Posts Categorized: Chef on the Block

The Mint La Crosse

Pheasant

Introduction byBenji Nichols • Photos by Inspire(d)

The Mint in La Crosse sits on a snug little corner of State Street – just across from the UW. It’s a cozy home for one of the Driftless Region’s freshest restaurants – literally. Specializing in farm-to-table fare, the food couldn’t get much fresher. From local pheasant (“I used to drive past the farm where it was raised on my way home,” says Chef Anthony Swartwout) to oyster mushrooms to, of course, lots of in-season produce.

Add to that exquisite craft cocktails – think cayenne and cinnamon on the lip of a tasty tequila concoction or house-made marinated cherries in a yummy Manhattan – plus amazing homemade desserts like the best-ever angel food cake made by Mint pastry chef Jen Barney, and you might never want to leave.

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Plus, the place is pretty darn charming. This button of a building and dining patio (previously home to Kate’s On State) is rustic, country, and modern at the same time. Bright blue dining chairs, brick walls and chalkboards, and metal barstools bring together an ambiance that feels just right.

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Behind that magic? The dynamic duo and management team of Corrie Brekke and Dane Gonzalez. (They’ve also brought the downtown creperie / coffee shop / craft beer bar stronghold, the Root Note, to life!) They’ve also joined forces with Cody Cottrell of the Ground Up Coffee Shop as part of the “Driftmore” group of establishments. All three of these joints represent grassroots businesses that have done their best to serve amazing products in fun environments – which Inspire(d) loves!

But this feature is about chefs – and Chef Anthony Swartwout (pictured below on the right) of The Mint is the real deal. Coming from haunts like Lucia’s in Minneapolis and The Waterfront in La Crosse, Swartwout and his sous chef, James Foreman, have fully embraced the local concept, connecting with producers like Hoch Orchards, Second Cloud on the Left, Driftless Meats, River Root Farm, Willow Creek Ranch, Driftless Organics, and more.

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The menu often features fresh trout, local poultry, incredible vegetarian options, as well as locally raised beef and pork dishes – and the beauty is that it changes seasonally – heck, sometimes weekly depending on what it fresh, fun, and tasty.

We suggest you check it out for yourself. If you’re lucky, the lovely Caite will be your server – tell her Inspire(d) sent you!

Plan your visit:
1810 State Street
La Crosse, Wisconsin
(608) 519-5011
www.facebook.com/TheMintLaCrosse

Lunch: Tues – Sat / 11 am – 2 pm
Dinner: Tues – Thurs / 5 – 9:30 pm
Dinner: Fri – Sat / 5 – 10:30 pm
Sunday Brunch: 10 am – 2 pm  / Dinner: 5 – 9 pm
Reservations for parties of 6 or more – otherwise just walk on in!

Chefs3Name: Anthony Swartwout (pictured on right; sous chef, James Foreman on left)
Age: 41
Restaurant: The Mint
Number of Years Cooking: 18ish

Formal training or live-and-learn?

Both. Live-and-learn for the first seven or so. Then Culinary School at 30.

What’s your earliest or most significant memory of cooking or being cooked for?

I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but it was when my mom was teaching me how to make oatmeal for my sister and myself. I would make it for us before we went to school in the morning. I was getting bored with plain oatmeal and started playing around with the spices in my mom’s pantry. I came to the realization that a little cinnamon andChefs1 raisins can completely change the final outcome!!! Then I discovered cardamom and have been hooked ever since.

Why did you decide to become a chef?

To make a very long story short, I was way better at cooking then I was waiting tables. After bouncing back and forth between the two for years, I decided I was going to make one of them my life long career. So, off to Culinary School I went.

Do you have any monumental food fails you’d like to share with us?

The first time I ever tried cooking with ground cloves when I was a kid!!! I still remember how bad that tasted. I had no clue how little you needed.

How about secret food indulgences you don’t normally talk about?

Sugar or Sweets in general… I have a horrible sweet tooth!

