Life After Kitchen: Ferris Shiffer Retires
Ferris Shiffer, left, welcomes his close friend Vincent Francoual taking over the Minikahda Club food and beverage program for him. Running a kitchen is a young man’s job, he says, and for Francoual: “I’m not done with being a better chef.”
Ferris Shiffer says he’s the personal chef to 750 people, 1,100 if you count their families and guests. “If I make a mistake, they’ll call me into the dining room,” the executive chef of The Minikahda Club says. “The public is demanding but when you’re vested in this setting, there’s a lot of owners sitting in chairs.” And owners, as we all know, rightfully have high expectations—and this membership is made up of foodies.
“The country club demographic has changed,” Shiffer says. “It’s no longer all about golf, it’s about the food.”
Fortunately, Shiffer is up to the challenge. His dimpled rectangular grin and humble demeanor has disarmed many a member with a bone to pick. And it’s a testament to both him and the club that after more than a quarter of a century, he’s still executive chef and still loves his job. So much so, that when he retires at the beginning of February, he will still be around on Mondays for events, as well as helping out where needed. He refers to this new chapter as “philanthropy cooking.”
“He is probably the best chef in town that most people have never heard of, and will never experience his food,” says his friend Russell Klein, chef/co-owner of Meritage in St. Paul.
Founded in 1898, the majestic Minikahda is the oldest country club west of the Mississippi River.
It’s not uncommon for country club members to ask for special accommodations, such a last minute request for béarnaise sauce from scratch or for the brunch omelet station to be permanent or for walleye as a not-to-be-86ed-ever menu item. But because the club offers skeet shooting and thus attracts hunters, Shiffer keeps a good supply of game stock in the freezer. Members have brought him grouse, pheasant, venison and even bear (that was turned into a consommé to mellow out the strong bear taste). Only once, maybe twice, has he regretted this generosity. Such was the time he was presented with enough pheasants to feed eight. “He brought in unplucked birds that were still warm—at 3 p.m.” for a dinner that night, Shiffer says. Because it’s against the law to bring unplucked birds into a commercial kitchen, Shiffer stood outside over the garbage cans and pulled the skin off the birds. He wasn’t about to spend precious time plucking.
Founded in 1898, Minikahda is the oldest country club west of the Mississippi River. As the rest of the world gets more casual, there is still a dress code at Minikahda, including wearing your hat forward and your shirttails tucked. At poolside, only swimsuits designed for swimming are allowed.
There’s a no-tipping policy except for parking attendants and caddies, and the turn-of-the-century meandering clubhouse is a majestic white sanctuary next to the greens. Members enjoy tennis, golf, swimming, the aforementioned skeet shooting and first-class dining from three restaurants. There’s dining on the terrace and poolside, plus catered events. “If you’re going to have a wedding, you should have it here,” he says. The views of the horizon and Lake Bde Maka Ska (formerly Lake Calhoun) are some of the best in the Cities.
The menus in the two main restaurants are similar, he points out, because they both share one kitchen line. That will be remedied soon when a second kitchen to support the pool will be completed, with another restaurant on top, hopefully by April.
Although the club is open year round, Shiffer still has seasonal-help headaches. “I run the terrace because I can’t get good cooks for three months,” he says, about pool season. “Service is important so I help run the food.” He’s not alone in this dilemma, he adds, “Any patio adding seats to an already stressed kitchen,” knows the pros and cons of Minnesota patio weather.
There’s a season to foodservice as well. “It’s a young man’s game,” the 67-year-old says of the demands of the kitchen.
Why didn’t he burn out? “I don’t know any better,” he quips, then adds, “This is like cooking for family.”
Executive Chef Ferris Shiffer still prefers the tall toque blanche and logo’d apron, a nod to the exemplary cooking style and service offered members and their guests.
But after two knee replacements, rotator cuff problems in both shoulders and arthritis in his hands, perhaps, it’s time to start thinking about his long-term health.
Which is where Vincent Francoual enters the story. The two were introduced 20-some years ago by globe-trotting foodies Bob and Sue Macdonald (or the Patron Saint to Chefs, as Shiffer calls the couple) at Un Deux Trois, where Francoual was the chef. After his shift, they all ended up at Aquavit for its soft opening, where the two discovered their work ethic and cooking philosophies were aligned. “Ferris and I have the same idea of food,” Francoual says.
They began hanging out and traveling together, and when the topic of Shiffer’s impending retirement came up again, Francoual, who was working for Cara Irish Pubs at the time, began to think seriously about transitioning.
