Ian Pierce of 128 Cafe: Chef Chat, Part 1
Neighborhood favorite, comeback kid, and a leader in the Twin Cities food truck revolution, 128 Cafe has done it all with chef Ian Pierce behind the burners. The 128 Cafe was a Merriam Park institution when it closed in June 2007. Jill Wilson and her husband, Andrew, swooped in and revitalized the spot, nestled into the first floor of an apartment building off Cleveland Avenue. The first thing they did was bring back chef Pierce.
Not content to be ordinary, last summer they renovated a white delivery truck and took their fare to the street, using social media to get out the word to the hungry downtown eaters of St. Paul. While the truck is still in hibernation, the delicious seasonal cooking continues to flow out of their restaurant kitchen and into the coziest dining room this side of your parents rec room. As the springtime sun peered in the windows, we sat down to chat with Pierce about scrambled eggs, moving violations, and why Hall & Oates are still so sorely underrated.
Where did you grow up?
I had a grandfather come over from Norway and settle in Northeast Minneapolis. I grew up in Minneapolis, went to South High. I live in Northeast with my wife and our two kids. (laughs) I didn't end up going very far.
Where did you study?
I wasn't the best student in high school. I got out and bopped around for a while. I worked at UPS for a couple of years. At like, 23, 24, I decided I should figure something out. I went to the culinary program at MCTC. I think that Le Cordon Bleu had just come to Minnesota, but this was way cheaper. I actually met Scott Pampuch there [chef-owner of Corner Table]. He was a year ahead of me. Then I went and worked for Scott when he was at the Modern for a little while. Then I went over to Cesare's in Stillwater, when that was still around. That was great--a lot of great wine and a small menu that changed weekly. I learned a lot along the way.
I'm not a worldly adventurer, but I like different ethnic flavors. My style is comforting foods. I hate to say "fusion," but that's kind of it. I mean, you don't have to be ridiculous about it. Just combining different flavors into comforting food. And consistency. And balance.
I love the Twin Cites. I'm so thankful that I get to do what I love here and balance that with my wife and our kids. I'm grateful.
When did you first work at 128 Cafe?
In '98. I lived in St. Paul and had a friend here that said, "You want to cook? Come here." I worked for Brock Obee [former owner] for over four years. He taught me so much.
What was the first food you learned to cook?
Scrambled eggs--and not, like, good scrambled eggs. I think it was more my mom, she was a single mom raising me and my older sister by herself. It was about, it's meal time, it's time to eat, what are you going to do about it? It was about teaching us how to sustain ourselves. Saying, you can cook. It's not that hard.
After that, when I was like 10, it was all about baking with my grandma. Making cakes and cookies and things like that.
People know about the amazing ribs here, but not as many know about the fantastic risotto you have on the menu. Where did you learn to make risotto?
Wow, thanks. That was Brock. When I first came here we had one on the menu, so simple, but so good. It was made with roasted red pepper puree, Reggiano with pesto grilled shrimp topped with crisp leeks over a little balsamic drizzle. It just hit everything, the sweet acid from the balasmic, that crunchy texture of the leeks, and the earthy cheese.
That changes all the time. Right now it's been on the menu with braised lamb, but I think tonight that's actually going to be duck confit.
How often do you change the menu?
It's seasonal. We change with the season, but sometimes we improvise as well. I think it's important that we're consistent, though. If our customers come in and had something they loved a week ago, they want to have that again.
What ingredient signals spring to you?
Asparagus. Later in the spring rhubarb and peas--that's probably more like summer. There are some ingredients, I can get a roma tomato and use that in the chutney with the sugar and the acid, that works. I refuse to buy asparagus in the winter. It's just woody and shitty. It's only good in spring.
So, do you ever cook ribs at home?
Fuck no! Are you kidding me? They're hard to do. I tried a while ago... Yeah, no. No I don't.
Our talk with Ian Pierce continues tomorrow.