30_ProfiteroleWhat’s your favorite:
Ingredient:
Pork. Anything that comes off of a pig.
Dish: Anything that I didn’t have to cook for myself a.k.a. my wife’s cooking.
Cookbook: Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland by Lucia Watson
Random (or not so random) kitchen tool: Knife sharpening stones
Vegetable: Heirloom tomatoes
Fruit: Raspberries or perfectly ripe strawberries

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Benji Nichols is a huge fan of local food – and, heck, most food. He has also been a huge fan of the style and tone of the Root Note in Downtown La Crosse for years, and can’t wait for his next trip to The Mint to see what Chef Anthony and the crew have dreamed up. Cheers!

Chef on the Block: Mary Klimesh

DumplingSoup

Introduction and photos (unless noted) by Aryn Henning Nichols 

If you’ve ever been into Java John’s on Water Street in Downtown Decorah, you’ve probably seen Mary Klimesh. She’s the one carrying a plate of tasty-looking, totally homemade cinnamon rolls the short walk from kitchen to coffee bar, stopping at almost every table to chat. Mary – kind, engaged, humble – doesn’t see the people in Java John’s as just customers; they’re friends. That’s the kind of person Mary is. Plus, she’s a darn good cook.

Inspire(d) favorites include any soup that has homemade dumplings (and every soup comes with a side of homemade sesame flax seed crackers and fresh fruit, yum!), Bob’s Breakfast Biscuit – ham, egg, and cheese on a savory scone (although we want to try the homemade English muffin egg sandwich too), and, of course, the chocolate cake. Do not forget the chocolate cake (pictured below).

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Mary’s also famous for her aforementioned cinnamon rolls, bread pudding, and homemade breads and bagels. All of this “goes well with coffee” – according to Mary – which is, obviously, really important for a coffeehouse! Java John’s coffee beans are from Specialty Java in Waconia, Minnesota, and are shipped the day they order – right after roasting. The friendly staff of baristas makes a mean cappuccino and chai latte (Big Train is our favorite) as well.

Java John’s was originally the brainchild of Mary and her husband, John. The business launched in Decorah in April 2009, but in January 2015, Mary and John were joined by new co-owners Doug Reid and Andrew Knox. Together, they’ve re-opened Java John’s… literally! They blew out some walls, expanded the kitchen and coffee bar, and they’re now even open later (until 9 pm seven days a week) to satisfy folks desire for late coffee and tasty desserts. Remember: Don’t forget the chocolate cake!

MaryKlimesh_OvenName: Mary Klimesh (photo at right courtesy Java John’s)
Age (if you’re willing): 60
Restaurant or Kitchen: Java John’s Coffee House
Number of Years Cooking: 6 (formally)

Formal training or live-and-learn?
Live-and-learn. My mom was a very good cook – but nothing fancy. She grew up in the depression, so we learned the “waste not” approach to cooking. The pot roast or chicken on Sunday was re-purposed (current term) for much of the rest of the week. Mom also read magazines and newspapers with an eye for good recipes, particularly bar, cookie, and hot-dish recipes. Most of the recipes I inherited from mom included a brief critique, such as “good” or “needs more flour” or “this is the one your dad likes.”

What’s your earliest or most significant memory of cooking or being cooked for?
When I was young, I liked to be mom’s helper in the kitchen. If I wasn’t doing something, I was watching what she did. I would watch how she took a recipe and made it her own by modifying the ingredients slightly to match her/our tastes. One of my favorite times was learning to make potato salad from mom. We peeled, cooked, and sliced the potatoes; boiled, peeled, and sliced the eggs; chopped the onions and celery. Then, the moment when we made the secret dressing – she brought out the ingredients and showed me how to assemble them, without a recipe. The wetness of the dressing was just right when it made a “slurping” sound when mixed with the potatoes and eggs. To this day, I listen for the correct sound, and think of mom.

Why did you decide to become a chef?
I didn’t. I decided to open a coffee house, the rest followed out of necessity. I like to prepare things that “go well with coffee.”

JavaCoffeeBar

What’s the best thing you’ve ever made?
No one thing. I do very well with cinnamon rolls, bread pudding, and soup.

Do you have any monumental food fails you’d like to share with us?
Many years ago, my husband and I were entertaining family for a meal. For dessert, I had decided to make a strawberry dream bar (with a crushed pretzel crust). I was using the last of a bag of pretzels, crushed them well in the original bag and prepared the crust and the cream cheese and strawberry topping. At the end of the main course I brought out this beautiful dessert and served everyone a portion. Simultaneously, we tasted our desserts, then we gasped for water. What I had overlooked in the process of making the crust was the accumulated rock salt at the bottom of the pretzel bag. It was quite a while before I tried that recipe again, and quite a while before my family stopped teasing me.