“I want to be in a kitchen,” Francoual says. “As culinary director, you don’t own your kitchen.”
For 14 years, Francoual owned his own kitchen in his French fine-dining restaurant, Vincent A Restaurant, before closing its doors and going to work for Kieran Folliard. The restaurant in the space next door to Brits was a crown jewel for Minneapolis and foodies mourned the loss of their favorite spot when he closed. “For three-and-a-half years I was with Kieran and took it to the level they wanted,” he says.
The kitchen landscape is changing and while at one time being your own boss and the captain of your own restaurant was the pinnacle of success, now lifestyle often trumps ego.
“Ten to 15 years ago, I would have said ‘no.’ Having a 6-year-old helps,” he says about the need for regular hours and fewer “peaks and valleys.” Plus it’s the option of taking his craft to another level. “I’m not done with being a better chef,” Francoual says. And it doesn’t hurt that the facility has a state-of-the-art kitchen.
The membership is excited to have Francoual and his well-known name, Shiffer says. Francoual spent the last months shadowing Shiffer to learn the systems and get comfortable with the staff. Because he’s done some guest cheffing stints at the club, members and staff were already familiar with him. And as a Frenchman, he brings not only French flourishes to the food, but a charming French accent and manner.
“I’m elated to know there’s direction and the respect still here,” Shiffer says.
In addition to “philanthropy cooking,” retirement will bring an opportunity to devour books. The first month will be all crime thrillers and then once gorged, he’ll move on to award-winning literature. “I’m anxious to have experiences that I don’t have” as a full-time chef, he says.
To that end, he plans to visit cities in the U.S.—as a chef he always felt the need to travel to Europe. Washington, D.C. is at the top of the list and New Orleans, plus Montreal and Quebec, Canada. And the Tulsa, Oklahoma-native will be a tourist in his own hometown, visiting the Walker, MIA and other art and cultural spots that he never took the time to frequent before.
Vincent Francoual’s fine-dining roots in the Twin Cities extend to Un Deux Trois and Vincent A Restaurant, and a stint with Cara Irish Pubs before joining Shiffer at Minikahda.
And by 5:30 p.m., he wants to be sitting at the bar in his friends’ places and enjoying good food without the obsession of breaking the tastes down into a recipe. “I can enjoy and not think I have to do it for my menu,” he says. “I don’t have to know how the magic trick is done, I can just enjoy.”
And he’ll be cooking up some mischief along the way. His friend Russell Klein claims “Ferris’s name has become a verb in certain circles. To be ‘Ferrised,’ is to go out with Mr. Shiffer and suffer the consequences the next day. For example, when I walk in the kitchen looking and feeling like I got hit by a truck, I might explain to my sous chef, ‘Sorry I’m moving so slow, I got Ferrised last night.’ No further explanation would be necessary.”
Where will you find him? (Chefs, you’ve been forewarned.) The list is long:
Anywhere Karyn Tomlinson cooks (“such a talent. If I got off at 9 and she was open ‘til 10, I’d hustle over there”), and at Lat 14, which serves “the best lumpia, I’ve ever had. What she (owner Ann Ahmed) is doing is great.” Other chefs in town who received his accolades include Christina Nguyen of Hai Hai, Gavin Kaysen and his 10 p.m. Friday specials at Spoon and Stable, Lenny Russo, Russell Klein’s Meritage and Isaac Becker’s new Snack Bar, where he’s able to take a few more risks.
When he mentions Jamie Malone at Grand Café and Eastside, he drills down, complimenting her chefs de cuisine, Britt St. Clair and Ryan Cook for their mastery as well. The chefs at Travail receive a shoutout for their ability to attract top talent with their fun and clever take on culinary performance art. The list of praise goes on (but, alas, not editorial space). Chefs are a fraternity unto themselves—with the same challenges, aches and pains and peaks and valleys.
Kitchens, he says, are the last bastions of cultural diversity—which is “what makes it an incredible industry.” He’s been able to retain most of his staff, as they move up the ranks from dishwashers to prep to line cooks.
Rather than moving on, Shiffer is moving in.
For 18 years he’s lived in the same house and “I’ve just now met my neighbors,” after years of dropping off a dish for the annual block party, but never staying. In order to be a better neighbor, he’s also putting some effort into landscaping by adding a Japanese garden to his front yard.
And with summer and wedding season on the horizon, “I’m so happy to hand them to Vincent.”