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Chef Profile: Lunching With Lisa Sarazin

Much of the artwork and sculptures at The Marsh are from the owner Ruth Stricker’s personal collection.

The last time I lunched with Lisa Sarazin, her last name was Hanson and she fixed me a decadent dish at the bar before returning to the kitchen to prepare for the dinner service. I was at her downtown Minneapolis restaurant, Mona Restaurant and Bar, to interview her for Foodservice News’ 2013 Top Chefs book.

Five years later, lunch was at The Marsh, where Sarazin has been the executive chef and food and beverage manager since April—and since selling Mona the previous Halloween. 

“It’s nice to be an employee again,” she says, leaning back in her chair. And even better, she admits, is to be sitting as a guest in her dining room, rather than being back in the kitchen eating something she brought from home or a quick cup of soup. “Lunch is our busiest (meal),” she says.

Lisa Sarazin divides up her take on the traditional Caesar salad: grilled lettuce and avocado and cornbread croutons. 

Located in the tony ‘burb of Minnetonka, The Marsh is a wellness center, offering spa services, fitness classes, nutrition counseling, physical therapy, two pools, a dining room and grab-and-go items for both members and the general public. All in a peaceful, meditative setting, which includes six hotel rooms for spa weekends. The clientele is a mix of men and women, and while it skews older, a daycare option for both exercisers and diners helps attract younger people.

Sarazin is a regular practitioner of hot yoga, but doesn’t take advantage of the many amenities of her workplace. “I don’t want to workout where I work,” she commented, adding, “It’s the same theory as my restaurant clientele,” most of whom worked in the office building where Mona’s occupied the first floor, and weren’t keen on sticking around to eat dinner there. 

On a positive note, Mona was closed on weekends, and Sarazin had it down to a science. “It was kinda like Groundhog Day,” she says referring to the syndrome where the same events happen over and over again, day in and day out.

Selling the restaurant wasn’t a melancholy experience for the talented chef, she was ready for another challenge, which cooking healthy, yet tasty, food provided. 

“I don’t think my food was buttery or rich,” Sarazin says, but at Mona she wasn’t concerned with portion sizes or gluten- and dairy-free options. Now not only is it a request from diners, it’s a designation on the menu.

She’s even tackling vegetarianism: “Using whole foods, not processing vegetables to make it taste like meat,” she points out.

The offerings are less processed, with fewer chemicals. For instance, when guests started asking for a protein bar, Sarazin went to her suppliers and chose one at the right price point that tasted good. However, when The Marsh’s dietitian saw the long list of ingredients, including refined sugar, she challenged Sarazin and the in-house baker to come up with their own version. “We now have a Marsh-made protein bar,” Sarazin says proudly. Key ingredients are honey and pea protein. The next step is making a vegan version. It’s just been introduced, but when the new deli case is delivered, Sarazin expects more demand for healthy on-the-go items.

“I’m still learning the ropes,” she says. “I’m not used to that support from a dietitian.” 

The lamb burger had an in-house baked tomato bun and lots of sauces and condiments. I would have picked the French fries as my side. Sarazin picked the side salad. 

In addition to her duties as executive chef, Sarazin also has the title of beverage and food manager, which means she’s in charge of hiring, firing, ordering and catering. Her background in finance came in handy for putting systems in place. She has a business degree from the University of Southern California and attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. The Marsh caters events, such as weddings, business meetings and memorial services, as well as in-house events—all of which require a separate menu than the dining room. In addition, there are happy hours, music entertainment evenings, and a host of events to provide menus and food for.

Her fall menu is filled with familiar items with a small twist. And she’s redone the wine list to bring and pricepoint down and create a more balanced list with approachable, mainstream wines, all while “peppering in more challenging wines.”

The dining room is still a hidden gem. The cozy room is lined with large windows that overlook the marsh, so diners are connected to the beauty of nature. While the day I visited there was a lot of hustle and bustle of mostly women catching up on their lives after classes and over coffee and salads, there’s still a serenity to the space. Staff was also buying their lunch to eat there or to take on the road.

 “We’d love to splash it out there,” she said about the fact that the Marsh’s restaurant is open to the public. “We’ve upped our game.”

While the menu is healthy, “there’s still a bacon and onion dip on the menu,” she says. “It’s about balance and choices. People love Caesar salad here,” but want something new.

Her answer is a Caesar salad where both the romaine and the avocado are charred. The oversized cornbread croutons are the twist.

I let Sarazin order some of her favorites for us to try. First up was the Caesar salad, followed by the grass-fed lamb burger. It was served on a tall house-made tomato bun with grilled white cheese, a cucumber-yogurt sauce and pickled onions. 

Ordering off the dinner menu, Sarazin chose to show off her latest conquest, a cauliflower steak with creamed kale and a frisee salad. The dish is dairy-free so the “cream” sauce was made with a white-bean puree and the crust for the cauliflower was polenta, which gave it a nice texture and crunch. 

 A vegetarian dish that’s on the dinner menu that Chef Lisa Sarazin is especially proud of is the breaded cauliflower steak with dairy-free creamed kale and a salad. And it lived up to the hype. 

“We build the recipe first with no salt and then see if it’s necessary (to add),” she says, admitting that’s hard because as a chef she loves salt. 

But the hardest part of experimenting, Sarazin confesses, is having to write everything down so that it can be duplicated. “I had recipes at Mona’s,” she says, but when you’re not the only one cooking, you have to have precise recipes to make sure you get it right—and gluten- or dairy-free when needed.

When she’s not running the kitchen at The Marsh, or entertaining reporters at lunch, Sarazin cooks at home for her husband and her three “bonus kids.” The first thing they ask when her husband picks them up to stay with them, is “what’s for dinner,” she says, laughing. She also plays the piano and travels. Her love of travel came in handy when her husband’s job took him to The Netherlands for a three-month assignment, and Sarazin came along. She ran Mona from there, while planning weekend trips and daily visits to the grocery store. They visited 13 countries, and “did a lot of history tours,” she says. 

The multi-talented chef, who cut her teeth at such restaurants in NYC as L’Ateleier de Joel Robuchon, Koi and Aquavit, has found a new home and a new healthy challenge. It’s too bad she doesn't exercise where she works, because after eating all her delicious food, I could have used a few laps around the indoor track or a nap during meditation class. 

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