How about secret food indulgences you don’t normally talk about?
Macaroni & Cheese

What’s your favorite:
Ingredient:
Potatoes
Dish: Klub (potato dumplings)
Cookbook: First, the one I put together of my mom’s recipes; I have many “seconds.”
Random (or not so random) kitchen tool: Paring knife
Vegetable: Rutabaga
Fruit: Apple

Chef on the Block: Schera’s Restaurant

scherasinside

Intro and photos by Aryn Henning Nichols • Originally published in the Spring 2011 Inspire(d)

It’s a tale of two cities – Elkader, Iowa and Mascara, Algeria – and the perfect pairing of two business and life partners’ backgrounds and cuisines. Brian Bruening and Frederique Boudouani established Schera’s Algerian American Restaurant in 2006, because, as Brian says, “a restaurant gave us an opportunity to work together…and make use of our very disparate skill sets.”

Neither had a restaurant background, but they decided to take their love of food and entertaining to create this anomaly of a dining experience in Northeast Iowa. Named after the heroine Scheherazade from “1001 Arabian Nights” as well as Frederique’s sister, Schera’s features Algerian dishes right alongside classic American fare.

And they do this in a tiny Iowa town named after a North African freedom fighter. Wait, what?

Elkader, Iowa, was named after Emir Abd el-Kader, an Algerian national hero who fought against the French occupation of his country in the mid-1800s. One of Elkader’s founders, Timothy Davis, was inspired by this man and dedicated his community’s name to him. The Iowa town renewed its Algerian sister-city connection in the late 1980s, and it continues to this day.

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In the restaurant, paper lanterns and exotic tunes cozy up to Grant Wood-inspired paintings just as comfortably as the schawarma – a delicious gyro sandwich with seasoned slices of lamb and beef and tasty tzatziki – sits next to the sweet pepper turkey wrap on the menu. It’s important you get SOMETHING that involved the harissa – it’s amazing! We recommend the cade appetizer, a baked chickpea custard of sorts, served with bread and that yummy Tunisian hot sauce, harissa. The appetizer menu offers everything from chicken samosas to homemade onion rings, all perfect with Schera’s fabulous Belgian and local beer line-up and fabulous cocktails. Who knows – maybe you’ll even stay long enough for the late night menu… ‘cause you really should try that falafel…

Update 2015: Frederique started a new business, Abu Nawas Beverage Company (bringing wonderfully delicious beers to this area of the world), late 2011, so he’s stepped back a bit from Schera’s Restaurant. But this interview with both him and Brian is still fun to visit!

Frederique Boudouani (left) & Brian BrueningName: Brian Bruening / Age: 38
Name: Frederique Boudouani / Age: 42
Restaurant: Schera’s Algerian American Restaurant
Number of Years Cooking: We’ve both been cooking since we were very young.

At right: Frederique Boudouani (left) & Brian Bruening (photo courtesy Schera’s)

Formal training or live-and-learn?
Brian: Nothing formal. I learned to cook when I was younger because my parents are farmers and would often have little time to get something together to eat. So it would fall on us kids to get lunch and dinner together. I’m also a cookbook collector – especially from the 1950s and 1960s – so I’ve learned a lot from them.

Frederique: The School of Motherhood… I am not sure it is recognized by the James Beard Award but I truly credit all my culinary knowledge to both my mother and grandmother, in fact I still keep my mom’s number on speed dial for inspiration or if I am yearning for a childhood flavor that I am trying to replicate.

What’s your earliest or most significant memory of cooking or being cooked for?
Brian:
I’ve always loved to grow things, a love I think I got from my Grandma Bruening. We had a garden and raised our own meat, so I’ve had that connection to where my food came from. It’s a logical step to move from growing food to cooking it.

Frederique: One of my fondest and earliest memories is making almond pastries before Eid, a holiday in Algerian to celebrate the end of the month of fasting.

schwarma

Why did you decide to become a chef?
Brian:
I didn’t, it comes with having a restaurant! But seriously, I love being in the kitchen because it allows me a creative outlet while simultaneously providing a living. When I was in college, I had no idea that I would end up in a kitchen in a restaurant (or back in Iowa for that matter!), but a restaurant gave us an opportunity to work together in an environment that could make use of our very disparate skill sets.

