Corner Table's Scott Pampuch: Chef Chat, Part 1
Spend any amount of time with Scott Pampuch and you'll find he doesn't sit still for long. "I've got a pretty light prep day, and I've been wanting to make sausage. So I'm going to make sausage," he said, ducking into his walk-in cooler and returning with a vat of pork cuts. "Are you going to write about my ADD nature?" he joked.
Scott Pampuch in the kitchen at Corner Table
It's a wonder he has time to do anything between the busy Saturday night service he was gearing up for, his impending television debut, promotional dinners, new business ventures, manning the deli case, teaching classes, and balancing time with his family. Still, he found time to pause momentarily and chat with us about nature of his business, the food he so passionately believes in and the changes he sees coming for his restaurant, Corner Table.
You grew up in Winona. Do you consider yourself a country boy?
No, not a country boy. Kind of a farm boy, but not that really either. I
just gardened a lot as a kid. My grandparents lived on what we called
the farm, but it wasn't really. It just had a huge yard and a big vegetable
garden. We used to have chickens.
I grew up in Winona, tucked into all of these small farms, not
commodity crops. People had lots of animals big and small, lots of
My dad had nine brothers and sisters, so it was just crazy with
cousins. We'd go out to my grandparents and pick vegetables from the
garden for dinner, buckets of green beans. Dad would be grilling chicken. The raspberries never made it inside because we'd just eat them.
Sounds pretty idyllic. What was the first thing you learned to cook?
It was. It was pretty idyllic. Probably grilled chicken.
That's not an easy first food to master.
This isn't how we always cooked, though. This was the '70's. Food came out of a box. Vegetables were in a can. I think everyone who embraces the local food movement has that aha moment. No matter what anyone says, even if it's Michael Pollan doing a tent talk, we can't make people change the way they eat. What I'm trying to show is that it's possible to eat this way. To show cooks that it's possible to cook this way. To show chefs it's possible to write a menu this way.
I look at the food first, then write the menu, rather than writing out what I want to make and referring to a spreadsheet on a clipboard to get my ingredients. I write it out based on what I see. When the food presents itself, that is what I serve. I don't have my ego on a plate. It's about the food, not about ego.
Chefs are focused on being in the kitchen making their food. They can't sit in a cubicle. There's no right or wrong way to be a chef either. From Lenny (Russo) to J.D. (Fratzke) to Vincent (Francoual) to Ferris (Shiffer) at a country club, we all respect what we do. The more we can do, cool.
How did you get involved in the local food movement?
It's hard to say "local" anymore. Like the organic label, it's been corrupted. But it was when I was at the Modern and approached by the Southeast Food Network. It's a co-op of farmers. Honestly, it upped the cool factor for me. These are all farms from around the area where I grew up. I recognized names and there were connections, a name or a family would sound familiar. So it was less about the politics, economics. or propaganda of the word "local."
When did you realize that you wanted to cook for a living?
I got fired. I was fired from the corporate world. I was a salesman, and I sucked at it. People have asked me how to get into the industry, and I just say necessity breeds entrepreneurs. If you know how to swim, if you think you might make it to the surface, you just have to jump into the deep end.
Where was your first professional cooking job?
At the Modern. I still can't braise anything without thinking about pot roast and what Jim (Grell) taught me. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have met Mike Phillips (of Green Ox).
I was so lucky because I got to watch them very quickly open a different restaurant before I left. Something beautiful that went away very quickly.
So you went from cooking school at MCTC to working at the Modern Cafe to your own restaurant? That's kind of incredible.
I know! That's one of the reasons that I do Tour de Farm and the classes and all of these things, because I want to see what everyone else is doing.
It took me a really long time to be able to refer to myself as "chef." You don't just get the title, you have to have experience. You need to know how to make a dessert out of your head; a cake, biscuits, creme brulee. You have to earn the title.
When did you first begin to think you'd like to open your own place?
I'd been working at the Modern for five years when I began to have visions of grandeur about what Corner Table would be.
Join us tomorrow when we'll talk to Chef Pampuch about those grandiose visions and the great canned tomato controversy.