Piccolo's Doug Flicker: Chef Chat, part 2
Is there a difference in personality of chefs starting out now from when you started cooking 20 years ago?
Oh for sure, Top Chef. When I started cooking, if you were a cook, you were a misfit.
Look at food reviews now--rarely is service mentioned as much as the food is or the chef is. When I started cooking it was all about the maitre d' or the décor. There might have been one line about the chef's name. Now it's about the chef personality. Maybe it's that when I started cooking, chefs didn't own restaurants, but I think there's a much higher weight put on the celebrity chef thing.
That brings us to Anthony Bourdain.
It's interesting, because to a certain extent he wrote one book, and it's a snowball effect. Obviously he's done his part to keep it alive and keep it going. It's the general public--it's like reality shows. Can you really blame the people on the shows?
I'm a victim of the whole celebrity chef thing.
How did you end up on No Reservations?
Andrew Zimmern--they're friends or whatever, and Bourdain was looking for people in the heartland for this upcoming show that were kind of bucking tradition and going against the norm, so Andrew suggested me for the show.
Basically what they did is they killed two birds with one stone--whenever Bourdain had a talking engagement, his camera crew came along and did the shots.
For us, the camera crew came in and shot all the food, and he came in for an hour and a half with me where we ate lunch and then he got up and left.
Did you know his judgment on the restaurant right away?
The camera dude, his producer, they were very excited about the food and what we were doing, and they said that our piece turned out really well. The crew gave us really positive feedback before they left, the producer said we had the best piece, but you don't know for sure.
Anthony Bourdain's been all around the world, and he's telling you how delicious things are, and you're not sure if he's doing it for the camera. But he also mentioned us a couple times at his show that night, and I got an e-mail a day or two later from Andrew that Bourdain was really happy with what he had.
So has the television exposure affected the tempo of business at Piccolo?
Oh my God. It's unbelievable. We'd been trying for months to break 70 covers. We're 36 seats. I was thinking it was kind of a mathematical impossibility--have everyone seated at 5:30 p.m., turn it twice.
The weekend after the show aired we broke that number. We did 72 or 74 the Friday after the show. This past weekend was 74 and 76. We had five different groups of people willing to sit down at 10 p.m. because that's the only reservation they could get.
It's amazingly flattering but at the same time it's kind of hollow. It's like Anthony Bourdain is the word of God. All these people have been showing up and seeing me on the show and telling me what a great job I did. They're complete strangers. It's kind of weird.
Are you getting booked farther out?
Yes. Anytime there's a review. We experienced it with the Star Tribune. People start making reservations two weeks out. Now we're getting three, four. It's a lot of out-of-town people. Last week we had a 10 p.m. reservation--they just flew in from Houston. It's this other line of people outside the state and outside the Midwest.
What will keep people coming back to the restaurant?
I think the quality of the product. We change the menu about every month. More than likely when you come here you're going to be presented with 14 totally different options than you had last time.
I believe in the concept. I believe that we eat too much and too large of portions. I believe in eating and buying locally. It's a product that you can't get anywhere else.
Who are your typical customers?
I don't know. I guess I'd say our typical customer is someone who likes to try new food, likes to be challenged by it and understands good quality. Again, it took a while for people to realize that they can't get soup and a salad here. I don't want to buy a three-pound box of mixed lettuce just because I'm supposed to have a salad.
The food is the core element. The food brings them here. Some people are young, some are old, some people are well-off, some people aren't. I think they're all fine paying for quality and not quantity.
What do you feed kids at the restaurant?
That's a really good question. The first couple months when I would see children walk in I would kind of recoil a little bit--"Can I have a bowl of pasta? Can I have noodles? Can I have plain chicken?" But every single kid that's come here has eaten off the menu--octopus, lamb liver. Last night there was an eight- or nine-year-old girl. She went to the bathroom or something, so she walked through the kitchen. She gave me a thumbs up and said, "Everything's been really good, thank you."
I think people underestimate their kids. By taking them to a restaurant and assuming they're only going to eat pasta with butter is selling your kid short, because you're the one who's putting that notion in their head. In the back of my mind I had always worried that would be an issue, and to this day it has never been an issue.
I try to thank parents for giving their kids a head start that I never got.
What are the essential qualities for your kitchen staff?
Honestly, passion and drive. You know, I need to have a personal connection with everyone. There are three people besides myself, so I have to have some sort of history with them. Everybody plays their own role. You know, Polly [Nielson] is technically brilliant and is really good at translating an idea that I have into something on a plate and consistently doing it better than I could. Dan Berger is still relatively young in the profession, so he's just, you know, he comes at it with excitement. Linh Ho is quiet. She's kind of like the ninja assassin. She doesn't really say much, but she's constantly moving and doing stuff.
I guess a certain sense of humor. I don't really care about resumes. I think you need to fit in. I don't think there are any words to describe fitting in or not. It's such a small space, the way you move and the way you are around other people is very important. It's very quiet. We talk and bullshit during the day, but during service it's very focused. We don't really yell at each other. It doesn't exist here.
How do you envision the future for Piccolo?
First and foremost I want to provide a place where people are proud to work and when their friends or family come in that they're proud of working here. I want to be kind to the people that are working here. I think that's a very important thing. We continue to do our core value of using local stuff when possible and organic when possible and just being a quality restaurant. Not running the restaurant by the bottom line.
When you're not at the restaurant, how do you put it out of your mind?
I think sometimes we all like to brag about how much we work and how we can't live without the restaurant. The reality is I can't be here all the time, and as much as I love this place, I don't want to be here. It's not healthy. Me being here all the time does not equal quality and consistency. You know, if you're tired and you've been here too much, it's not good.
Have you ever worked the floor?
When Auriga went away, I said I'd go out on the floor and chat with people. But I'm afraid to do it. It makes me really uncomfortable to be in the dining room during service. I always feel much more comfortable having people come back into the kitchen than going out on the floor. People are guests and they're paying the bills and if they really want to see me and talk to me, of course.
I got into cooking because I didn't want to deal with going out on weekends. What better way to hide from the world than having a job that you have to work weekends and holidays?