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Festival Showcases Northern Tastes and the Necessity of Restaurant Events

Corner Table’s Kyle Bultinck (left) and Revival’s Peter Davis serve smoked sausage with green lentils during the St. Paul Chef’s Experience.

At the center of the St. Paul Farmer’s Market roared a great, glowing fire of wood, metal and smoke. The open-fire cooking station was the hub of the St. Paul Chef’s Experience, one of a handful of Great Northern events exploring the Twin Cities food culture. 

At the event January 31, chefs from Corner Table, Revival and Saint Dinette served up a literal smorgasbord of dishes inspired by French Canadian cuisine. Crepes, smoked sausage, dumplings and smoked sturgeon with beets were all cooked on a rustic open-pit grill. 

Sausages and smoked sturgeon are hung over the fire pit with care.

It was an impressive site, though Saint Dinette and Mucci’s owner, Tim Niver, said it wasn’t difficult to set up. They put the pit grill together that morning with the help of chef Thomas Boemer of Corner Table (who also stayed up late to make crepes). He said the arrangement meant replicating the multitude of kitchen surfaces. 

“It’s all about giving yourself some surfaces to work on; they had a fire grate where the fire came right up through it for pans. Then there was a steel hot plate that just kept sauces warm. A rack going over the top of the fire from which they hung sausages and hams,” said Niver, who said the food was a breeze, too. “It was easy to come up with sausages and smoked sturgeons and a little bit of Jewish flair with the beets and the bagel that went with the sturgeon.” 

At Surly Brewing, executive chef Jorge Guzman hosted another Great Northern event, but one with a Swedish bent, the Surly Kräftskivan. Guzman was joined by Wyatt Evans of Heirloom to cook up some crayfish and other Scandinavian delicacies (more smoked sturgeon anyone?). 

Guzman said he had a short timeframe to plan, but the event went well for the chefs and the 100 attendees despite bone-chilling weather. 

An outdoor crayfish feast, part of Surly Brewing’s Kräftskivan during the Great Northern festival.

“How are we going to keep people warm was one of the main things,” said Guzman. “But then you have to think about the food, is it going to stand up to the weather.”

Luckily for Guzman, the crayfish party traditionally means dill-heavy crayfish served cold on a big table. The only sticking point was getting enough crayfish.

“We were on the phone with our fish guy trying to figure out where we’re getting crayfish from and if they could guarantee we could get crayfish,” said Guzman. “Because if they didn’t and then all the sudden the day of they drop out, we’re screwed.”

These events were just two of the 10 held during the 10-day Great Northern festival, highlighting both the pressure to attend such events and the changing perception of how restaurateurs need to reach customers. 

Niver said it’s been a sea change for him personally. 

“Chefs didn’t used to get out of the four walls as often. You’re paying for the four walls, so you need butts in those seats,” said Niver. “People are used to having great food wherever they are—you have to sometimes do an event to make sure that you’re captivating people not only in your restaurant but somewhere else.” 

He said the sheer number of events in Minneapolis may be hurting restaurant traffic. It was one of the shifting restaurant industry factors he said pushed him to close his Strip Club Meat and Fish restaurant when the lease is up in July. 

An sculpted ice bar was of course part of the outdoor St. Paul Chef’s Experience, one of several restaurant events during the Great Northern festival.

“It makes for a challenging scenario to consider sometimes,” said Niver. “But you either get on the train or get out of the way. I think you have to go with what the market demands of you to stay relevant and conscious of the fact that if I need to compete on the street, it’s still revenue—even though its not where I’m paying rent.” 

Guzman said it’s just what restaurateurs and chefs need to do these days.  

So how do you get events right? The keys are planning, more planning and projecting.

Guzman and his events team just had a meeting about the 2018 Super Bowl, and after generating an idea that hits the right notes it becomes all about planning. 

“Then you have to have your staff ready and available to do it. Then on the other end you have your event planner that’s doing the decor and the logistics outside, seeing how the flow is going to go, who’s going to work where. Those are the main logistics. You just go step by step through those,” said Guzman. 

Without an event planner or a massive staff, Niver said planning is key, as is being able to project turnout and event needs. 

“When you do Evite and people pay in advance, it’s much easier to predict what you need to do to contain costs. So it ends up being smart business because you’re able to predict and understand how an event might go,” said Niver. 

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