:  Yeah. How many people show up to protest? How often do they?

Becker:  I think four or five? [laughter]  They're only there for like an hour. [laughter]

St. Pierre: They don't stay very long, not at all.

Smith:  Have you ever offered them, obviously not foie gras. But have you offered them any food, like to be nice to them? [laughter]

Becker: I've thought about bringing them out something to drink. I don't know.

Smith:  Yeah, you may not want to encourage that, from your perspective.

Becker:  Yeah. [laughter]

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Transcription by CastingWords