Piccolo's Doug Flicker: Chef Chat, part 3
This is the third and final part part of our chef chat with Piccolo's Doug Flicker. (Here's part 1 and part 2 if you missed them.) Read on to find out how Flicker transformed from a kid who ate ring baloney sandwiches to a chef who has cooked at the James Beard House in New York and enjoys molecular gastronomy in Barcelona.
What do you think is the best food city in America?
It depends on how you want to look at it. New York--I think New York is the center, but I would certainly say L.A. or San Francisco. They're just two different kinds of people. New York is still very European-based, French, Italian. You wear a suit when you go to a three-star restaurant. But when you get to California, it's much more casual. They're much more laid back. Just as intense, but it doesn't have the speed at which New York moves.
It's like the music scene. Portland was really big for a while, and Minneapolis has had its moments. I think those things have their ebb and flow, too.
What do you think is the best food city in the world?
I think Barcelona is the best food city in the world, because I'm leaving for Barcelona in seven days. I think Spain, at least in the last 10 years, they've been relatively new opening the borders and getting their food out there and they're still pretty laid back about it. The French and the Italians fight all the time, but nobody was going to Spain 10 years ago.
What's your favorite Twin Cities restaurants?
With prejudice, Erik [Anderson at Sea Change], Landon [Schoenefeld] at Haute Dish.
And we've got some of the best Vietnamese food in the country. Pho Tao bay, Pho 79.
It's what you're in the mood for and what you feel like doing. The gyros at 26th and Lyndale right next to Lyndale Grocery have got the best gyros. It's just what you're looking for.
What if it was your birthday and someone wanted to take you out?
I would want them to take me to Hoban. I like to go there on my birthday, and I get to order two orders of Man Doo dumplings and eat them all myself.
Do you have a favorite restaurant in America?
I've been very lucky to eat at some great restaurants in the last few years. Alinea in Chicago, the French Laundry. It's iconic. What an amazing experience just being there was.
What is the weirdest thing you've ever eaten?
Weirdest thing or horrible tasting? Iguana in Costa Rica. That was weird. Guinea pig. I can't think of anything horrible.
What was your favorite food as a kid?
Pickles, still is. Velveeta on saltine crackers with mustard. I would have that after school. My family on my father's side owned a bar called Flicker's Liquors in northern Minnesota. We would go on Monday for ring baloney on soft white bread. There'd be all these guys sitting around smoking cigars, eating ring baloney on white bread.
My parents didn't take me to nice restaurants. I remember going to L'Etoile in Madison when I was in high school on accident. That was my first experience at a nice restaurant.
Are there any summer or fall foods you're looking forward to right now?
Oh, for sure. Tomatoes. Saturday they accidentally sent us tomatoes. I looked at the driver and said, "We didn't order these." I said, "We don't use tomatoes." And he looked at me and said, "A restaurant that doesn't use tomatoes?" I said, "We'll use them in two weeks when they're available locally." I don't want to buy Bushel Boy hydroponically-grown tomatoes because I have to have a tomato on the menu.
Green asparagus, shell beans, and fava beans we have on the menu now are making way for the tomatoes and the squash, some of the root vegetables. Cardoons.
Who is your favorite celebrity chef?
I would say Gordon Ramsey. I think he's driven, and if you look at the shows and the stuff that he's done in Britain--America wants to see people being yelled at and kicked off and stuff, but when you look at his British series, he really does try to help people. He comes in and helps them see the error of their way and what's causing their problems. I think he does a lot of good stuff. I think we just think of him as the hothead who does Hell's Kitchen and yells at people and breaks them down. I think he's done some amazing stuff foodwise.
Which celebrity chef do you think should shut up?
I don't know.
Do you have a show you would like to pitch to the Food Network?
No. Not at all. You know, I really think that the Food Network is the devil. It really has nothing to do with content. You know, PBS has good cooking shows. The Gwyneth Paltrow and Mario Batali tour of Spain. Just the old Julia Child, Jeff Smith. The Food Network is about cleavage and Tim Allen, and I think they've done more damage than good because it's not real.
What is your favorite knife or kitchen tool?
When I cooked at the James Beard House, my partner Jim commissioned a handmade Japanese knife by a very old, very well-respected knife maker in Japan, and it was presented to me by the president of the Korin knife company from Japan. I've never used it. It's one of a kind; it's beautiful. I have a little altar at home for it. There is nothing special enough in the world for me to cut with it.
If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be?
I don't know. I want to give you an answer, but I don't really think of cooking like that. Why wouldn't I just want to hang out with that person? [Then I'd say] Liz Phair, I guess.
What is your best culinary tip for a home cook?
Leave the cooking to me.
Seasoning. Use salt, lemon juice, you know. Don't be afraid to season things.
Don't be afraid to fail. People look at professional chefs and think, how can you make things that taste so good? I've made plenty of things that taste bad. It's not rocket science. It's just trial and error. You learn more from a failure than you do from doing something right.
Are all those cookbooks in Piccolo's back dining room yours?
Yeah. That's about half of them.
Do you reference them?
Yeah, we use them for ideas. Grab a recipe to see what their proportion for agar is.
You know, I mean, people love to look at some of the books. Again, they're mine and I've collected them over 20 years. It's kind of like having your teddy bear at work.
What are your favorite cookbooks?
There's a book by Alain Ducasse that's in French, La Riviera, that I bought on my first trip to France.
I think the French Laundry cookbook obviously is a monumental book. It changed everything overnight. It was so clear and precise that everybody was cooking from it. To this day it is still a constant reference point to look through and to read.
What is your favorite dish to cook at home?
I don't know. Spaghetti and meatballs.
How often do you get to cook at home?
Not that often. I would much rather go out to eat than stay at home. But we have a CSA this year, which is a first, so I've been helping my wife with that.
Does your wife cook for you much?
No, God no. it's what I do, so I tend to. It's just my job. I do my best to make sure that she always has something to eat.
What is the hardest lesson you've learned?
I would say most valuable lesson, and it's probably a hard lesson, never let go of what you have. Always appreciate what you have while you have it.
What is your favorite thing to do when you aren't in the kitchen?
I like to motorcycle. I like to walk the dog.
What would you do for a living if you could not be a chef?
Holy shit. I don't know what I could do. If I could do anything, I would say race motorcycles. Honestly, I was at the right place at the right time and it's something I do well and I've been able to do it and pay myself to do it. I just can't imagine doing anything else.