Chris Stevens of Blackbird: Chef Chat, part 1

Categories: Interview

Blackbird Chris Stevens 1.jpg
Michelle Bruch
Blackbird Chef Chris Stevens is back in business.

After a devastating fire in February burned Blackbird to the ground, the restaurant is back, complete with much of the original menu, almost all the original staff, and even the original moose antlers that were rescued from the fire.

Blackbird is now open for lunch and dinner at 3800 Nicollet Ave., with a weekend breakfast still to come later this month.

We sat down with chef and co-owner Chris Stevens during opening week to chat about pork hocks, 80-hour work weeks, and the last customer to evacuate the burning restaurant.

This is the first in a three-part series.

Blackbird 1.jpg
Michelle Bruch
The new Blackbird is almost double the size of the former location.
How did you decide to reopen at 38th & Nicollet?
We looked around. South Minneapolis is where we obviously wanted to stay, because that's where our customer base was and we really liked it a lot, but that didn't mean we were necessarily going to find a place. So we looked all over, even in St. Paul, and then talked to the landlord. He was really excited about getting a restaurant in, and wanted to help make sure that happened. An empty space is really expensive, because there is a lot that has to go into a restaurant. But he was willing to commit some money to the project, so that was definitely an attractive incentive. It's just a great corner, and the neighborhood was super supportive too.

I'm amazed at all the support you've gotten from the community.
It's definitely a testament to the industry itself. Because we're all, to a certain extent, competitors with each other, so it's pretty amazing that the restaurant industry stepped forward and really helped us out. And then, in addition to the fact that our employees were standing by us, and our customers too on Facebook--my partner Gail [Mollner] spent every day answering e-mails and responding to Facebook posts--those three things were the reasons that we decided to do it again.

You considered not reopening?
This is an incredibly hard business to be in. There are no guarantees. It's long hours and hard work, and then there are the unknowns: not knowing whether or not the [fire-damaged] building was going to get rebuilt. We were a little less than three years old, and had success, but I had to work very hard to do it.

I've heard that the restaurant primarily represents you, Gail, and all your savings.
Yeah--home equity loans. But because of all that support, we thought, 'We can do this again.' And then we just made it happen.

Where were you when the fire broke out?
We were working. Gail and I were both there. It was a really surreal day, because it was during lunch service at 1 o'clock and the restaurant was full. There had been smoke in the building, and the original grease fire was put out. But then 15 minutes later, smoke started pouring through these recessed lights in the front of the restaurant, right when you walk in. At that moment we said, 'We've got to get out of here, call 911.'

Did you grab anything on your way out?
I grabbed a computer. That was the one thing. It was not dramatic or tramautic, like, 'Oh my gosh, this thing's burning down.' It took five hours. It was a gorgeous day. It was 40 degrees, and we were standing outside for five hours just literally watching everything go up in smoke. It was really bizarre. A gentleman named Jeff Alexander who works over at Midtown Global Market helped us design [the restaurant]. He had just stopped in that day for lunch, and he was the last person to leave. I remember him walking out the door. He had a toothpick, and smoke was just billowing out behind him. It was just crazy. He built it, and here it goes. I'm sure I'll always remember it.

Didn't firefighters return

Thumbnail image for Heidi'sFire.jpg
A grease fire destroyed a string of businesses, including Blackbird, at 50th & Bryant.
to the building to search for the restaurant's moose antlers?
My uncle killed that moose in Alaska. The fire was out, and the building was unsafe. The roof had collapsed, the place was a mess, no lights--it's hard to imagine what it looked like because the basement was pitch black, there was no power in the building anymore. So they came out, and said, 'Is there anything you want out of the space?' Gail said, 'Can you just go check in back and see if those antlers are still there?' They were psyched--they were beefy firefighter guys. They went in, there was just rubble everywhere, and [the antlers] were there. They had fallen off the wall and they hadn't broken. They were smoking like crazy, but they pulled them out.

Our chat with Chris Stevens of Blackbird continues tomorrow...


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