Frederique: I don’t think I decided either. It came naturally as I always loved entertaining and sharing new flavors and stories about Algeria with friends and guests

What’s the best thing you’ve ever made?
Brian:
My secret talent is for making really great soup, especially vegetarian ones, out of basic ingredients I have around the kitchen. Soup making is culinary art at its most aesthetic ­– unlike baking which is very much a numbers game.

Frederique: Harissa, a complex Algerian hot sauce that involves a slew of ingredients and a lot of love. Someone recently called having it available for sale, “a moral imperative!” lol

harissacade

Do you have any monumental food fails you’d like to share with us?
Brian:
When I was in high school, I had to make a Mexican meal for my family and report on it. I decided on breakfast and made my own chorizo. So I dutifully followed the recipe that involved something along the lines of three teaspoons of cayenne pepper to a pound of meat. The chorizo was so spicy I wouldn’t have been surprised if it burned a hole in the frying pan. Suffice to say, nobody ate the chorizo…I think we ended up eating cold cereal in the end. I learned that recipes are merely guides that need to be adjusted to your audience.

Frederique: Using too much heat spice in a soup and trying to remedy the fail by doubling the batch and before you know it, ending up with gallons of soup. So unless you are planning to feed your whole town, use heat spices sparingly. lol

How about secret food indulgences you don’t normally talk about? Will you tell us?
Brian: Sweets, especially caramels, most especially fleur de sel caramels.

Frederique: My secret indulgence lately has been Ramen Noodles, though I usually get rid of the little seasoning packet and create my own broth experimenting with new ingredients. Try it, one of the best comfort food that I can think of, and its like $.25.

beer

What’s Brian’s favorite…
Ingredient: Lately it’s been harissa. I often add a dab of it to soups to give it a little bit of heat and spice but if you are judicious with it, it will stay in the background and support the other flavors, especially potentially bland vegetables like potatoes and zucchini.

Dish: Scrambled eggs with garden fresh vegetables and herbs. Eggs are a perfect canvas for enjoying the bounty of the spring and summer garden.

Cookbook: Too many to list, but Martha Stewart whole oeuvre has been extremely influential to me. Both my mother and her mother never really enjoyed cooking; it was a chore that had to be done. But Martha Stewart, in many ways, was in the forefront of the movement that said it is ok to enjoy cooking and gardening and domestic pursuits. She took the Julia Child love of proper cooking technique a step forward to a love of a good domestic environment and reshaped the concept of what it meant to be a home cook.

Random (or not so random) kitchen tool: Microplane, I really don’t know how chefs managed to zest lemons and grate nutmeg before it.

Vegetable: Kohlrabi, the lovely turnip-like cabbage cousin. We always had kohlrabis in the garden when growing up. I can munch on slices of them like chips, but they are completely guilt-free.

Fruit: Clementines are the perfect portable fruit package. And they are almost always delightfully tart, which I love.

What’s Frederique’s favorite…
Ingredient:
Cinnamon, Black pepper, and onions, the Algerian culinary trinity, as it is often the beginning common denominator to Deliciousness.

Dish: Couscous, not only the National dish of Algeria but of the Whole Maghreb (North Africa). It is an amazing experience to try different couscous in different places as it is in my mind almost an anthropological study of the region.

Cookbook: An old family heirloom Algerian cookbook that I had to fight my siblings very hard for, some serious diplomacy and concessions where used to attain it. lol

Random (or not so random) kitchen tool: Pestle and Mortar, my favorite alchemist tool. It’s like you are working on some magical elixir.

Vegetable: Eggplant, it is truly one of those amazing discoveries that tradesmen brought back from the spice/silk routes. It went global after that with each culture adopting it and giving it its own twist.

Fruit: Pomegranate. Although it is just hitting prominence in the US, it has been considered the fruit of Gods in many ancient cultures. It keeps showing new health properties each time a new study is done. I find it almost therapeutic as you go through the long process of seeding the fruit, till you get to the prized juicy seed. It also makes for a delicious Martini. 🙂